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A Mom's Passion For Ultimate Frisbee: Just An Excuse To Spend More Time With Her Son?

By Denise Koo, MD, MPH  

My son's love for the sport of Ultimate Frisbee has also led me to discover a passion for this sport. I worry sometimes that my enthusiasm for the sport is a sign of helicopter parenting, because I find myself hopelessly in the thrall of a sport that I have never played. Am I just making excuses to spend more time with my 16-year old son?

Love of sports 

In part, I think that my passion for ultimate relates to the role of sports in facilitating the development of my personal relationships. My father loved tennis, and he introduced my brother and me to the sport at a young age. Initially, my brother and I chased balls on the court while Dad played nearby with his friends. Then, once my brother and I became good enough, we would compete against each other, and/or play with Dad. Dad and I used to enjoy playing father-daughter tournaments together or, when I was older, mixed doubles. Dad's father also loved tennis and retired to California so he could be near us and play tennis with us and his new buddies at the local courts. Tennis was a language of love and connection with these men.

Sports also served as a vehicle that enabled me to play with the kids in our neighborhood. All of the kids my age on our street were boys. We had only one other girl in our neighborhood, and she was my brother's age, a couple years younger. I was a stereotypical smart, shy Asian, and was bullied by girls in 5th and 6th grade; it felt like my only close friend lived miles away, and, besides, she had 6 younger siblings to keep her busy. So if I wanted to play outside I was stuck with the kids in our neighborhood.

The boys often played baseball and touch football in our street. My brother was quite athletic and usually joined them, which paved the way for me to join as well. Sometimes I felt funny being the only girl, and I tried to drag the other girl out there, but mostly I was outdoors and I had fun. I particularly loved football: the plays, the running, and especially, catching the football for a touchdown. Since the boys didn't like to guard a girl, sometimes I was uncovered or outran the younger girl. And of course when my brother played quarterback, he would often throw to me, even if the other boys didn't.

I was pretty reserved throughout high school; sports helped me to meet and to make friends with other girls. In eighth grade I joined every girls' sports team except soccer, which I had never played. In high school you could only play one sport per season, so I played tennis, soccer, and ran track, and I discovered a side benefit of sports: meeting boys.

Like many teenagers, I used to dream of having a boyfriend, but I was too inhibited and insecure to reach out to the opposite sex. I had no idea that, while a freshman on the track team, I had caught the attention of a couple of seniors. That summer they paid a flattering amount of attention to me and a friend visiting from New Jersey. After she went home, this attention blossomed over the next couple years into sort of "relationships" with first one, then the other. Through them I also met another boy with whom my first date was a tennis game.

In fact, throughout college and later, tennis not only served as an important way to make friends, it also became a great way to meet and to vet boys/men. At minimum, it served as a face-saving, casual way for a shy girl to initiate dates with boys (and vice versa). After all, if you asked someone to play tennis, perhaps that was all you were asking, and if they turned you down, maybe they just weren't available to play at that time. Maybe if you played tennis, it could turn into something more, but it didn't have to. Perhaps it was just a sport you both enjoyed. And if a boy got upset when you beat him, then you learned he wasn't the kind of guy you could date.

So upon initial reflection, I decided my love of ultimate stems in large part from the role of sports in my life. I love that ultimate is a team sport. I love that there are mixed teams and leagues, where boys and girls or men and women play together. I relish the quick pace, the athleticism, and the constant movement. I appreciate that it is fairly democratic, and requires few resources - just a field, a disc, and some cones to mark the boundaries. And I love that it is non-contact and celebrates not only the tournament winners, but also the team and the players who demonstrate the most sportsmanship (known as Spirit of the Game). At the end of the game, there is often a spirit circle, where the opposing teams interlock arms (alternating players) and talk about what the other team did well. It is beautiful to see and provides an antidote to the divisiveness prevalent in our country today.

Poetry in Motion 

It is, however, rare for me to love a sport I have never played - which takes me back to my son. I am his mother, so no surprise (I suppose) that I would describe him as intelligent, handsome, thoughtful, as well as introverted and sensitive. He is also very tall, 6'6", an obvious advantage in this sport. I enjoy watching him play with his teammates. When they are on, it is -- as the saying goes -- like poetry in motion. I can't help but love the sport that my son loves. He tried baseball, soccer, cross-country, and, given his height and a lot of pressure from others, basketball. However, he prefers the non-contact nature of this sport, as well as the field, speed, skill and strategy involved. Ultimate gives my son a physical outlet, one that gets him away from just playing video games, and most importantly, one that gives him a way to bond with other kids.

Perhaps I am projecting too much from the role of sports in my own childhood. I remember how vital tennis was to me, an academically-focused kid, not only for making new friends, but also for developing my confidence and leadership potential. As this quiet, reserved boy has learned to negotiate this self-officiated game, serve as junior co-captain for his high school team, and helped to coach the middle school team, I see myself, captaining my high school and college JV teams and teaching tennis during high school and college summers. I am reminded how important sports were for social connection and development when I was his age. I delighted in hearing the middle school coach this year say that his players followed my son like he was "the Pied Piper."

Yes, I do worry a bit that my commitment to Ultimate is a sign of an overly involved parent. Yet, given that ultimate is currently a club sport, parents are key to our school even having a team. To support the team parent/manager, I became a team chaperone last year and now I attend most games. I update the team website, take pictures at his games, collect pictures of the team from other parents, and make photo books for the coaches and the team parents. I write blurbs about the team for the high school athletics newsletter. I organize field trips to cities in other states, seeking competition for him and his summer teammates. I even ran the metro Atlanta pickup league for high school players for the first time last fall.

Sense of community

But in addition to providing an acceptable way to spend time with my teenager, I find that this love for the boy and the sport, like any other love, makes me a better person. It makes me want to give back. Since my retirement as a public health physician last fall, I think obsessively about what I can do to support growth of the sport. I am driven to build on the efforts of other ultimate volunteer coaches and parents who got the sport to this point. I have reached out to the county physical education coordinator to introduce the sport to PE teachers, so that they, in turn, can introduce it to elementary school students. I support efforts to recruit players to the middle school teams that serve as the pipeline for my son's high school team. I am one of the newest and most eager volunteers supporting our local non-profit backbone organization, the Atlanta Flying Disc Club (AFDC). And as a girl who loved sports, I want to start a local program for elementary school girls, given the relative dearth of opportunities for girls to play.

I realize that I have passion for ultimate because of what it gives me: a sense of community. I appreciate and want to support the many team parents who work to ensure that their child's team's needs are met; team parents coordinate sponsors, volunteer coaches, fields, uniforms, transportation, team chaperones, and more. I want to support the volunteer parent who has for so many years led our local youth leagues, and the new part-time AFDC Executive Director, who is committed to youth ultimate. Through ultimate I have deepened my relationships or made new friends with other volunteer parents and coaches. We parents revel in bonding over our love of our sons, their connections with each other, and the game. Once again, a sport has provided me with a social vehicle, and this time not just for personal connections, but for a sense of belonging to a community. Team Ultimate gives me great joy in retirement.

Thus, I am relieved to conclude that my passion for this sport is not that of a parent stalking her son before he leaves home for college. Rather, in my retirement I have followed my love for my son and found a community. Both he and I are lucky that he discovered this sport. I will continue to watch him play, perhaps even when he is in college, and to celebrate the friends he makes through the ultimate community, wherever he goes. And maybe I need to get myself and his dad back on the tennis courts.

Denise Koo, MD, MPH is Community Outreach Coordinator for the Atlanta Flying Disc Club and a Community Health and Health Systems consultant in Atlanta.