September 18, 2009

Miles Behind: The Pressure We Put on Kids

I don't talk about it often, because it's a huge embarrassment to me. When I was a Junior in high school, I hoped for a permanent spot on the Varsity field hockey team, but I didn't get it. Instead I got tons of time playing on JV where I worked hard and did a great job, but literally only seconds during many Varsity games. Sometimes those seconds came during the last 30 seconds of the game, as my coach looked back, realized she hadn't played me at all, and would throw me in for an embarrassing stint that made no sense. I think I would have preferred not to play at all.

I worked hard at field hockey, playing on weekends in my back yard and inviting my friend over to hit around with me. I wasn't the best player on the team, but I wasn't horrible either. I showed up to every practice and busted my butt, even when I really wanted to just go home and deal with an upset stomach or a super runny nose. Even when sick, I would be there.

Sometimes I think that if my parents had been at more of my games, I would have seen more playing time. But my Dad had a busy schedule at work and we rarely saw him before 6 p.m. at home each week night. My Mom was busy working too, and running my sister around to her activities. They came sometimes, but they weren't the vocal parents on the sidelines that you see today. They blended into the background, kind of the way I obviously did on the sidelines.

During a playoff game my Junior year, my coach forgot to play me at all and tried to put me in with only 30 seconds left in the game. This was the last straw for me. I already felt like she picked on me unnecessarily and I wasn't going to suffer through another embarrassing amount of playtime. I pretended I didn't hear her until it was too late to sub me in, and I made up my mind.

I was done.

Every girl knew that you had to be dressed and on the field running when she came out of the building to start practice. My friends couldn't believe what I was about to do. As she was about ready to grab her stuff and come out, she found me standing at her office door, completely dressed in my school clothes.

She started having a fit on me and asking me why I wasn't dressed. I told her it really didn't matter if I was on the field or not since she refused to allow me to contribute to the team whatsoever. She started to come back at me and yell at me, but I was done. My body shook as I firmly told her that I worked just as hard as everyone else, and that my playing time was a joke. I told her I was done, handed her my uniform, turned my back to her, and walked away as she continued to yell at me and tell me she'd try to give me more playing time in the next game. I was always respectful to my teachers and coaches, and this time was no different. But there was no way she was going to intimidate me into getting back out on the field. I was so done.

Fast forward to present day.

Big I started playing youth field hockey this fall. She's in 3rd grade and the program just started this year for 2nd graders through 6th graders. The program should be a big boost to the already very good junior high and high school field hockey programs as these kids grow up and get on those teams. Around here, if you don't start a sport by the time you reach your 1st birthday, you're pretty much screwed when it comes to future success and playing time. Soccer programs start at the age of 2. Swimming starts at the age of 6 months. If I hadn't found out about the field hockey program, can you imagine how far behind Big I would have been when she hit 7th grade?

Last week they started scrimmaging. Big I was a wreck. She was so worried about playing the right way and doing a good job. With very little actual instruction on how to play the game, the kids went out on the fields and played six on six. I thought she did a great job for having no clue what was going on. She played somewhat aggressively and I was proud of her.

However, there were two girls on the team, both her age, who were amazingly good. One of the Mom's was serving as the coach for her team as she subbed kids in and I commented about how well her daughter was playing. "Oh," she said, "Yeah well she played on a club league all last year with the other girl."

My heart sank. Wanting to spare Big I the same disappointment that I did, I signed her up for the program thinking she would be ahead or at least at the same level. Once again, we seem to have missed the boat. Clearly, if I don't want her to be warming the bench in the later years, I'm going to need to find out about club hockey, and push her to practice all the time.

The thing is, as a 3rd grader, how is it possible to know what you want to do? How is it possible to not get burnt out from a sport if you start it so very young? What if she decides she wants to play tennis four years from now? Will she get cut because she didn't start swinging a racket when she was three?

I know that sports are great for confidence building, especially with girls. But I can't help but wonder if all this youth sport business isn't setting a huge amount of kids up for major disappointment later in life.

In a couple weeks, I'll be signing Big I up for age group swim team and I'm so afraid that she's already going to be starting miles behind everyone else.

If you had as dismal a fantasy football week as I did, go check out my latest column at Bulls N Balls.

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