Edging Away from the Competition

My niece is 14-years-old and six feet tall. And beautiful.  But that factor will likely make it into another posting.

This story has a different point.

Because of her height, it’s probably no surprise as to the sport that’s been laid out before her by peers and coaches. And after a reluctant beginning, Julia does indeed play basketball. With her friends. And that’s the important part of it. At least, in her mind.

Julia’s an eighth grader at the middle school she attends and basketball tryouts were last week.

She went and performed as expected. They throw her the ball; she puts it in the net.

Pretty sure, she’s going to make the middle school team.

However, it’s not just the middle school coaches who’d like a six-foot center.

The varsity coach for the high school team approached Julia and told her he’d like her to tryout. She said no, thanks.

A bit incredulous at her response, he pulled the teacher/coach card and rephrased his invitation as a directive.

After her middle school tryouts, she stayed for high school tryouts.

She didn’t particularly like having to do double duty –too much running; too much work. And the older girls’ aggressive style of play, added to the fact that Julia emerged from the day covered in scratches, didn’t sit well with her. Plus, she was tired.

But how did you do?
Mom wanted to know.

They threw her the ball; she put it in the basket. Every time.

The next day, Mom picked up her daughter after practice, completely forgetting Julia’s second shift commitment. Julia didn’t remind her. It wasn’t until phone calls, text messages and Facebook pokes started flooding in that her mom connected the dots.

You can’t just not show up

, Julia insisted, I don’t want to play for the high school.

Her mother got on the phone to apologize for her absent daughter and reiterate Julia’s position. Julia wanted to stay on her middle school team –with her friends.

The coach was stymied. He alluded to the gym full of girls quite literally scratching for a coveted team slot.

She’s killing me
, he said.

With mom’s full support, Julia still declined. By the end of the conversation, the coach offered a compromise. Julia could stay with her teammates, but join the big kids for practice two days a week.

Most of us probably won’t have any trouble connecting the dots in his thinking.

He’s the coach. He wants to win. He thinks a tall girl who already knows the game’s fundamentals will help his chances.

Can’t blame him.

It’s good competition. It’s part of why we play sports, in the first place.

But Julia’s not competitive. She’s just tall.

I understand the drive to compete.

My dad was a bit crazy when it came to sports. In fact, on any given game day, my friends knew that the sudden angry screams emanating from the playroom were because somebody on some team had done something my father deemed stupid. He was a passionate spectator.

And he was a perfectionist. Whatever we did, we were expected to do to pretty exacting standards -His. We were to try our hardest, do our best. No exceptions.

No pressure there, huh?

But he never particularly pushed us with regard to sports. And my brothers and I were only adequate athletes.

Still, I always understood that whatever game you played, the object was to beat the other guy.

So that first foray into sports as a parent was a bit confusing. Stepping to the sidelines at my daughter’s first soccer friendship tournament, I asked a parent what the score was. She said they didn’t keep score.

I thought she was kidding.

I said that I’d just seen the other team get two goals and hadn’t seen our team score. Did that mean it was two-zip? She told me again, that they didn’t keep score. I guessed she wasn’t kidding. But before I walked away, she made sure that I knew that our girls were playing up a division.


While I knew enough to understand that this particular game would have a winner and a loser regardless of whether or not someone was technically keeping score, I had no idea in which division my daughter played.

I thought it was telling that while the woman insisted there were no winners and losers in the friendship tourney, she felt it important that I know our kids were playing out of their league.

No hypocrisy there.

And that is the point of this posting.

We’ve messed up in the mixed messages we’ve sent our children about competition over the last decade or so. Big time.

Everyone gets a trophy?  C’mon. Not everyone deserves a trophy. And the reality was that while we were handing out blue ribbons like free samples, there were coaches and parents in behind-the-scenes strategy sessions working to stack teams and slide players up and down divisions, like abacus beads. In grade school! Sure, we let everyone play, but then there was the subtle strong-arming to push kids toward club teams to hone skills and get that edge up. And there was private coaching and extra sessions for some kids. Gotta do whatever you gotta do to get ahead. Usually, the cost be damned. And in the towns in which our kids were growing up, the value of our too-inflated dollar offered its own bit of skewed reality.

What is wrong with all of us?

When I was a kid it was pretty clear who were the stars on the field, in the classroom, on the stage. We all sort of had and accepted our niches. Revisionist history aside, it really was pretty simple. I’m not saying that if you happened to be the kid in the throes of a sexual identity crisis, that you had an easy go of it, but those extremes aside, it was a clearer field through which to navigate. There were way more blacks-and-whites, a lot less greys.

There were winners and losers. There are in life. So what’s wrong with catching a glimpse of that fact from the get-go. It’s one thing to want our kids to have positive self-esteem. It’s quite another to tell everyone that they get to go to Harvard. Reality check here -they don’t. And we’ve done our kids a real disservice by allowing them to think otherwise.

But not only because of the personal disappointment. And not just because of the stress it may put on them as they strive for unattainable goals. We’ve screwed up because, from the beginning, we were really only giving lip service to the notion of equality. Disparate ability levels remained, but under the label of creating “well-rounded” students, we began to ask our kids to excel in everything. Instead of competing in the areas where maybe they stood an actual chance.

And while we were supposedly raising the bar, we were also stepping in places our parents would never have dreamed of to make sure our kids could reach it. From the third grade project put together with power tools to parent-prompted phone calls urging grade boosts, glimpses of insanity were rife.

And if you think the kids weren’t catching on to this new world order, you couldn’t be more wrong. If they were expected to win at everything, then the losers must be everyone else. So, instead of cheering their buddies’ successes on, the asides started to sound like –well, I coulda done that. Or I’ll figure out a way –next time. I know a girl who used the cut-and-paste approach to her research project for the middle school science fair. All to beat the kid who was the actual scientist of the group.

I’ve asked my friends from forever ago if I’m reinventing our support of one another. They assure me, I’m not.

I was the writer. My friends knew that. And I ran. They knew that, too. If I did well, they told me. They cheered me on. My accomplishments didn’t diminish their own. If my friends scored well at the gymnastics meet or got a touchdown or managed to get the highest grade, I was happy for them. If I hadn’t aced the exam, it was likely because I hadn’t bothered to study. What’s that called again? Oh yeah, personal responsibility. And if I got cut from the team, mommy wasn’t coming to the school in tears to give the coach the back story. Mommy wouldn’t have dreamed of it and the coach couldn’t have cared less.

A lot of our kids today are competing in all the wrong arenas. They’re sizing up competition even when there doesn’t have to be any. And if everyone they meet is their competitor, then where exactly do they turn to find their friends?

Eventually our kids will make some stupid choices. They all do; we all did. I just knew that when I did, I wasn’t going to be alone. My friends were right there with me. Real friends –making the same stupid decisions right alongside me. And I always felt that they had my back. I don’t know that our kids could say the same.

So when I hear that Julia’s chosen to stick with her friends, I think –good for her. Maybe she’s got a chance to build the kind of friendships I took for granted. I know she’s got their backs; maybe they’ll have hers as well. I applaud her decision to opt out of the competition, and I wish more kids would follow that path. Of course, it might be a bit easier to stand up for yourself when you’re standing six feet tall.