Toddler Triathletes

Truly successful athletes have a winning combination of ability, drive and opportunity. That particular
trifecta is what propels the best of them to the big time—be that college-level play, the Olympics or the dance floor of pro athletics. The possession of all three of those oft illusive components are what separates Michael Phelps from the kids at the other end of the pool.

          I get that.

          I also admire it.

          And will likely be watching as top athletes from 204 countries step to center stage at the 2012 Olympics. I’ll marvel at their ability, revel in their accomplishments, get caught up in the pomp and circumstance. I’ll still get choked up when they raise our flag to the rafters, understanding not only the pride in a final full-win, but also all that must have come long before it. The work, the sweat, the dedication.

          Whatever the games’ outcomes, the ripple effects across the pond will surely yield an uptick of participation among young, would-be athletes. For the love of a sport, in the thrill of competitive play, kids will take to fields, gyms and arenas. There’ll be new swimmers and gymnasts; new interest in soccer, volleyball and fencing.

          All good. All fun.

          But as millions of baby runners and divers and fencers and kickers and players jump into pools, and onto fields and into arenas, it’s important to note that the vast majority of them won’t make much of a splash. Eureka results from the gold rush of competitive athletics are discovered for precious few. Tenacity can’t replace talent and even the most gifted of athletes often fall short of their own goals.

          That’s not to say the bar shouldn’t be high and that those with a passion shouldn’t pursue it. They should. And I’m certain that most every Olympic athlete competing in London will avow that their sacrifice was worth it.

          Passion and sacrifice are a good combo toward success, but not when the passion belongs to the parent instead of the kid and when the sacrifice is a childhood. 

          Modeling itself upon the adult version of the event, there’s a new kid sport in town: triathlons. Its proponents tout it as a low-key version of the anything-but real-deal events. They say it’s good
exercise, that it’s a swim-bike-run for fun.

          But by its very definition, a triathlon isn’t for the uninvested. It’s intense. As it’s supposed to be. But do our kids really have to be? Already?

          When I read of a six-year-old training at a local Y, I couldn’t help but think: kids shouldn’t be training; they should be playing.

          And when a trainer said, “just to finish a triathlon, for a 6-year-old, is a big deal,” I thought duh.

          So is skimming a stone, or mastering the splash of a cannonball or spinning around in circles without toppling over.

          Or laying in a summer’s grassy field and imagining dragons in the clouds.


Team Spirit

    I play softball.

    Not often, or well. But I still play.

    Which means I’m part of a team.

    At this point in my life, that means something much different from what it once did.

    It’s also something different from the kind of teams to which my kids and neighbor’s kids have belonged over the years.

    For the obvious reasons, sure.

    My team likes to win, but we’re not too upset when we lose. This isn’t a competitive league. We’ve got no umps, we don’t keep stats.

    And an injury (or even the threat of one) pretty much trumps athletic effort. We don’t so much give it our all as we do just give it a go.

    But we play games, keep score, do try to round the bases. We have opponents we like to best, and others we cheer on with the same enthusiasm we offer to our own teammates.

    It’s touted as a friendly league. And it is.

    At one point or another, both my kids have been members of teams. They have been part of something bigger than just themselves, and have contributed. In very different ways, both have had an impact on their teams.

    And their teams have had an impact upon them. And for the good and bad of it, so have their coaches.

    The best of those coaches taught, supported, encouraged  -and still demanded. They loved the game and wanted to share their passion. They sent messages about camaraderie and sportsmanship, about how to treat one another and their opponents and about how to handle winning and losing, as a team.

    The worst of them also sent some pretty powerful messages. Like the good guys, they demanded a certain level of play from the kids, but their means were often warped. They taught the basics of the game –but just barely, assuming that the “real” players already knew the fundamentals- and worked more on strategies and tricks. Win-at-any cost attitudes filtered through to little kids feeling big pressure.
    Some of those coaches scolded, ranted, belittled. Some cheated. I saw coaches ignore any sense of fairness, keeping  “good” players in long past their due, then demean them when they didn’t perform as expected. They scouted their baby opponents and then gave their own team members a heads-up on weak links. These were big guys coaching little kids to beat their buddies, at whatever cost. I remember hearing one coach advise a 12-year old pitcher barely in control of his blazing fast ball to “brush ‘im off the plate.” And hearing another coach greet his top player as he stepped onto the game field by asking “Are you going to strike out again?”

    And that was the “coaching” offered to the good players.

    But on the sidelines, the worst of those coaches were praised. Parents jockeyed to get their kids under the tutelage of the guy with the winning record.



    We live in a small town. Think big fish-small pond analogy. I always wondered about the parents who couldn’t see what I thought was so obvious.

    Easy stuff, like –it’s supposed to be fun. And that winning really isn’t EVERYTHING.

    And that their kids weren’t going to make it to the pros.

    Turns out I didn’t really have to tell them that their kids weren’t getting athletic scholarships; a lot of those kids didn’t even make the high school cut.

    But I do wish someone had said something to a few of the raving lunatics on the sidelines and in the dugouts. Because too many kids were losing, for the sake of winning. In the name of hollow victory, they were missing all the good stuff that being part of a team can teach.

    Michael had a pair of coaches who believed pretty whole-heartedly that the kids on their team had to respect the game and one another. They coached and taught the kids to play with a sense of equity. Everyone played; no one was stuck in right field for the season.

    Funny thing about that team –they won. A lot.

    I like my team. We win, too. On and off the field. Because I measure the true success of our team by who we’ve become over a lot of years batting a ball around and playing a bit of catch.

    I only wish my kids and their friends had had the same opportunity as me to learn a bit more about what it can really mean to be part of a team.

Friend Me

    I think Hallmark may have hyped the notion of friendship a bit too much.

Inflated the premise and oversold its availability to the masses.

Or maybe it was those afterschool specials and sappy sitcoms.

    Or the mean girl movies in which good prevailed and true friends stood solid.

Something has given our kids a misguided view of where they’ll find real friends and just what they’ll look like.

Perhaps the culprit is Facebook –so much else is blamed on the social networking site.

    Eight hundred and eighty-three friends -Seriously?

I used to cringe when my husband came home from a business meeting referring to his friends in attendance.

    Those aren’t friends- they’re business associates,
I would practically shout every time.

And I was often surprised at the reaction of those newly moved to town who were disappointed by the no-entry cliques that were too reminiscent of high school for my liking. I was never really sure why the newbies wanted in to the select town circles. Did they really think those people jockeying to get their own kids on the best soccer teams were going to pull another’s kid along?

One of my students was recently disappointed by her so-called friends. After what she saw as a betrayal, she said she was now going to trust no one.


    In talking her off the ledge, I assured her that this new philosophy was extreme.

    And then I delved a bit into just what her expectations of her friends were. But before I reached that bar, I had to ask –who she considered to be her friends? How many did she have? And the question which spoke more to my own philosophy than hers –how many exactly did she think she deserved?

I brokered my own response before she had a chance to answer. If you can count your close friends on a single hand, consider yourself lucky, I told her.

She is lucky. And she knows this. And she also acknowledges that she was perhaps misguided to label every acquaintance on even a small college campus as friend. Because not every project partner or kindred classmate is a friend. Tight living quarters don’t make tight friendships. And slurpy sentiments proffered at local bars are often forgotten before the sticky floors have been mopped dry.  

My daughter’s been tricked too many times by the illusion of friendship. At 21, I think she’s finally getting a sense of what she needs from the people in her life. And just how much she’s willing to give in return. Her foundation of friendship rests, in part, on membership in a sorority. When she first considered joining, I have to admit I wasn’t entirely on board. It wasn’t just the what-would-I-do voice in my head; it was that other, much louder voice of parental caution. She’d been hurt before –by girls- and the thought of such a large assemblage of them struck me as that many more chances for pain.

    I was wrong.

Theta Phi Alpha has given Alex the friends she missed out on in high school. And I think they may be true friends. But it doesn’t really matter what I think. It’s what she believes that counts here. Time will tell. Alex has always been quick to jump into new friendships, but quick also to abandon them when they didn’t measure up. In Theta Phi, loyalty is a requirement of membership. 

My student is under no such contractual obligation to give her own friends a second chance.

    But she will.

    Or at least she will to those who now fit her narrower construction of the word.

    She doesn’t know it yet, but that definition is likely to grow narrower still.

    Because I’m that old, I’ve had friendships as old as my student. And I can vouch for the genuineness of them because they’ve stood the test of time. I could teach her much about what constitutes a true friend.

But I won’t.

    She’ll figure it out -she’s smart. Although it isn’t often one’s intellect that speaks most loudly where matters of the heart are concerned. And a true friendship is indeed its own sort of love affair. In fact, most friendships last longer than love affairs; many outlast marriages.  

So while I’ll pass on giving advice on the girls in my student’s life, I will tell her that when she’s choosing a boy to try seeing first if he measures up as a friend. Because not only is that a great place to start, it’s also not a bad place to end.

When It’s Theirs to Give

    Encouraging volunteerism in our young people is a great idea. Unfortunately, like so many good ideas which came before it, I think the execution of it has missed the mark.

    Several years ago, when the notion of making community service a requirement for graduation was still in its infancy, I attended the commencement exercises of a small high school in an affluent town north of us. Very small. There were 85 students donning caps and gowns.


    The ceremony was beautifully touching, belying the intimacy of kids who had known each another their whole lives. The feel of it all was more reminiscent of family than formality. And these students’ comfort level with one another and with themselves offered a glimpse of all that could be right with an educational experience. Bright futures for all.

    But in a right-minded idea, the high school had decided that all of these privileged children should give back. That they should have an idea and appreciation of what it means to volunteer. So they insisted that they do just that.

    My guess is that the new policy was well-received, quickly approved and met with acquiescence by all.

    All but one, as it turned out.

    It seemed that the class valedictorian, who had actually done quite a bit of unprompted community service on his own, didn’t like the oxymoronic bent of forced volunteerism. Emphasis on moronic.

    He refused to participate in the new requirement.

    Even with the threat of a withheld diploma, he stuck to his principles.

    And so on graduation day, when the classmates with whom he had shared twelve years of school and life shook their principal’s hand and received their diplomas, he did not.

    Volunteering is such a good idea. It’s a shame we’ve allowed it to become just another peg in the light bright picture of that perfect package being built for college admission. Too many students (and lets face it, their parents) look at every move and moment in high school with their eyes on transcripts that will be eyed by admissions officers. It’s become less about doing good and  more about looking good.

    In addition to the misplaced motives of indentured servitude in the guise of community service, there’s also something disquieting about the price tag that comes attached to some of these volunteering opportunities. It seems giving is its own thriving industry. But it’s not really the kids who are doing the giving.

    Sure, they’re likely a great help to that far-flung village or orphanage or hospital.  But c’mon, who among us would pass up free travel and full life exposure for a little work among the downtrodden? Particularly when it’s not junior who’s footing the bill for his foray into famine, it would seem that there’s more of a nod to self than selfless in these volunteering expeditions.

    Something’s off kilter. 

    Have we so perfected the art of hypocrisy that we can’t see that it’s not volunteering if they have no choice? We cry foul at the tricks played on us from atop Capitol Hill and in the shadows of Wall Street, but then allow our kids to begin resume padding in middle school. I think the reason Adam Wheeler’s Harvard scam went so far is because we’ve let all of our children go a little too far in the build-up of their bios. Instead of being met with an awe of disbelief, his well-packed Phillips Academy transcripts, perfect SAT scores, and 4.0 MIT GPA were likely greeted with a ho-hum hyperbole that had him standing alongside a lot of other outstanding scholars. I read that if someone, somewhere along Wheeler’s conned path had taken a moment to do a bit of math, it would have been pretty evident that there simply weren’t enough hours in his academic days to do what he claimed to have done. 

    But it seems that over-the-top is the new norm. So included in all those resplendent resumes are now hours and hours of saving-the-world work by kids who are somehow still maintaining grades, playing sports and musical instruments, and socially mingling with their four thousand friends on Facebook.

    Hmm. How many hours are in their days?

    And why is it that so few of these altruistic adolescents are opting to pull up their sleeves and do a bit of hard work at the most local of levels -at shelters and food pantries? When was the last time that a kid shoveled out his neighbor’s drive without a community service form and pen in hand? Sure, they’ll be good citizens. As long as they get credit for it.

    Nice message.

    Maybe it’s time to repackage the message, then. Time to get back to basics a bit. Instead of sending them off with the sense that there’s a whole lot of free out there, maybe it’s time to make it clear that not much is. Before they give, maybe they need to earn. A part time job teaches a whole lot about effort and value. Then, if they choose a worthy cause to support, it can come from their pockets instead of mommy’s pocketbook. And if they decide to give up a Market Basket shift and its corresponding pay to serve meals because they want to rather than have to, they’ll likely have a better notion of what service is all about and what it really means to be a part of a community.

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.