By Gina Sorell
“Mama are you good at sports?”
It’s a question said with a sweet mischievous smile, by my 4-year-old son. It’s the first days of spring and we are standing in a sunbeam in the backyard in the tall grass that has somehow managed to come back to life, just like us, after a winter spent under snow. I’m failing hilariously at catching the balls he throws me. This is our joke. He knows the answer is no, and when I say it, we both burst out laughing. I love watching him laugh, and even more I love that he knows that there is something I am not good at. I want him to know that not everybody is good at everything, or the same things, but they should try them anyway, and if they want to be good, they need to practice. It’s a lesson I needed to teach him early on as he seems to have inherited my same perfectionist tendencies, getting upset with himself if he can’t master something right away. I know this feeling. I danced for many years and perfectionism of all types was encouraged. After he laughs, I often follow up by saying, “I’m not good at sports, but mama can dance!” And then bust out my best Martha-Graham-meets-90’s-New-Wave-dance moves in a circle around him. See, everyone is good at something I am hoping to show him, with my flailing limbs, and now creaky knees that are happier bobbing side to side than up and down, and he often joins in.
But one day he changes up our routine and asks me with all sincerity, “But why? Why aren’t you good at sports?”
It’s a simple question that leaves me speechless. What do I tell him? The reason I wasn’t any good at sports, was because instead of being taught to practice, I’d been taught to be afraid. Sports was where a ball could break my face, smash my nose, knock my teeth out. It was that place where my widely accepted clumsiness, would be my downfall, a clumsiness that somehow didn’t apply to my passion or ability for modern, jazz, ballet and national dance.
“Um, I guess I just didn’t practice very much. But I did do other things, like dance.”
“Could you ride a bike?”
“Yes…but not until I was older. And even then, not very well,” I admit.
Because my parents were afraid that I’d fall off and break my arm, or veer into traffic and get hit by a car. Because ever since I could remember when it came to doing anything physical they’d warn me to be careful, saying that knowing me, I’d crack my head open. A statement which although seems cruel, I’d proven true by splitting the back of my head, twice.
I can’t say these things, so instead I say, “Oh, because nobody is good at everything.”
I never thought about whether my own parents were good at sports or not, but I think that the obvious answer is no. They are not athletic people. They didn’t have the encouragement or the time for leisurely pursuits growing up, in addition to mostly raising themselves. They have always been incredibly supportive of me and all my creative endeavors, but sports, was something they never understood. And the bigger reason I think, if I am willing to be honest, is that the world of sports, is often a place of clubs, and clubs are about community and belonging, and as immigrants to a new country with foreign accents, my parents for a very long time, did not belong.
Becoming a parent I’m very aware of the roles nature and nurture play in my child’s upbringing and with each new development in my son, I find myself asking if it was something he learned or inherited, or both? I try to be careful in what I pass on to him, wanting to spare him the anxiousness that overtakes me when I approach something new. Aware of this anxiety that their own fears created in me, my parents are now careful with their concerns, keeping them in perspective and encouraging me to be less afraid than they were. And thankfully I have a husband who was very physical growing up and has a practical common sense approach to all new things that our son is exposed to, unlike myself who can see peril at every turn. Not all coaches are predators in waiting, not every piece of equipment is a lethal weapon waiting to be discovered. A ball, can be just a ball after all, it does not have to be an instrument of childhood destruction. This is what I tell myself.
So this past summer when my son asked me if I was good at sports, I said, “No, but I’d like to be. I’d like to learn something new… with you.” And he smiled.
“Well mama, you can learn. But if you want to be good, you’ll have to practice.”
And so we did, taking family tennis lessons every Saturday, where I jumped and laughed and chased after a ball and felt as close to athletic as I ever have. Was I really good at sports now? I could rally the ball back and forth without tearing my shoulder, I could run across the court without twisting my ankle and falling down. I decided I was good, using myself as my own measuring stick. I was certainly better than I ever have been. And best of all, as my son and I leapt side by side on our respective courts, and I aimed to slice a ball that was coming straight toward my face, I wasn’t afraid. I could do this. I could do this for both of us.
Gina Sorell lives in a world of words. Some of these words have been actor, sketch-comedy writer and producer. They have also been yoga instructor and jewelry designer. For the last decade these words have been wife, creative director, novelist and mom. She divides her time between Toronto and Los Angeles, and has just completed her debut novel, “Mothers and Other Strangers”. Follow her on Twitter @ginasorell.
What I try to convey to kids who take racquetball lessons from me is that (a) they have enough ability to have fun with sports, and (b) racquetball can be a fun sport for them. The former point is the more important one, of course. I never felt I was good at sports as a kid, because I was weaker than other boys. But turns out I am decent at sports; something I wish I’d known earlier. Also, sports can be a great unifier, not a divider, because it gives people something in common; something they can share, and come together over. Finally, a great thing about sports is that they are activities where you can clearly see your improvements across time. Lord knows there are many activities we do in life where it’s unclear whether you are getting better at them or difficult to even getting clear feedback on what you’re doing. Not so in sports. The ball goes where you wanted it to, or it doesn’t. You move in one way and it doesn’t work; change your movement and it does. It can be very satisfying, and sometimes frustrating, but mostly satisfying across time as you see your improvements and are having fun doing it. Everyone should play sports.
So true Evan! I love that there is a direct feedback to our efforts and an even more important one that is not always related to the outcome of those efforts, and that is the joy of just doing. And I love those two lessons that you teach your students…finding the fun.