What if my Son Kinda-Sorta Sucks at Sports?

“I LOVE basketball,” The Professor grandly announced from the confines of his car seat. “I want to basketball again, Mommy!  Not just at camp, okay?”

This should be music to a sports-loving mama’s ears, right?  I was practically raised on the sidelines of my brothers’ soccer, football and hockey games – that is, when I wasn’t involved in my own soccer games or donning a tutu at the dance studio that became my home away from home.  I grew up hearing my mom scream, “Sack him!” at the TV as she watched the Browns lose yet another game (I’m guessing).  We had season tickets to our local minor-league hockey games and many of my fondest memories involve high-fiving my brothers while organs and airhorns accompanied our screams.  I love sports.  I love the adrenaline, the camaraderie and the competition.  When I had babies of my own – two perfect little baby boys – I bought them jerseys before I bought them books.  Being a mom of boys meant that I could enjoy sports with my little men!  I hit the jackpot!

So why did my heart tighten a little bit in panic when my seven-year-old announced he wanted to play basketball again?

Parenting looks a little different in practice then it did in theory.  I was a much better parent before I had kids.  Now that I’ve had more than seven years to get to know my little men, I realize that some subjects are a bit more complicated than I first gave them credit for.  Take, for example, involving my children in sports.

My eldest son, The Professor, hasn’t exactly been overly athletically inclined in his short lifetime.  At our first Mommy-and-me soccer camp, I spent most of the time enthusiastically and creatively cajoling him into doing the soccer drills while he made train noises and ran around the perimeter of the field.  Then, he spent a season dancing to music that wasn’t playing and staring into the sky when the coach talked.  The next time I suggested we play soccer as a family, he volunteered to be the coach so he could stand aside and tell his brother and me what to do.  Pop in a dinosaur video and the kid is entranced for hours, but flip to a Bronco game for a few minutes and you’ve lost him.  In fact, actually bringing him to a Bronco game when he was a toddler is one of most vividly traumatizing experiences I can remember having with him.  He hated every second, and my heart broke watching his discomfort at the stadium.

Having a child that isn’t all that into sports isn’t a big deal.  There are so many other things that we love to do together (camping, reading, building, creating, singing, dancing, learning, laughing and loving, to name a few), it was almost a bit of relief to me that we could spend less time at soccer practice and more time exploring the world together.  I’m a bit concerned about the uber-focus on youth athletics in America, anyway.  I have enjoyed getting to knows trains and dinosaurs with my little man, versus dribbles and burpees.

But then something happened when he was in Pre-K that elevated my minor concern to a whole different level.

The Professor’s teacher gently suggested that maybe he had some gross motor development issues that should be addressed, and gave me the name of someone to evaluate him.  Suddenly that nagging voice that had comforted me by suggesting maybe it was just age or interest level that was holding my son back from a life-long love of sports became a thunderous roar in my ear.  It said, “He would be better at sports if you were a better mom.”  It said, “You’ve done something to hold him back.”  It said, “Your kid isn’t good enough.”

Boom.

We had him evaluated, and the conclusion was pretty simple – The Professor was a healthy, normal kid.  He was behind his peers in some gross motor skills, yes, but nothing was wrong with him.  He just wasn’t that into sports.  Nothing was going to hold him back from living a wildly successful life on his own terms.  If he wanted to pursue sports, great!  And if not, that would be fine, too!  The world was his oyster!  We went on with life and left sports on the backburner.  We enrolled him in LEGO club, Sticky Fingers cooking class and Spanish, with some swimming, yoga and a sports camp here and there as a minor addition to his very full life.  Sports were a sidebar.  I kind of thought the sports ship had sailed.

But now, after one of those short summer camps, The Professor was expressing his enthusiasm for basketball – a real season of basketball.  Instead of being breezy and lighthearted about it, I was filled with stress and worry and confusion.  A few hours of basketball drills during one week in summer was one thing, but a whole season of basketball?  With teammates that most likely have been involved in basketball for many more years and have much more advanced skills, not to mention actual knowledge of the rules (which The Professor most certainly does not)?

On one hand, I want my kid to get involved in anything and everything his little heart desires. If he wants to play basketball, then by golly, he’s going to get to play basketball!

But …. What if he sucks?  What if he is the worst player on the team, and he hates it, and his teammates make fun of him, and his coach gets frustrated with him, and he starts to doubt himself?  What if his self-doubt turns to shame?  What if the whole thing is a miserable failure and he is scarred for life?  What then?  There are some ridiculously intense sports parents in my community and it’s intimidating even looking at their Facebook posts at times.  There seems to be a lot of pressure, and I’m hesitant to put too much pressure on my son, who has never even expressed interest in watching, let alone playing, sports.

I’ve seen other kids play soccer, and basketball, and I’ve seen them rock it in the pool.  I’ve heard children go on and on about local sports teams and their obsession with them.  I’ve seen the pride on fellow parents’ faces when they beam at their athletically inclined kids.  Those parents don’t seem to worry!  They seem to have it all figured out.  They rave about their kids’ athletic prowess.  Sports seem to unite these families and fill their households with rambunctious joy.  I want that for us, too!  But what if it doesn’t turn out that way?  What if it hurts our family unit, and hurts my son?

Maybe I’m a horrible mom for having these thoughts.  Maybe this is just additional proof that I’ve failed my kid and am guilty of holding him back.   I can already see the comments on social media calling me out for forcing something on my defenseless little kiddo, or for worrying that he may not measure up to society’s (or my own) expectations.  Yet, somehow, I think that other parents sometimes feel some of the conflicted feelings I’m feeling right now.  What is the best thing to do for this precious child that I love more than my own life?  What is the right thing for him?  How am I supposed to know?

There’s no way for me to know for sure until I actually stop sitting around thinking about it and start doing something instead.  It’s time to muster up some good old fashioned courage and accept the vulnerability that comes with doing anything new or different, and sign my kid up for basketball.

In her book, “Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead,” Dr. Brene Brown, a renowned researcher, professor, speaker and author, defines vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure.”  Her powerful research has shown that nothing brave can ever happen without vulnerability.  “Vulnerability” is the part of the courage equation that is really hard for a lot of people to accept.  We don’t like to be exposed and raw.  We don’t like uncertainty.  And yet, courage leads to growth, strength, resilience and ultimately personal success – things that I absolutely want for my child.  Accepting the risk of failure or embarrassment is simply part of the process.

I assumed when I had kids that doing the “sports thing” was just going to be a part of our lives, and then some teachers suggested maybe sports weren’t the best fit for my child, so we got involved in other things.  Now, sports are once again a possibility.  It’s hard for me to quiet that nagging voice questioning whether this is a good idea or not.  I have to silence it, though.  That voice is only holding my son back – and listening to the doubt will be the thing that makes me fail my child if I listen to it.

It’s time for me to get over my apprehension and forget about the stumbling blocks we’ve had along the way.  My kid might suck at basketball.  Or he might be awesome.  In either case – so what?  Hopefully he’ll enjoy his time in the sport.  No matter what, I know that the new experience will help him grow, and that alone is worth the vulnerability associated with a new endeavor.

The only thing I have to do now is pick out my seat on the bleachers.

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