The Wide World of Sports

Sports have affected so many of my life decisions. There are the standard choices, like how much time and money I spent either playing or spectating. There was the unconventional decision to enroll in a university because it had a great football team. My career choice was based on my love of sports, my parenting style draws on lessons learned in sports, and how I maneuver through this world is based around my belief in the concept of sports for social change. And all of this started in my own backyard.

There was always a basketball to shoot, a soccer ball to kick back and forth, or a baseball to catch out in our yard. We tore around town on our 10 speeds. The neighborhood kids would gather for a game of kickball that would last until the dinner bell rang or the streetlights came on. My siblings and I would race each other in any and every thing. Playing with a competitive component was what we did.

Dad coached my town basketball team and mom drove me to the swim center for my meets. Together they cheered from the town park bleachers at my tee ball games. In 5th grade I joined the town’s travel soccer team, which developed into year-round involvement on school, indoor, and district teams for the next 7 years. Simultaneously, I played field hockey in middle school, and tennis, swimming, and basketball in high school. I was never not playing sports. I was good, but I wasn’t great. So when college came, there was a big hole in my life. There were no more year-round teams to be a part of. No more psyche parties. No more uniforms. No more motivation. It was depressing, to say the least. I dabbled in intramurals, and I had to take my college PE credits, but it just wasn’t the same. The team spirit and camaraderie was gone.

So I did what I thought was the next best thing and became a spectator. Fans become their own team, in a way. We cheer together, we grieve together, and we can always agree on something. At Penn State there was always some game or match to attend. When I moved to Baltimore, I had a whole city of fans to high five. And now, I’m a Carolina Caniac. However, as thrilling as watching and gambling on sports can be, it just doesn’t match the experience of playing.

In a sociology course in college, a representative from a local non-profit asked our professor if he could take five minutes of our time to seek out summer camp counselors. Having been a camp kid myself, my interest was piqued. I applied for the job and was hired to work with at-risk youth at a camp outside of Philadelphia. It was there that I decided to change my career path. As a junior I switched my major and went on to graduate with credentials to teach Health and Physical Education to K-12 students. Now, I get to spectate and play, and I get to witness how sports create life-altering changes in the lives of our youth. They are all things that changed my life, but I didn’t know it at the time. Now, watching the kids learn and grow, I realize how impactful sports can actually be.

Mom says she got us into sports because it kept us out of trouble. That’s a very simple explanation of why sports promote positive social change. Yes, sports require a major commitment of time, thereby limiting the amount of time the participant can get involved in other “less admirable” activities, but it’s what they learn in sports that I think is what supports their positive life choices.

I played sports because they were fun. I also knew I wouldn’t be allowed to play sports if I didn’t do well in school. So, in order to play sports, I had to learn time management and how to apply myself, in turn making me a better student. From losses I learned problem-solving, conflict resolution and anger management techniques, all while developing resiliency. From wins and losses I learned about rules and fairness and luck. As a teammate I practiced effective communication styles, diplomacy, and solidarity. I learned to identify my strengths and weaknesses. I learned how to prioritize. I understood that I had to be my personal best every time because my team was counting on me, and that taught me about selflessness, maturity, and motivation. And now, even though I’m no longer playing sports on a daily basis, I own those skills and qualities, and I am able to apply them in other arenas. And they do keep me out of trouble…most of the time.

I coached my daughter’s U10 town league volleyball team earlier this summer. None of the girls had ever played volleyball. Few of them had ever played a sport. And even fewer had ever been on a team. They had a lot to learn in a very short amount of time. I kept it simple. I kept it positive. I kept it light. With each game I witnessed progress, and I was sure to tell each of them what they did that was good. And I was also sure to tell each of them how to get better. They worked on it. And they got better. And in true Cinderella fashion, we beat the best team in our last match of the season. I was the only one who wasn’t shocked. Each of the girls knew that they were getting better as individuals, but I saw the bigger picture developing around them. Afterwards I talked about the whole experience with my friends and said, “They made friends and they had fun, but what was more important was… they won.” And that was me being funny, but I was also being completely serious. Their win was important, because that win proved to the those girls what consistently trying to be their personal best, and doing so together as a team, can produce. And that feels great. And those girls will never forget how great it felt, and they will know they can feel that way again, and they will know how to make it happen for themselves and each other.

Sports do have a way of digging in, planting a seed, and growing us into people who have what it takes to reach far out into this wide, wide world and make it better.

The True Meaning of Adulting

Adulting. Supposedly a term created for Gen Y to describe the mundane stuff adults do, like paying bills, working, buying groceries. I think of Rachel from Friends cutting up her dad’s credit cards and learning to do her own laundry. But real adulting is encountering harsh realities and rude awakenings in our everyday lives (you know, those surprising and unpleasant discoveries that yes, you were mistaken, your ideal world is not in fact real), and then dealing with them in (hopefully!) positive and productive ways. Biology aside, why do we become adults? Why can’t we stay children forever?

It’s been interesting, to say the least, to be a parent and witness my child growing up. There’s the obvious, expected, and somehow always surprising physical changes, like how she’s close to fitting into my shoes at age 9. And there’s the not-so-obvious, but still expected, yet somehow surprising emotional changes. The other day she was playing with a young boy, a close friend of ours, who has always been very sweet toward her. They were spraying water at each other, but blocking the water with umbrellas, so no one was actually getting wet. All very sweet and innocent, until the little boy crept up on my daughter and dumped a bottle of water down her back. It took her a moment to register what had just happened, not because she couldn’t tell it was water running down her body, but because she couldn’t understand why it happened. She looked at me and, slowly but surely, started to cry. It was very painful to watch because in that moment I knew why she was so sad. She wasn’t just experiencing getting water dumped on her, she was experiencing a loss of innocence.

Loss of innocence happens through experience. We either play a role in an event (good guy, bad guy, bystander), or simply learn more information about the world through the many sources we have. But the events and information that cause this loss are usually shocking or hurtful. I think of the process like this: When we are born, we are gifted with a jar of innocence marbles. As we experience loss, disappointment, shock or hurt, we lose a marble. Some experiences only cost us one marble, some cost a few a more, and some are so horrific that the jar shatters and we lose all of our innocence marbles in one fell swoop. Looking at my daughter’s face that day, I could see in my mind’s eye a beautiful, shiny marble roll down the driveway, clink through the sewer grate, and fall into the runoff below, never to be seen again. Her jar is still very full, so her shoulder remains relatively chip-free. But I wonder, when will her marbles run out?

Hurt and shock can come from big things and small things, but it’s the accumulation of them that grows us into adults. I remember something as simple as walking into a room when Friday the 13th was on, and seeing Jason’s burnt, scarred face, and being so shocked that the image was permanently seared into my brain. I remember witnessing my friends doing illegal things and the new feelings that stirred up in my chest as a result. I remember being the victim of other people’s actions and wondering why I had to be involved. And yes, I’ve done things I’m not proud of, and those cost me a few marbles, too. Sometimes it’s just happenstance or bad luck that leads to these eye openers. Sometimes it’s calculated because someone wants to hurt you. And the worst is when it’s someone who is supposed to love you, who is supposed to be loyal, who you are supposed to be able to trust. My daughter lost a marble that day because the little boy was someone who she thought would never do anything that wasn’t nice to her on purpose.

I lost most of my marbles by the time I was 17. But what’s important to understand is that I still experience hurt, loss, shock and disappointment. I may have lost my marbles but I gained the tools I need to cope and bounce back in their place. As children begin to lose their innocence, they don’t always know how to manage that grief. This is where the real adulting comes in. We become adults, sadly, when we’ve lost all of our marbles. We become adults when we learn how to cope with grief and harsh realities and rude awakenings. But what we adults need to remember to do is share our knowledge and help children navigate their losses. Help them identify and acknowledge what happened, and to make sense out of something that makes no sense. Help them to know they will be stronger as a result. Help them to know that they do not have to repeat the negative behavior they may have witnessed or fallen victim to. Help them to fill their jar with healthy coping tools. And if you can, help prevent the loss of those innocence marbles in the first place, and prolong the naïveté of childhood for as long as possible! Let’s flip the script and change the meaning of adulting from ordinary to extraordinary!

Pranksters, Not Gangsters

Part 1: When I was a kid, we pulled pranks. We smashed pumpkins, toilet papered yards, threw eggs and bologna, vandalized, burned things, set off stink bombs, switched the salt and sugar, and deflated tires. One time we took the tires completely off and left the car on cinder blocks. We told the freshmen we were dressing in 80s prom dresses for our next Psyche Party, and watched them enter in pink taffeta while we sat laughing in our jeans and t-shirts. I’m not proud of it, but I’m not exactly sorry either; most of them were meant to be playful, not malicious.

Part 2: I was watching the news the other day, and a near hopeless woman was speaking about how difficult it is to teach children when living in an active war zone. The children ask her, “What’s the point of learning if we could die today?” That knocked the wind out of me. The next day, I’m watching this girl, living in the same war zone and standing where her house is now a pile of rubble, crying and asking, “What am I supposed to do? I am only 10 years old.” This is actually happening 6,000 miles away from me, while I sit quietly at my table in my peaceful home, listening to my 9 year-old daughter play, in our safe neighborhood.

I grew up in what felt like a safe town. We didn’t worry about locking things up, or playing outside unsupervised. My bike was stolen from our shed, our house was burglarized in the middle of the day, and a friend of ours was kidnapped from his house. Those rocked me quite a bit, but I still felt safe.

I have an older brother who joined the Army. When he returned home in 1990, I felt extra safe knowing he was around and looking out for me. He was called to war in January 1991, so then he was looking out for all of us. I was in sixth grade when the Gulf War began. We held a sit-in in the middle school gym. This was our first real-time exposure to war, so our sit-in wasn’t very productive considering none of us really knew what was going on, so we didn’t know what to do or what to ask for. We just knew it didn’t feel right, and it certainly didn’t seem fair that our older siblings were going off to war in some country we’d never even heard of. But as that war was fought far, far away, we continued to go to school, play our sports, watch our TVs, and sleep in our comfy beds in our quiet little town.

After college I moved to Baltimore where I tried my best to teach the youngsters of the inner-city public schools. I came to realize that these children were growing up in a war zone of their own. Children can’t focus on learning if they don’t feel safe. Based on Maslow’s theory, children can’t focus on much of anything if this basic need isn’t met. After four overwhelming years, I just couldn’t handle the amount of fear and anxiety that enveloped those kids anymore, so I quit and moved. I needed to find solitude and live somewhere where I could find peace and still believe there was happiness. It took some time to decompress. I hardened over time, and needed to soften up again.

Part 3: I’m a Christian, but I will be the first to tell you that I have a tilted halo. A few of the major principles of Christianity are to 1) Love your neighbor as yourself (Golden Rule), 2) Forgive others who have wronged you, and 3) Love your enemies. But, no one ever said those were easy things to do. So what am I getting at? I can empathize with people who want revenge. I understand why schadenfreude is a thing. But I cannot find any sense in killing and destroying to get your way. The emotional fallout alone is too awful to fathom. So, if love and forgiveness aren’t in the cards, maybe we can consider being pranksters instead of gangsters? I imagine something out of a Roald Dahl novel. There’s a disagreement that cannot be talked out. Rock, Paper, Scissors won’t cut it. They turn to war. The planes fly over and drop… stink bombs. The tanks roll through shooting… paint balls. The infantry launch rotten eggs from sling shots. Grenades explode covering everything with slime. Some people are annoyed, some people are satisfied, but all people are alive. Some things need to be cleaned up, but nothing needs to be rebuilt. Wouldn’t this be revolutionary? No more assault rifles, no more missiles. If your ass is really that chapped, take it old school and burn a bag of shit on their front porch. Ruin their day, don’t ruin their lives. Just remember, someone loves them, and someone loves you, too.