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.

Be an Amigo

As a child, I was taught to mind my manners, especially when visiting someone else’s home. Be respectful of their rules and practices, listen to and learn about the host, graciously accept what is offered to you, and offer to help in return. I believe these same principles apply when visiting another country.

My daughter and I just traveled to Mexico for the first time. She was buzzing with excitement about so many aspects of the trip, especially the part about missing a few days of school. But I told her she wasn’t missing anything because she was still going to receive an education while we traveled. In fact, this was going to be the best form of remote learning in which she could ever participate! As a parent, I need to seize opportunities like this to ensure the practices I learned as a child are also carried on as her custom.

Before we departed, I read to her about Puerto Vallarta’s history, geography, weather, cuisine, attractions, and economy. We learned that 50% of their workforce is in hospitality, so I had the notion that the general population must be struggling. Although we stayed at an all-inclusive resort, I wanted to be aware of any tipping policies. The receptionist told me tipping was not necessary. Mind you, I’ve worked in hospitality for a long time, and I would never turn down a tip. I also assume the employees are trying to catch-up after the Covid drought. So I tipped. Everybody.

I studied Spanish for four years beginning in 8th grade. Unlike riding a bike, I find it easy to forget how to speak a second language without practice. So, in addition to reading about Puerto Vallarta, I’ve been using Duolingo to brush up on this skill, and to introduce it to my daughter. I want to at least try to be able to speak the language of the country I’m visiting. Although I spoke some Spanish, almost everyone I interacted with spoke English very well, and seemed happy to oblige.

We learned more by walking along the Malecón, viewing and purchasing the wares and fares of the local artists and food vendors.

We learned the most from our taxi drivers. Raul told us about tequila tours and to be on the lookout for coatimundis (which we were lucky enough to spot later that night!). Antonio played mariachi music for us, used google translate on his phone to make sure we understood each other, and he pulled over when there was a sight he wanted us to see. He was calling us “familia” by the end of our ride. Our third driver wanted to know all about us. He said he could tell we were not like other gringas. I laughed, looked down at my fanny pack, and then asked what he thought was different. He replied, “Most Americans who visit are arrogant.” That made me sad and disappointed to think ‘we’ were not minding our manners when visiting someone else’s home. He and I continued to get to know each other for the rest of the drive, and it wasn’t lost on me that he finished each sentence with “mi amiga.”

Being a good guest doesn’t require bending over backwards to please your host, and vice versa. It’s as simple as minding your manners. So please remember, we’re all sharing the same world, so mi casa es tu casa, y tu casa es mi casa, amigos.

Laissez Les Bon Temps Rouler!

It’s Marci Gras! I did my part to make sure Fat Tuesday lived up to its name by making and eating an absurd amount of gumbo and cornbread. I’ve never been to the Mardi Gras festival, but I have been to New Orleans, and our hotel was right on Bourbon Street, and we visited the Mardi Gras museum to see the floats. I was also traveling with my 7-year-old at the time, so I had to be somewhat prudent. Anyhow, I was watching the news this morning about New Orleans and how there is no parade because of Covid, but houses and yards are decorated to the nines. One interviewee said, “The parade may be cancelled, but the spirit of Marci Gras cannot!” And that is when I got teary-eyed.

I don’t know about you, but I hope post-Covid celebrations rush in like someone opened the floodgates. Potential memories are being stolen from us. Sweet memories of passing out cupcakes on your birthday or Valentines to your classmates were erased like a chalkboard this past year. Dancing like nobody’s watching on a crowded amphitheater lawn is only a hallucination. Singing the school fight song with 109,000 other fans in the university stadium must have been a figment of my imagination. Hugging and holding hands? Only in our wildest dreams. Festivals, reunions, and play dates are all fictional chapters of our now boring lives. Gosh, I even fantasize about struggling to get the bartender’s attention during happy hour!

I hope when we become a herd again, we become immune to boredom. I hope we flock together and have a parade. A day of parades all over the world with singing and dancing, and everyone has a seat together at the grandstand with a perfect view of the spectacle. But the timing of these Mardi Gras celebrations will be reversed, because we’ve been abstaining for too long, as if we’d given up togetherness for lent. It’s time for the spirit of Mardi Gras that has been hibernating in our hearts to wake up, take a real good stretch, and let the good times roll!