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.

Head Heart Hands Health

For a couple years of my childhood, I participated in the 4-H. For those of you who don’t know what it is, 4-H is a youth development program that is part of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s (NIFA) Cooperative Extension System (CES). NIFA is an agency within the United States Department of Agriculture. CES is part of the Land-Grant University System, which was created with the intention of increasing educational opportunities for the working class population, especially farmers and ranchers. 4-H helps to prepare youth for work and life by teaching useful skills through hands-on experiences.

I grew up in a rural town, a farming town. The town’s area is about forty square miles, and there are over thirty farms. There were also fewer than 10,000 people living there when I was growing up. In addition to all that, the World Wide Web didn’t go live until I was in Middle School, so the skills youth were learning when I was a child are a bit different than the skills youth are learning these days, especially during the remote and virtual learning days of Covid-19.

So what did I learn in 4-H? I signed up for sewing, cooking, photography, and dairy. I really enjoyed sewing, and to this day I say I’m going to get a sewing machine and try my hand at it again. I’ve had plans to make a t-shirt quilt for, oh, I’d say close to 30 years. I made a skirt the first year, and a jumper the next. I liked the puzzle part of sewing; following the pattern, making individual parts, and then piecing them all together.

Cooking was fun, but I learned more about cooking by hanging out in my mom’s and grandma’s kitchens. I learned even more from working in the hospitality industry for 25 years. Following a recipe is easy, but making a dish unique and tasty is where the challenge lies, and what requires experience. I definitely have experience in eating! I remember completing an assignment in my early elementary years that asked what my favorite subjects were. I wrote “lunch.”

I loved my photography class. I had taken photography as an activity at my summer camp, too, so I already knew I would enjoy it. I still have dreams of being a photojournalist for a food magazine. In that dream I can travel around the world eating delicious foods, taking pictures of the meals and locations, and then writIng about the experience. I guess I should buy a camera. Everything seems to be digital and captured on iPhones these days, but one of the best parts of photography was developing my own pictures in the dark room. I was, and am still, envious of the woman who led the 4-H photography class; she had a dark room in her house! Maybe I’ll have a she-shed dark room at a future home of mine.

Dairy was quite the memorable experience. I was assigned a local farm and a calf to walk. I would walk my cow up and down the center of the barn. All of the adult heifers were facing away from me, so I was always paranoid that I would get donkey-kicked by a cow. We also learned to clean their hooves and give them hair cuts. When people ask me about where I grew up, I like to tell them I walked cows as a way of describing where I’m from. I won first place in Showmanship at the county fair. I loved that trophy with the gold cow on top. I also won first place in the clipping contest. What’s a clipping contest? Whoever does the best job cutting all of the cow’s hair in less than 10 minutes wins! It cracks me up just knowing things like this exist.

4-H exists to help youth to develop skills that they can use to support their homes and communities. Although I don’t take care of cows or sew anything other than buttons, I did improve upon life skills like problem-solving, reading and following directions, finishing what I start, and creative thinking. I loved the experiences, especially the ones I probably wouldn’t have otherwise had, like caring for cows and developing my own photos. I hope to get my daughter involved. It’s a good thing 4-H helped me to develop time management skills, too!

What clubs did you join as a kid?