I was raised in a pretty competitive family, honed on the philosophy of veteran tennis great Martina Navratilova. She once stated, “Whoever said, ‘It’s not whether you win or lose that counts,’ probably lost.” I’m not sure my most admirable trait growing up was in wanting to annihilate my great-grandmother at gin rummy. Especially when she could barely see her cards.
Once parenthood arrived, my cutthroat attitude was slowly modified. When you’re playing board games like Candyland, you realize there’s not a great deal of competitive satisfaction to be found in getting your 4-year-old stuck in Molasses Swamp while your gingerbread pawn makes a triumphant turn for the Candy Castle finish. Nor is it really necessary to taunt your daughter that she’d better step it up a notch the next time she invites you for a game of Rugrats Uno.
On the athletic front, I recall staring across a Ping-Pong table at my 7-year-old son trying to convince myself there wouldn’t be much satisfaction in walloping somebody half my size, and one who’d picked up a paddle for the first time about 11 minutes earlier.
I do recall when my oldest son became involved in youth sports and how the focus was simply on participation over competition. No winners. No losers. No score.
Unfortunately, it took a little time for me to come to terms with this new approach.
I remember him playing tee-ball, with me serving as coach of something other than my wife’s labor. I foresaw our first game as the highlight of my post high school athletic life. I felt the competition, the fire-in-the-belly passion, a virtual intellectual chess game amongst some of the finest tee-ball managers ever to drag a burlap bag of old balls, bats and tees to a dugout. Okay, I know, I needed to get a life.
I soon did as I finally recognized the dimensions of how outrageous I’d become and started to put things in perspective. My son and I could comfortably head off to his first organized athletic game together with a sane Dad in tow. “Organized” is a loosely used term since a tee-ball game exhibits about as much order as pack of hyperactive hyenas who had overdone it on the pre-game Mountain Dew.
The game provided continuous perspective, as it’s hard to test your managerial skills when you’re more concerned with imparting the crucial wisdom that one’s glove is not an object to be punted whenever the mood strikes; there’s no extra runs awarded for how far you can throw your bat after hitting the ball; the concept is to pick up the ball if it comes towards you and not kick it back towards home plate; and the definition of outfield is not “place to lay down and pop the heads off dandelions.”
That inaugural game allowed me to gain a clear appreciation of what youth sports are all about and for whom they are meant. The real joy isn’t found in the wins and losses but in the smiles and joy that are generated by just playing the game, along with the improvement of the players and having them enjoy the sport for many years to come. Of course, a real good post-game snack doesn’t hurt either.
Yet from time to time, I do think back to my time as that ridiculously crazed coach who’d spent countless hours debating the monumental decision of whether little Sammie should follow Bridgett in the batting lineup.
If my newly found competitive philosophy had arrived a little earlier in life, I may have even let Great-Grandma win a rummy hand every once in a while. Heck, I’d probably have even refrained from doing my victory dance celebration as I smugly waved my winning cards at her.
But nobody beats me at the Connect Four game without a battle. I do have my competitive standards.