Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Waterlogged (Part One)

Slow Dog - Belly (mp3)
Pretty Deep - Tanya Donnelly (mp3)

My two daughters just concluded their third summer of competitive swimming. I love my daughters. I do not love swim meets.

Good modern-age parenting requires that parents choose at least two or three regular child-centered activities where the parent's sole responsibility is to transport said children to and from said activity. During said activity, the supreme modern parent attentively views their child's participation; the modestly decent parent fills time with book-reading or phone-talking; and the subpar parent just drops 'em off and picks 'em up.

The line of demarcation has changed significantly in the last 30 years. When I was in elementary school, playing baseball and taking piano lessons, my parents were considered on the higher end merely for paying the fees and driving me. In my seven years of actually playing baseball (as opposed to sitting on the bench and pinch hitting once the game was decided), my parents might have watched two dozen games. And by "my parents" I mean one of them. One year my team (the Reds) made the finals of the playoffs and both of them showed up. That was almost an aligning of the planets kind of event. I won the game with one of those miracle catches that can only be made by someone who is on the verge of a nervous breakdown and whose skills are very much in question. That is to say, I took a routine fly ball and turned it into a miracle basket catch that found me falling backward and basically flipping over.

On the one hand, you'd think maybe a parent would witness this and say, "Holy shit. I've been missing some incredible drama!" But on the other hand, if you were my parents, you'd say, "Holy shit. There's 99 ways Billy could have screwed that up, and we witnessed the one time he managed to find success. Maybe we should quit while we're ahead."

Not that I'm bitter. In fact, I'm totally jealous. I'm trapped in a generation where parents are more obligated to care, to function as an engaged part of the audience. Hence, my attendance at all but two of this year's swim meets, the two I missed due to obligations to my teensy infant boy who doesn't like water, crowds, heat, or anything else about a swim meet. (Yes, that's called Good Evolutionary Instinct.)

Below, and on Thursday, I will offer some random thoughts and observations inspired by yet another season of swimming, organized in subheads for your simpler reading pleasure. [I'm technically on vacation this week, drinking massive amounts of alcohol while also totally being responsible with the supervision of my children. So if anything below or on Thursday fails to make sense, I blame it on all of that.]


When it comes to being great athletic supporters for their kids, several of my closest friends are, in this particular portion of the Standardized Parental Aptitude Test, supreme. They score in the high 700s on this part. Granted, all three I'm thinking of are baseball parents to boys. But I work with and am friends with a man who scores a full-on 790 or 800 on this portion no matter what sports his daughter or son play. Soccer, baseball, swimming, running, whatever.

This area is not my strong suit. I'm fighting to keep my score at around 590, which is good enough to get me into your standard SEC level of parenting, but it blows my shot at the Ivy Leagues. As should be obvious from above, I blame my parents. More specifically, I blame growing up thinking that it shouldn't be considered crucial that my parents were there to watch for me to find happiness and enjoyment in an activity.

But I gotta buck up and accept a change in the culture. So. When it comes to supporting your child's sporting adventures, attitude is about 70% of the battle. Knowing enough to be useful and advisory (but not knowing too much, which can be detrimental) is another 10%. And the environment -- the coach, the other parents, the other kids -- is the 20% you can't control.

But dammit, I'm so much better as a soccer parent or as a basketball parent. With those events, even if your kid isn't a starter, their performance and play relates quite directly to what those other kids are doing on the field/court. And if your kid is playing, then you can totally train your focus on your kid. But with swimming? Or wrestling? Or gymnastics? With individual sports like this, you're investing three or four hours of your life to watch your child perform a grand total of maybe two or three minutes. The rest of the time, you sit around trying to act like you give one rat's ass about the other kids who are swimming, including that 17-year-old boy who's wearing swim briefs so small you think he might have stolen them from your 7-year-old daughter.

Thus the Great Paradox of Sports Support #1: I will be vigilant about making sure my daughters know that participation in team sports is not all about them. The team does not revolve around them, but rather vice-versa. However, when it comes to observing your child's team sport, it's totally OK to be all about your own kid. It's a paradox, but I don't believe it's hypocrisy. 

To be continued on Thursday...

Tanya Donnelly was the lead singer of Belly before venturing off on her own. The first is from the album Star, and the second from Lovesongs for Hangovers. Both can be found at iTunes or Amazon.com.


BeckEye said...

I think I had something interesting to say until I got to the part about the 17-year-old boy with tiny swim trunks. You can't say stuff like that to a dirty old woman like me.

Don't judge. 17 is almost 18. ;)

Goofytakemyhand said...

/long response. Goofy isn’t always the best at brevity./

Fascinating piece. I’ve been on so many sides of this story. As a young Goofy, I was a terrific basketball player in the YMCA-type youth leagues (this was the days before AAU was prominent) and I was pretty much expected by the coaches to bring the ball up the court, not turn the ball over while being double-teamed, and still shoot 80% of the time with arms in my face for us to have any chance to win... which we never did. Most of it was because I was the one kid who was shaving and a couple years ahead on puberty.

This is all background information when I got to high school and missed a whole season with a serious illness that made just getting through a school day exhausting enough. I was never the same player and by then everyone caught up and surpassed me physically. Still my parents would come to all the games to see me play a my usual minute per game.

One of the things my parents instilled in me was maximizing my effort despite the situation. In fact, some of our best talks after the game were in high school. In retrospect, I took a lot more from the “Goofytakemyhand, that was a great charge you took” when I was older rather than the “Goofytakemyhand, you had to take your usual 25 shots and the team still lost by 20, what can I say?”

In a round about way, I value what I learned from my parents now that I have a nephew who is in team sports. His father is a businessman who travels a lot or when he can come to the games he’s on his Blackberry non-stop. His mother couldn’t tell you who Albert Pujols or LeBron James are. So I’m pretty much his “guardian” for the games. I still love watching him play youth baseball even though I’m praying he’ll just make contact with the ball when he’s at the plate.

However, after the games, I’ll always make sure that he had fun and then find things to compliment him on - his hustle, cheering his teammates, a nice job getting to a ground ball even if he throws the ball 25 feet short of the first baseman.

But I tell totally agree with what you’re saying, Billy. I only go to games to watch my nephew.

He’ll never be the kid we had who was so advanced for the slower speed of a youth game that he was basically playing short, 3rd, and outfield all at once and hit scorching line drives that the other teams fielders would try to avoid rather than catch. And I’m okay with that. And while occasionally, our budding superstar did amaze me, I could care less what he or the rest of the team did.

My concern with theories of modern parenting (especially “helicopter parenting” - of which I am not saying you are one) is that children should succeed at every activity... and if not, then they need private coaching, lessons, etc. to become the best. If that doesn’t work, then they move on to something else where they might be in the top percentile. I’ll be interested to see what becomes of our young generation. Will they expect to be the best in all their pursuits through hard work and discipline or because they feel an entitlement to it or it will come to them?

As for swimming, good luck... and if/once I get married, I’ll be begging my wife to let our kid play only team sports. I had a girlfriend who played a collegiate individual sport. It was all I could do to pound Gatorades to stay awake... only to watch her never win a damn thing and the team get obliterated at every meet.

I wish they had iPhones and such back then. Best cell phones they had at the time only had the Snake game and some version of Frogger. I got to be really freaking good at those games that season.

troutking said...

Perhaps you'd enjoy swim meets more if you start swimming yourself at 4am every morning. Combining that with the 8:30am nap at your desk it produces might really brighten your outlook.

You should award yourself 100 bonus points because it is certainly true that swim meets are not nearly as enjoyable to spectate as baseball, soccer or basketball games. Or, you should just be thankful it's not wrestling. Then you'd spend 3 hours at the meet wondering why you're encouraging violence and unhealthy eating habits, then come home and spend another 3 hours wondering if your child is now spreading ringworm all over your house.

Hank said...

Here is the solution. At the next swim meet, act so over the top that you are an embarrassment to your children. Yell and scream, argue with officials, and maybe even drink a little. Then your children will not want you at their sporting events any more, and everybody is happy.

troutking said...

That worked well for Mike Moore with Ryan and Tanner.