So having two girls is a unique proposition for a sports nut like myself. I know, I know, girls can like sports too. But with our girls, they’ve gravitated to the killer P’s (pink, princesses, pretty dresses) despite the best efforts of their parents. They have their moments of athletic prowess, but it hasn’t been a focus and I’ve been really careful not to force anything on them. After all, it took a little while before sports clicked for me. But once it did, it became an obsession. So when Iris decided to play soccer, I was thrilled. This is exciting.
Then she played.
It wasn’t that she wasn’t capable. She just had little to no focus on the field. This is the complete opposite of her dear old dad, who manages to block out the rest of the world when he’s on a field or court, regardless of whether it’s a league-sanctioned game or pick-up. As she occasionally drifted off, I would gently yell out to her to pay attention, but she was just in and out of competitive consciousness. She got tired and would run half-heartedly with no purpose. Now, here’s the thing. Iris can be extremely competitive. She is about her reading. She is around the house (“Daddy, I bet I can get dressed faster than you!”, “Daddy, I can use the toilet faster than you.”, “Daddy, I will be able to beat you in Checkers soon!”). So, what was going on here? Well, for one thing, they don’t keep score in 1st-grade soccer. I understand the intent, but ironically, I think it actually promotes the wrong behavior as the kids will focus on on their own performance (it’s easy to keep track of your own goals and the concept of assist are lost on six-year-olds) and should could still remain competitive with herself. In fact, after the first game, I told her I’d give her a penny for every time she kicked the ball and she definitely remembered that, so that wasn’t it. I waited a few weeks, but it only go worse.
So, what was going on? And more importantly, what should I do?
Here’s where the double-standard comes in. If Iris was a boy, I think I would’ve been tougher. I would’ve let her have it for letting down her teammates. It bothered my that she was basically letting her team down (yes, I know there’s no score, but in a team sport, it’s frustrating for the rest of the team that someone isn’t engaged). I think I might’ve pulled the “tough love” card that can be pretty important to a boy’s growth. I got those lectures from my brother growing up and they were incredibly important. But girls are more sensitive–or at least my girls certainly are. And I am trying to manage how much I “toughen” her up. After all, if I go to far, I could turn her off sports forever and that would be the biggest tragedy.
Then I thought back to what Cherise once told me about her experience with sports. She seemed to indicate that her desire to play was hurt by the fact that she didn’t think she was very good. I couldn’t understand this. I’m 5’11”, gifted with practically no athleticism, and size 13 feet that structurally restrict me to being one of the slowest human beings on earth. But I loved playing sports for years. And then I realized what it was. Even when I wasn’t great, I believed I was good. Confidence. She thought she wasn’t going to be very good, so she didn’t even really try. And when she didn’t try, she lost focus. And by then, it was all over.
So what does a dad do?
Well, Iris has gotten really big on wizardry. Credit that to a girl who can’t get enough books and started reading about wizards. In fact, she describes herself as a “wizard-in-training”. So, boy was she impressed when I told her I went to college for Wizardry (“Wizardry”, “Electrical Engineering”, same difference). At bedtime one night, we were talking about my career in wizardry.
IRIS: Daddy, did you make any potions in college?
ME: Of course. I made ones for running, baseball, basketball. I really liked it for sports. I made one last month before I went on a 7-mile run.
IRIS (excited): Really?!? Can you make one for soccer?
ME: Wow, I didn’t even think of that. Sure, I suppose so.
IRIS: We can make and then I can run faster and kick harder.
ME: Great idea.
IRIS: Yeah, because the other girls run faster than me but with the potion, I can be faster than them!
I fear the day I can’t predict how these conversations would go.
So the night before the next game, Iris and I got together with a bunch of wizard ingredients (gatorade, water, honey, coconut water) and put together our special potion. We did some minor ritualistic deeds (you know, the stuff I learned in college), including tapping the container with our fingers to show that we were running and kicking. And wouldn’t you know it, she had her best game ever. Still not perfect and still room for improvement, but she was really having fun. The rest of the season, we made potions before each game and that added to both her excitement and her confidence. She never became a star, but for most of the rest of the season, she was more engaged and focused. And it all culminated with the final game where Iris stole a ball, dribbled it once, and then blasted a shot at goal that went…oh…so…close to being her first ever goal, glancing off the post. I’ve never wanted a goal for myself nearly as badly as I wanted that one for her. As she smiled and shrugged it off, her father helplessly wailed “Ahhhh” and fell to the ground in agony. Not sure if the parents near me understood what was going on and whether they thought I was one of those overzealous dads, but if they only knew my season of restraint and ultimate thrill I was just denied, they might’ve fallen to the ground right along with me. That ball goes in and I’d have started authoring my first made-for-TV movie set to air on the Oprah Winfrey Network.
After the season ended, Iris told us that she’d be up for playing next season and that’s what the league insisted was the goal of this season. Who knows how she’ll play next year, but I do know it’s time to start introducing sports a little aggressively. I try to temper my expectations and keep thinking about myself at this age. My first at-bat in baseball, I stood ON the plate instead of next to it. I managed to live that one down and sports are now my great passion. Regardless of her gender, I know the I can’t force it on her. That said, I also know that she probably won’t get it from her friends either, so I think she’ll be sitting next to me for more Georgetown basketball and Oriole baseball games. And if that doesn’t do it, I’ve got lots of potion ingredients on standby.