(Hopefully) good sports essays and observations for good sports by a guy who tries (and can sometimes fail) to be a good sport.


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Friday, June 13, 2008

The Kid in the Park

My second-grader tried out for an all-star team about a month ago and didn't make it. He didn't go into the tryouts expecting to make it, and his baseball season was one of downs and then ups. He got off to a slow start, but then after some coaching by his coaches and me on a few subtle hitting points (and thanks to some insight from loyal reader TIGOBLUE, among others), he started to hit line drives. Thanks to to endless backyard sessions, he strengthened his arm and became adroit at catching the ball. Most importantly, he loves the game, has fun, and has improved.

While his season wouldn't have predicted his making the team, his performance at the tryout actually had to give the coaches running the tryout something to think about. He was one of the first to hit, and hit a bunch of hard liners into the outfield as part of his tryout (better than a large majority of the kids on that day). He showed okay at the other skills -- including fielding grounders, throwing, baserunning and catching fly balls. The latter was a particularly tough undertaking -- the kids were facing a bright sun with no clouds, so picking up the ball wasn't all that easy. He was satisfied with his tryout, and a few dads of other kids complimented him on his effort.

After the tryout, he asked me how I thought he did, and I told him that I thought he gave the coaches who were doing the evaluations something to think about. Truth be told, I didn't want to get his hopes up or down, as I honestly didn't know the criteria, how many coaches' kids would (deservedly, precisely because their dads were volunteering) make the team, how many kids were spotted during the season because of their good play, and all the other nuances that would go into the selection process. Plus, something like 35 kids were trying out for about 14 spots.

When the list was posted, my son's name wasn't on it. He wasn't bummed, he knew the odds weren't great, and he was satisfied that he gave it his all and made a good accounting. He pleased himself with his effort and the results, and he knew that he had something on which to build. Still, I'm sure he was disappointed -- he had given it his all, showed well and didn't make it. That's the nature of the thinking of a second-grader, and my wife and I did our best to shore up his outlook. It didn't take long -- he knows that we always need to keep on trying, to keep on having at it.

And that got me to thinking about the kid in the park.

I grew up in a town with high achievers -- driven parents, professional and professorial parents, high expectations, uneven wealth, uneven opportunities. Restrospectively, some of those with all the advantages didn't take advantage of them, while those with fewer made the most of them. And, again, that got me to thinking of the kid in the park.

There was a park in our town where we played, it had ball fields and a playground, some nice tennis courts and one of those walls where people could hit tennis balls to hone their forehands andd backhands. The high school's tennis team at the time had been undefeated for about 10 years in a row. Competition was fierce, because there was enough affluence that kids could play in the winter and foul weather at tennis clubs and country clubs. In contrast, the basketball team didn't do as well. To paraphrase John McPhee from his book on Bill Bradley, "A Sense of Where You Are," the town was too handicapped by its relative wealth to field enough hungry kids to band together to have top-notch hoops teams.

The kid in the park didn't come from the wealthiest family in town. His family was comfortable enough. He wasn't the best athlete, or the most gifted tennis player, or the best student. Put differently, the accolades didn't readily come his way. He wasn't, for example, as bright as the kids who would go to MIT or as gifted an athlete as the running back who got admitted to Harvard or the baseball player who got drafted by the Yankees. He was a nice kid, a good student, and there were many of those in our town.

What distinguished him, though, was that he wanted more. He wanted to be a better tennis player, and he wanted a college education, something that wasn't as accessible to everyone then. Inflation was very high, the economy was iffy, and not as many people went to college then as they do today. So every day during summer vacation, he was in the park, hitting balls against the wall. Constantly. Backhands, forehands, serves, dinks, overheads, drops, whatever he could accomplish on that wall. In the morning, in the afternoon, in high heat and humidity.

Coaches will tell you that what distinguishes the outstanding from everyone else is what they do in the off-season to improve, and this kid worked his butt off. Day after day. Year after year.

That hard worked helped the kid surpass some of the more advantaged kids on the high school tennis team. He had the endurance and grit to win most of his matches, and those results along with strong academics earned him a college scholarship. After several years in the workforce, he earned an MBA from Harvard, started his own business, sold it for millions, and is now off doing other things. I haven't seen or spoken with him since high school, he was a year ahead of me, and we weren't buddies. But I always respected him immensely, and I was heartened to see how successful he's been, given how determined and hard-working he always was.

I'm convinced that the seeds of this man's success were sown through the tireless work he did in the park as a teenager, work done mostly alone with no guarantee that it would lead anywhere (I tell my kids that there is a guarantee that if you don't put in the hard work, you won't get to where you want to go because you won't improve). He didn't start out the star, the kid picked first for all the teams, the kid the teachers identified as among the most talented.

But the standardized tests don't measure determination, the ability to rebound, and the overall grit one needs to accomplish what he wants to in life. Some of those with more athletic and academic gifts didn't put in the effort this kid did -- perhaps they didn't think that they had to or needed to, or perhaps they were told so much how good they were that they didn't think they needed to work as hard. Whatever the case, the kid in the park had his goals and dreams and worked toward them, every day.

I have shared this story with my children to underscore the message that talent alone isn't enough, that talent without effort is a sin and that determination and hard work will help you achieve your dreams.

So when you're measuring your kids against where you think they should be or against other kids, remember that each kid is different, each kid develops at a different pace, and life is a marathon, not a sprint. The key for us as parents is to keep teaching, keep guiding, keep encouraging, and never stopping our determination to find those skills and interests that light up our kids -- and then to turn on that "kid in the park" in each of them.

Because it's not always the cards your dealt or how you start the journey, it's how you play them, how you handle the journey, and, yes, how hard you work through the finish. My kids know this as much as they can at their age, and both look forward eagerly to their next seasons and the challenges and opportunities that await them.

The requests, "dad can you pitch to me?", "dad, can we have a catch?", "dad can you catch me?" come repeatedly, and the looks on their faces tell it all -- hope endures over the temporary setbacks that sports give us and teach us to overcome.

And the lessons of the kid in the park endure for all of us and can help us in our everyday lives.

Have at it.

Do your best.

Train and practice constantly, and give yourself time to see the results.

If you do all those things, you'll improve and develop good habits for life.

Just like the kid in the park.


Anonymous Charlie said...

Count your blessings that your kid asks. We have two daughters, 9 and 7, and as hard as their mom and I have tried to instill in them an interest in sports, neither of them has yet been even a little enthusiastic. The older one is likely going to be a scholar, for which we're grateful, but I'd love it if she would just smile at the prospect of kicking a soccer ball, playing catch, or jogging once around a track.

11:02 PM  
Blogger SportsProf said...

Thanks, Charlie!

I hear what you're saying, but you shouldn't be dismayed, as I think that society puts way too much emphasis on sports, and the travel sports cultists can ruin the fun quickly. That said, I harken to a comment that a Princeton all-American said about the value of his football playing experience -- there are people trying to do their best against you, and you're also trying to do your best, and you learn how to compete, how to pick yourself up and how to thrive. No one ever tried to steal this guys pencils at an exam or disrupt his concentration during it. Athletic competition -- properly conceived -- can teach lessons that the classroom cannnot.

But we need more and more scholars, people driven to technical excellence. America isn't doing a great job with education, so you should be grateful that your kids like books and studying.

10:01 PM  

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