It's just sports, right?
That's what people say. And sometimes when I find myself getting too excited or despondent about my favorite teams' wins and losses, I tell myself the same thing. My interest in sports sometimes borders on fanatical. Perhaps it's fortunate that I grew up in central Florida so there weren't many sports teams for me to become attached to. The ones I do care about, though, I really care about.
That's why when my alma mater UCF suffered a heart-breaking, last-second loss in the Men's NCAA Basketball Championships to number one seed Duke, I texted some of my family and friends that I would never get over it.
I was only half joking.
My passion for sports in adulthood grew out of my early love for playing sports. I was never the most aggressive or naturally athletic, but I was coordinated enough, knowledgeable and interested in the nuances of the games, and reasonably competitive. Basketball, baseball, tennis, and golf were a big part of my early life. So, I was excited when my five- and seven-year-old sons recently started playing soccer for the first time. For both of them, it was their first experience with team sports. I was eager to see how they would take to it.
No matter what you think of professional or collegiate sports, it's easy to assume youth sports must be inconsequential in the grander scheme. Youth sports - particularly at the very youngest ages - are loosely organized games that kids play for exercise, to make friends, and to learn about being part of a team, right? And anyone who's watched under seven soccer knows it barely resembles a sport at all.
In my children's first games, the coaches routinely picked the ball up when it rolled out of bounds and tossed it back into play for the kids to chase. And once, one of their teammates dribbled the ball past the end line and continued to dribble it at least fifty yards before finally kicking it triumphantly into a goal several fields over. Her parents yelled for her stop at first, but her dad eventually gave up and yelled, "Go ahead. Get that goal!"
These aren't isolated incidents either. Youth sports for young children can be chaotic, at best, and complete anarchy, at worst. I see this now, as an adult, but it felt so different when I was a child. I don't remember much about early elementary school. Or frankly, much else about my everyday life when I was between four and ten years old. But I have tons of memories that involve sports.
I remember the anticipation of every baseball practice and game.
I remember pulling on my knee-high baseball socks and uniform and making sure my glove was broken in just right and my hat's bill had just the right amount of curve.
I remember eagerly waking up Saturday mornings, heading outside, and shooting warm up baskets at the hoop in my driveway - dreaming about hitting a game-winner in my YMCA game later that morning.
I remember simultaneously looking forward to every game and dreading it.
I remember how my stomach used to flutter every time my turn at bat approached or when I had to step to the free throw line.
I remember fighting back tears after every strikeout or botched ground ball or loss.
Every little thing mattered to me. So much.
I played soccer too when I was six years old, and though it wasn't my favorite sport, I remember caring about scoring goals. I have a strong memory of one game where I kicked the ball toward the goal and it came to rest on the goal line. I didn't want to overdo it, so I left it there, thinking I had done enough to add a goal to my tally. By my recollection, the referee stepped in and ruled no goal because the ball didn't cross the line. That missed opportunity still haunts me.
But looking back now, with my new-found, adult understanding of what six-year-old soccer looks like, how could I possibly have cared about that ball not crossing the goal line?
In fact, it's entirely possible there wasn't a referee at all and one of the coaches just grabbed the ball and flung it back into play. They probably would have done the same if I had actually scored the goal. But still, it clearly meant something to my six-year-old self even if, by any objective standard, it shouldn't have mattered in the slightest.
When my sons started talking about their first "big game" that was coming up on the third Sunday of their soccer season, my first instinct, as a rational adult, was to discount their feelings. I thought I was being a good parent by helping alleviate their anxiety. I told them it was just for fun and the games would be just like their disorganized practices. Factually, I was right. But emotionally, I was wrong.
I should know as well as anyone that when you are five or seven or ten, youth sports games matter. So does going to school or playing a new video game or meeting a friend at the park. Every little thing matters. A lot. Because those "little" things are what make up a child's entire life.
As adults, it can be hard to remember that, and frankly, it's easy to get frustrated when children make a big deal out of apparent trivialities. However, I found that by tapping into the strongest memories I had as a child, I was better able to understand my children's feelings.
Sometimes sports aren't just sports. They are a way to connect.
For me, sports are a way to connect with who I used to be, so I can better understand who my children are right now. So I can understand their fears, worries, and anxieties.
On the playing field, but also in the classroom, school cafeteria, or doctor's office. I don't necessarily remember what it was like to worry about monsters under the bed or impressing my teacher at school or making new friends, but I do remember what it was like to be a kid playing sports.
I remember how big and important sports felt, and I can use those memories to help me better understand what my children are feeling. I hope this understanding will help me be more empathetic to my children's needs in every aspect of their lives. Because, when you are a child, not only is every game a "big game," every day can feel like the biggest day of all.