Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Play: Pushing, not plodding

Although our plans for the long weekend included a sport a day (college football on Saturday, over-30 soccer Sunday and the Tufts 10K Monday), it was Friday night's dinner with my friend Carole that got me thinking about the value of sports.

Carole is many things --mother, blogger, career woman-- but not a sports enthusiast. Still, over burgers and beers the conversation turned to what she considers her hyper-competitive nature.  As she bemoaned her need to be the best, my own hypo-competitive personality was thrown into stark relief.

I know that competition spawns excellence. But as it also invites failure and disappointment, I have long retreated to the safe haven of apathy. When a competitive situation arises, I smile politely and slowly back out of the room.  I loved basketball as a kid but gave it up to avoid try-outs.  I withdrew from sorority rush days before it began, unnerved by a roomful of girls scrutinizing me.  I don't fly Southwest anymore; the jostling for position necessitated by their lack of seat assignments gave me a stomachache.

This is not what I want for my girls.  Much as I adhere to the youth soccer league's no score policy, I truly wish that Big E cared enough to keep a running tally.  When I lament her politely abandoning the ball to any defender who challenges her, my husband dismisses my concern by telling me that she's smarter than all of them.  I like to think this is true.  And still, I know from experience that the world is skewed more to those who are first to the ball than those in the top reading group.

I thought maybe this weekend's events would provide me with some teachable moments for the girls:  this is how one cheers on one's alma mater, this is a penalty kick...please don't grow up to be a pushover like your mother. 

The football game, it quickly became clear, would not be the place to inspire an appreciation of competition.  Within the first few minutes, our University of Richmond quarterback threw an interception that resulted in a game-ending injury for him and a touchdown for the other team.  It didn't get better from there.  The only teachable moment came when a sloppy coed in faux-denim leggings and facepaint whiskers plopped herself onto the visitors stands and slurred "Richmond sucks..."  The take away: leggings are not pants.

The soccer game was equally fruitless.  Over the last couple of years, the girls have seen enough pushing, shoving, swearing, sweaty men to inure them to the competitive spirit out on the pitch.  They did marvel, though, at the artificial turf's ability to at once look like dirt, and yet not be dirt.  Perhaps there's a lesson there, but not the one I was looking for.

And so it landed on me to create the teachable moment with my race.  I thought I had an idea of what the takeaway would be.  On my training runs, I had reminded myself that all I really had to do was keep my breath steady and put foot in front of foot.  At the time it seemed an apt metaphor for life.  Yet when I found myself in that pack of 8,000 women all heading to the same place, I felt less slow and steady wins the race than go big or go home.

So, instead of plodding safely and breathing evenly as I'd envisioned, I jostled, struggled, surged, and gasped. I finished six minutes ahead of my target time, beat 5,645 of the 6,696 finishers, and felt elated for having actually competed.

The girls were less interested in my triumph than in the Happy Meals that my father had bought them while I was running.  But that's okay.  I learned the lesson and now I can teach it.

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