Brigitte Bowers: Sports mantra -- just don't be the worst

December 31, 2011 

Brigitte Bowers

The holiday season, which begins in August at Costco, is finally over. This means it is January, the month when basketball begins.

I subscribe to the notion that sports are good for everyone. They teach social skills, fight obesity, and keep local orthopedic surgeons employed. I particularly like youth basketball. Games last just one hour and are played indoors, where it's warm. At every game, you can find me in the stands, glancing surreptitiously through a magazine when my son isn't on the court. I don't care very much if his team loses. What I do care about, passionately and deeply, is that a loss is not due to some mistake my kid made. As long as he cannot be blamed, I don't care if the whole season is a disaster.

This probably goes back to my early notoriety as the worst kickball player at Sonoma Elementary. Every Wednesday during P.E., I stood in line as the team captains chose their players and avoided eye contact with me.

"No! You choose her," they'd whisper to each other. "I took her last time."

Kickball was only one of many games involving balls that I could never grasp. Volleyball, basketball, softball -- they all eluded me. I couldn't understand why everyone cared so much about making contact with a ball traveling at a velocity of 60 mph. Why would anyone run toward a hurtling comet when the wisest course of action was surely to avoid it at all costs?

Though I could not throw, kick or catch a ball, I found popularity once a week during spelling tests. "Pretend you forgot your glasses and ask to sit up front with us," those fickle team captains would tell me on Friday mornings before school. "Then, when Mrs. Ketchum isn't looking, show us your answers."

I began signing my kids up for every sport available as soon as they were old enough to play. Spelling is a useful skill, but it does not confer upon those who have mastered it the same glamour afforded the best thrower or runner on the playground. After all, the 2012 Scripps Spelling Bee will not feature Madonna at halftime.

Despite the 3 million injuries requiring ER visits each year, I know that the social benefits of playing sports outweigh the physical risks. Other parents get their kids involved in athletics because they worry about reports regarding childhood obesity. One, by Dr. William Klish of Baylor University, states that this generation of children can expect to live fewer years on average than their parents, an astonishing prediction contrary to everything we believe about the advancement of society. Undoubtedly, some parents are thinking of that most holy of Grails, the full-ride scholarship, when they sign their kids up for T-Ball, though according to Jenny Dial of the Houston Chronicle the odds of getting one are best if they are parents of a female golfer.

Most kids, though -- 60 percent of them in some studies -- play sports because their friends play, and they want to spend time with them. They like the social interaction.

As anyone who has ever been chosen last by a team captain can attest, athletic prowess carries some pretty nice social advantages. That comes in part from natural talent, but it is also a result of practice.

And so, as basketball season proceeds, I will sit on the bleachers and feign disappointment or joy at the losses and wins. But I will only be pretending. What I will really be thinking, the silent mantra that will be going through my head, is this: "Please, God, don't let my kid be the worst one."

A few weeks ago, as I was preparing dinner, I asked my 11-year-old about his day at school. "It was OK," he answered. "We played kickball at recess."

"Really?" I asked. "You like kickball?"

"Oh, yeah. My team always wins. I'm the best player," he said, bouncing a basketball in the house, something I have told him not to do at least 500 times. Honestly, what if he bounces the ball and loses control of it, and it goes crashing into a vase of roses, or even worse, ends up hitting me in the head?

The author teaches English at UC Merced and Merced College.

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