Surviving the Competition


For the last month and a half, our family has devoted most weekends to tryouts for competitive soccer. My son Gobez, 8, and my older daughter Didi, 9, have been playing comp for the past year, but this was the first time that my 7-year-old daughter Lemlem went through the grueling tryout ritual. Just to be clear, it wasn't the kids who found it grueling -- it was me.

The world of competitive children's sports we've entered confuses me: the sideline intensity of certain parents; the push to make 7-year-olds and their families surrender entire weekends to tournaments; not to mention a program that inadvertently excludes kids who don't have a stay-at-home parent or nanny to cart them to practice, or a family budget with wiggle room to cover uniforms and a coach's salary. Still, so far the benefits of playing comp have outweighed the drawbacks for us (especially if I don't count the bruised kneecap and sprained shoulder Didi sustained at practice last fall.) Didi and Gobez have thrived in the team environment and developed new friendships -- which is why the hardest part of the tryout season for me has been agonizing over the prospect of veteran teammates getting cut. Keeping up with comp soccer is such a family commitment that to let a child (and a family) go after a year of devotion seems so brutal. If one of my own kids were to be axed, we'd be cleaning up the emotional wreckage for months. My son cries when soccer practice is rained out -- I can only imagine how destroyed he'd feel if his team cut him loose.

"Tiger mother" Amy Chua, whose recent essay in The Wall Street Journal describing the so-called Chinese approach to parenting has made her the talk of parents everywhere, has said that "Chinese mothers" presume their kids possess a psychic strength that can endure aggressive parental pushing for achievement, whereas Western parents are overly concerned with protecting a child's self-esteem. I've found myself pondering this point a lot while awaiting the tryout results. I believe that parents needs to strike a balance between encouraging excellence, building self-esteem and allowing kids to experience failure and rejection sometimes so that they learn how to cope. Still, is a child of 8 or 9 developmentally able to withstand the experience of being 86'd by a former trusted coach? Should a child be asked to withstand it, even if she can?

I wasn't a very athletic kid, and neither was my husband. Our three sporty kids were adopted. I can't personally comprehend loving a sport so much that missing practice makes you cry. However, I did have a modest "career" as a child actor in community theater, where the rejections from adults were up close and personal. Directors informed me that I was too short, too fat, too clumsy and completely lacking in sex appeal -- all before my 16th birthday. At the time I found the comments annoying but not hurtful; I sort of understood that the directors critiquing me so brutally obviously had no business working with children. My self-esteem never suffered because I always got the parts I knew I was right for, and maybe because nobody was pushing me -- I wanted to put myself out there. Eventually I gave up acting, in part because the audition process so often felt needlessly petty and ridiculous.

I think some of my anxiety for my kids comes from realizing as an adult that theater people don't actually own petty and ridiculous. You can find it anywhere. I don't want my children to be hurt. I don't want them to be afraid to try. It's a Chinese finger trap for the mind.

Only time will tell how far each of my kids will choose to go with soccer, or when they will discover the limits of their athletic abilities. For now, the game is still on: we got word on Sunday that all three children had made their respective teams. Some friends will not be back. I just hope we'll all be okay.

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