Bad at Sports

I’m not the greatest hockey parent.

The truth is, I’m not really into sports. In grade school, I was always the last one picked during PE. In fact, the team captains frequently fought over who didn’t have to have me as a teammate. Maybe it had to do with my habit of ducking, covering my head, and running away during kickball games whenever I saw the ball descending upon me like a bomb. Before you judge me, just imagine how you would feel if you had to go to the optometrist once a month to have your mangled metal spectacle frames repaired due to yet another oncoming ball. My popularity swung the opposite way during dodge ball games. Everyone on the other team was competing to get me first because I was slow and easy to take out. I tried hiding behind my teammates, but my human shields were too fast, leaving me exposed—which often led to another visit to the optometrist.

My friends tried to help me, to no avail. Examples:

  • In the fourth grade, my classmate Sharon tried to teach me how to play basketball. “You don’t dribble with your whole arm,” she corrected me. “You use your wrist, see?” I tried to copy her, but I just couldn’t get the ball to bounce back up to my hand, so I went back to dribbling with my whole arm. “And don’t keep your eyes on the ball,” Sharon added. “You’re supposed to look at where you’re going while you run and dribble.” Dutifully, I ran and dribbled, staring straight ahead. Two yards later, I looked down. The ball was not there. It was two yards behind me.

  • Sharon also tried to teach me how to serve a volleyball. I followed her directions: I tossed the ball in the air and hit it hard with the inside of my wrist, sending it flying in a large arc over my head. It landed several feet behind me. “No, you have to hit it towards the net,” Sharon corrected. I tried again—with the same result. “No, towards the net. Try it again.” This time, I turned my body 180 degrees, so my back was facing the net, before serving. The ball did not clear the net, but at least it travelled in the right direction. I couldn't understand why Sharon was shaking her head. After all, I had improved, hadn't I?

  • My friend Francine tried to teach me tennis. “You toss the ball in the air and hit it over the net like this, see?” Then I tried it: I tossed the ball in the air, swung my racket with all my might . . . and missed the ball. Francine shook her head. “It’s painful teaching you,” she remarked. I opened my mouth to argue . . . and then closed it.

***

Not only was I a lousy athlete, I was also a lousy sports fan. I tried really hard to fit in. When I was a little kid and my dad took my older sister and me to Giants games at Candlestick Park, I could never figure out what was going on. It didn’t help that I was severely near-sighted and that the darn ball was so small and so fast. While everyone else was cheering, I was still trying to figure out where the ball had gone. To avoid looking like a total moron, I learned to cheer when those around me cheered. I even did this at home during Super Bowls, as my dad and sister yelled and screamed. (Halfway through the game, I would ask my dad which inning we were in.) I carried this skill with me to college when I joined the rally committee, not because I really cared about football, but because I wanted to hang out with the nice friends I had met at freshman orientation. I dutifully laid out the cardboard signs on the seats before every game and performed all the card-flipping routines. In spite of my dedication, I was never able to generate sincere enthusiasm for the sport, nor was I able to get depressed and drunk like everyone else whenever the Bruins lost.

By sophomore year, I finally decided to stop pretending. I would never be an athlete or sports fan, and that was okay. At least I was good at school. I turned my back on the world of sports, never to return.

Years later, as a fledgling parent, I looked upon the parents of school-age children, who sacrificed their weekends for their kids’ soccer and baseball games, with a sense of confusion and dread. Why would anyone want to do that? Would I have to do that too? Was there any way I could get out of it?

I would certainly try. I was done with pretending. I wasn’t going to stop being myself just because I became a parent. There must be other ways to bond with my child besides sports. I would impart to him my love of literature and the arts. We would read books and watch movies together. I would breed, not an athlete, but a sensitive intellectual. And as for sports, well, we could hike together. That was the one physical activity that I enjoyed and at which I had not failed.

***

Things did not go as planned.

For one thing, Kent was not interested in hiking. The first time I took him to South Coast Botanic Garden without his stroller, he refused to enter the garden. We never got past the parking lot. I drove him home.

Reading didn’t go much better. Every time I read to him, he interrupted me during each sentence, asking several questions and then going off on long tangents that were distally related to what we were reading. When he wasn’t interrupting, he was using his mattress as a trampoline. A half-hour would pass, twenty-five minutes of which were spent on interruptions, bouncing, and redirecting. When reading time was over, he would throw hour-long tantrums because we had only read one page.

I tried to mold him in my image, but Kent clearly had a mind of his own.

Then, at the age of five, he expressed to me that he wanted to play hockey.

My mind flashed back to those baseball games at Candlestick Park, during which I searched in vain for that elusive, fast-flying ball. Not only is a puck fast, it is smaller than a baseball. I would have no hope of ever tracking that puck. The only way I would ever know that my son scored a goal was by seeing others cheer.

I had another concern about hockey. The only exposure I ever had to the sport was the thirty-second clips on the news, which usually depicted grown men getting into fights. In fact, I couldn’t remember a single clip that didn’t involve a fight. These men seemed so uncivilized. I didn’t want my child behaving like that. I was particularly concerned because Kent had severe behavior problems at home, the most serious being aggression. That was why I never enrolled him in martial arts: whereas other parents saw it as a means to instill discipline, I saw it as a means for him to beat me up with even greater lethal skill. I imagined what Kent might be like after a few seasons of hockey. Not only would the sport provide him with ample opportunities to fight—making him even more adept at beating me up—but it would also provide him a stick with which to do it. I feared that this sport would shorten both of our life spans, increasing our dental expenses in the process.

That is why I willfully ignored all of Kent’s hints that he wanted to play. Whenever he saw a Kings banner, he pointed at it and cried out, “Mama! Kings! Kings!” even though no one in the family had ever watched a game or mentioned the Kings in conversation. At the rink, whenever he saw a puck, he cried out, “Puck! Puck! Mama, that’s a puck!” Whenever he saw a male skater wearing hockey skates, he would point and say, “Mama, hockey skates!” Then he would follow that skater around the rink. I just smiled and kept sending him to his figure skating classes. Then Kent flunked out of his figure skating class.r

For this, I blame Coach Mike. Mike ran the Learn to Skate program at Ice Chalet. He also taught hockey skating to beginners and tots. The first time we met Mike, he turned a bucket upside down on the ice and gave Kent a ride. That was the moment Kent fell in love with Coach Mike—and hockey. Whenever we drove to Ice Chalet, Kent talked incessantly about Coach Mike. Once we got to the rink, Kent left me in the dust to seek out Coach Mike. Mike seemed to have a greater influence on Kent than I had, perhaps because he was nicer, better looking, and more fun. Whatever the reason, it was annoying.

Nonetheless, Coach Mike disproved my belief that hockey was a sport that encouraged violence. Not only was he very kind to and playful with children, he was also remarkably non-violent. In fact, not once had I seen him get into a fight at the rink. I decided to make a concession: I would allow Kent to learn hockey—as long as he did it with Coach Mike.

Eight weeks later, Kent passed Coach Mike’s class. The experience turned out to be not so bad. On the contrary, I enjoyed watching Kent learn and have fun. A few months later, I asked Mike, “Kent passed the Copper, Bronze, and Silver classes. Where is the Gold class on this brochure?” That’s when I learned that there was no Gold class; the next step was joining a team. My feelings of inadequacy relapsed full force.

***

To give you an idea of the depth of my ignorance about hockey, I will provide the following examples:

  • The first time I saw a jockstrap, I thought it was an elbow pad. I couldn’t figure out why there was only one.

  • When a dad told me that elite little kids joined teams that travelled all over North America to play, I thought he was teasing me. I told him I wasn’t that gullible.

  • When another dad told me during a game that the kids were forming lines, I asked him, “Lines of what?”

  • I thought icing meant frosting a cake.

You get the idea.

I tried to fake it. Take Kent’s helmet, for example. It took me three weeks to figure out how to snap those elusive straps. A bike helmet has only two straps. You have no choice but to connect those two straps under the chin. The hockey helmet has three straps, each going in a different direction.

I was confused over which strap to snap where. The sad thing was, someone would show me, and next time, I was still confused. To hide my learning disability, I asked a different coach for help each time. Fortunately, Ice Chalet had many coaches, and I was finally able to figure it out before I ran out of coaches.

I also had to fake it with the dads. One dad said to me, “Is that your son? He plays good defense.” I smiled and nodded, trying to look very manly. The truth was, I had no idea what good defense looked like.

I received other confusing compliments from various dads:

“Your kid has good instincts.”

Good instincts? How can you tell when a kid has that?

“Your son has good skating skills. Not like my son.”

Really? What was Kent doing that was different than that other kid?

“Your son holds his stick the right away. I keep telling my son to do it that way, and he keeps forgetting.”

What was the right way? What was the wrong way?

These dads were seeing all these special things that I couldn’t see. I felt like I was stuck in a movie theater, watching a foreign movie with no subtitles. Listening to the dads converse about their kids’ practice was like overhearing coworkers talk about that awesome film I hadn’t seen, only in this case, I had seen it—with my eyes but not my brain. The worst part was feeling like a bad mom. Kent had all these special skills that I couldn’t praise because I couldn’t perceive them.

Because of my hockey-blindness, I could offer no guidance. During warm-ups and games, some dads played the role of surrogate coach, banging their fists on the glass and barking instructions (“Pass! Pass!” “Water! Water!” "Look for someone!"). In contrast, I played the role of cheerleader and made uninformative comments such as, “Good job! Good luck! Have fun!” I sometimes imagined what kinds of thoughts God would hear if He were hovering over the rink:

Dad #1: “I wish my kid would remember what I told him to do!”

Dad #2: “Those coaches should get out there and do more coaching!”

Dad #3: “Why does the other team have five kids and my kid’s team only has four kids? That’s not fair!”

Me: “My kid is so short and stubby and cute. In his black gear, he looks like an emperor penguin. By the way, which of the two goals is his? Which quarter are we in?”

***

The turning point for me came during a game, when a mom standing next to me confessed, “You know, sometimes I space out when I’m watching the game.”

“Yeah. Me too,” I admitted.

“Really?” she said. “Oh good. That makes me feel better. I thought I was the only one.”

“Nope,” I replied. “I only wish it didn’t happen when my son was scoring a goal.”

Like I said, I’m not the best hockey parent. But at least I now know that I’m not the only one. In spite of my athletic deficits, which are profound, I’m making hockey a family priority because it’s important to Kent. Therefore, though I’m not the best, maybe I’m still good enough.

***

How did someone like me, who never liked sports, become so enthused about my son’s involvement in hockey? Well, hockey has taught me some unexpected and invaluable life lessons:

Lesson #1: Everyone needs to be good at something.

Though I was bad at sports, I was good at school, especially in high school and college. I was so good at school that my high school counselor waived me out of PE, a course required for graduation, so I could take more college prep courses. My academic excellence earned me special treatment so I could finally dodge the scythe of sports-humiliation. I gained respect from my teachers, peers, family, bosses, and coworkers through my school smarts and relentless work ethic. Because of my degree in English and Psychology, my immigrant relatives still turn to me when they have questions related to psychology, or if they need help reading a document or composing a letter, even though I graduated eons ago and now live in obscurity as a humble stay-at-home mother.

As I watched Kent grow in hockey, I realized that, though Kent and I appeared to be opposites, we were actually quite similar underneath the surface. Whereas I was bad at sports but good at school, Kent has been not-so-awesome at school but good at sports (when he is able to focus). We hope that his school performance will improve over time with the help of behavior therapy, educational therapy, social skills therapy, supplements, medication, special accommodations, and good old-fashioned development (i.e. growing up). But for now, school is tough for Kent, very tough. Until we received the diagnoses from the psychiatrist and the report from the neuropsychologist, I failed to understand the frustration and shame Kent experienced all throughout kindergarten. Having attention deficits and social skills deficits is hard enough in an English-only program; it can be torture in a dual immersion program, in which 90% of instruction is conducted in a foreign language. Kent had just enough social skills to figure out that he was not doing as well as the other kids. “I’m no good at Spanish because I’m not Mexican like the other kids,” Kent frequently lamented

How did he deal with feeling not good enough? He began shouting and barking orders at his classmates, to the point where they sometimes shunned him. “Why are you shouting at your friends?” I asked him. “Because I need to make them see that I’m working harder than everyone else,” he replied. At the time, I thought he was being arrogant. “Everybody works hard,” I retorted, rolling my eyes. Months later, I realized that Kent was telling the truth: he was working harder, but he had nothing to show for it.

The other way Kent coped was by bragging about hockey. “I’m a better skater than you,” he often said to his classmates. “I bet I’m better at hockey than you are.” At the time, I thought he was being an immodest jerk, and I let him know it. I was especially embarrassed because his remark seemed classist—hockey is expensive, and Kent attends a Title I school. Now I realize that Kent was trying to garner respect from his peers. He knew that he was the only kid in his class that played hockey, so there could be no dispute that he was the best hockey player in the class. After months of scraping the bottom of the class curve, he could finally boast about being the best at something.

Kent is not the best player on his team, but he is just good enough to feel proud of himself and to earn some ice cred. Parents frequently compliment him on his lightning-fast skating and his aggressiveness, which are all the more impressive because of his small size. After the first day of hockey camp, a thirteen-year-old told me, “I am so jealous. That kid can skate circles around me!” Not bad for a six-year-old who was the third smallest kindergartener in his school. Though Kent has trouble with his classmates at school, he makes friends easily at the rink and is happy and well liked there. At the rink, Kent is The Fast Skater, not The Problem Child. He’s not weird; he’s quirky, interesting, and unique. The funny thing is, he acts out less at the rink than he does in other environments, like school and his summer program.

Lesson #2: Good role models are important.

Kent looks up to his coaches so much that he talks about them a lot, even when he is not at the rink. He was so nervous about inviting a coach to have dinner with us after practice that he acted like a teenage boy asking a hot girl for a date. He loves the new laces I bought for his skates because they look like the laces his coaches wear. He even talks about their hairstyles and bemoans that he can’t make his hair look like their hair because his hair is straight and flat.

Of course, I’m not insinuating that his coaches are great role models because they have stylish laces and sexy hair. They are great role models because they are good people. They are honest and hard working. They are patient and kind. They validate Kent. They always listen and show interest in whatever he wants to share. They make him feel important. And they encourage but never pressure him. At the same time, they set boundaries when they need to—very important for Kent. Hey, if I could be like them, I’d be a really great parent! I also wouldn’t mind having sexy hair . . .

Lesson #3: Sometimes, it’s better not to make a big deal out of it.

Initially, I was scared to tell people about Kent’s diagnoses. Even worse, I couldn’t articulate why I was afraid. When I finally did come out with it, many intelligent, caring, and well-intentioned people in my social circle were understandably skeptical of, concerned about, and even threatened by the information. As a result, on top of coping with the news, I had to cope with others’ reactions to the news. (More on this in a future post.) One of the first people I told was Kent’s private coach because we had good rapport, but I delayed telling the other coaches because I wanted them to continue seeing Kent as special (i.e. smart, talented, and fun) and not as “special” (i.e. special ed). After I signed Kent up for his summer hockey camps, I knew I would have to tell the other coaches because they would be spending much more time with him, widening the window of opportunity for Kent’s less-attractive behaviors to surface.

To my surprise, the coaches handled the news in a way that was surprisingly supportive and anxiety-reducing. Their reaction went like this: They listened. Then they shrugged their shoulders and said, “Well, he doesn’t cause a problem here, so we’ll just keep doing what we’re doing.” I’m not saying that every institution should have this reaction. I would be concerned if people at Kent’s school said that. Nonetheless, I appreciated the coaches’ matter-of-fact acceptance of my news. No one ranted that we live in a society that over-diagnoses and over-medicates children. No one argued that the experts didn’t really know Kent and were just trying to take our money. No one insisted that Kent looked just like the other kids and hence must be normal. No one felt sorry for me. They just listened, they believed me, and they moved on. One coach was surprisingly knowledgeable and compassionate because he was a father and had worked with special needs kids (thank you, Coach Mike). Everyone’s no-drama response created a safe space for Kent and me after Kent's diagnoses. The rink was the only place besides my home where I didn’t have to defend my decisions while cushioning others’ feelings and beliefs; I could just relax and enjoy the hockey.

Lesson #4: Check your ego at the door.

It was stressful and discouraging to get weekly and sometimes daily reports from school of my son’s bad behaviors. It is frustrating to know that my son is freakishly gifted but that his grades and IQ tests do not reflect his intelligence. And, I’m ashamed to admit this, but I feel frustrated that he has athletic talents that I never had, yet he often fails to perform to his potential due to faulty working memory and inconsistent attention control.

I had to confront my frustration recently when Kent was given an opportunity to move up from the Initiation team to the Mites team. After Kent played his game, the head coach offered him a chance to stay and play the next game with the Mites. Kent first said yes, then later changed his mind. “I’m too tired. I only want to play one game per day,” he said.

Some kids at the rink practiced and played every chance they got. The extra ice time allowed them to improve and advance. I couldn’t fathom Kent not wanting that same opportunity. Also, I didn’t buy that he was tired. The kid was hyperactive. All day long, he couldn’t stop running, climbing, bouncing, and thrashing, sometimes causing accidents and injuries to himself and others. I concluded that Kent was being stubborn and lazy. I tried to persuade him to try the second game.

“Look, I told you, I’m tired,” Kent retorted. “Don’t you understand?” His tone was rude, which earned him a yellow point. (If you want to know what a yellow point is, read my first post, Foul Language.) Nonetheless, he was right. I wasn’t listening to him. It occurred to me that maybe he was too tired, not physically but mentally. He consistently spaced out during the third period because he couldn’t maintain his attention. It didn’t make sense to pressure him into more ice time because he was already spent; he would not be able to use that time to learn. The extra ice time would become punishment rather than fun. Moreover, if he wasn’t interested, why should I push him? Hockey had to be about him, not me. Besides, we fought everyday over school and homework. Do we really need to fight about sports?

I swallowed my ambition and accepted Kent’s decision not to play the second game. That night, I apologized for pushing him too hard. If you’re Asian, you’ll appreciate what a big deal that was.

You see, hockey offers opportunities to develop self-discipline, not only for the child, but also for the parent!

***

I don’t really know where this hockey path will lead. I don’t know how long Kent will stick with the sport, nor do I know how far he will advance. Part of the journey for me is learning how to cope with not knowing (more about this in my next post, That Horrible Smell). I can only hope that, after hockey, therapy, and schooling, Kent will be a happy, healthy, and functional adult and my husband and I will still have some money left for retirement. These alone are ambitious hopes. For now, all I know is that, though I continue to be an ignoramus about sports, hockey is teaching me a lot about my son and myself. And for that, I am deeply grateful.

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