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Not a Jock

Published in the Gazette July 29, 2001

This past spring was not a good one for team Nesmith.  For the second time, six-year-old Robbie did not pass swimming lessons, and four-year-old Eli was completely unable to do the flexed-arm hang or even a single sit-up in his preschool gymnastics class. 

 It’s happening again this summer.  At his first t-ball game the other night, Robbie stood idly in right field, watched balls roll by him, and only barely managed to hit the ball off the tee.  The other team, fourteen young Mark-McGuires-to-be, gracefully hit, fielded, and dashed around the bases as if they’d been doing it for years. 

Don’t get me wrong: my kids loved swimming and gymnastics.  But it seems they just aren’t all that talented.  I’m beginning to wonder:  are my children following in my non-athletic footsteps?

When I was their age, I was the small, skinny, blonde girl who was always picked first for spelling bees, but last for kickball; the one who quickly got thrown out in Dodge Ball and caught in Red Rover lines. Being terrible at sports is deeply ingrained in my self-identity.  I’m OK with that most of the time, but I often feel I’ve missed out on something when I read articles that praise team sports for their ability to raise the self-confidence of children, to promote teamwork.

            Is being a non-athelete genetic?  If so, my kids are in trouble.  My six-foot-tall husband, a retired church-softball-league player with a reliable bat admits to being humiliated by that climbing rope in gym class as a boy. 

But I think my boys’ disadvantage also stems from the nurture side of the nature-nurture double-whammy.  Those six-year-old t-ballers, so graceful and self-confident, probably have parents who, when out in the yard with their kids, toss the baseball around, give them tips on making double plays or hitting line drives.

And what do my children get to imitate?  When I’m in the backyard I prune bushes, weed the garden, plant stuff.  My children play along, and are pretty good at it, but I doubt gardening will ever make it as a competetive sport.

I am no longer a wimpy little blonde kid.  Somewhere in my twenties (about the time my husband turned his back on climbing-rope memories and took up church-league softball) I began lap-swimming, an activity I still enjoy.  OK, it’s not a “sport:” I don’t compete, I’m not on a team, I don’t “win” or “lose.”  Still, I’ve discovered the pleasure of physical exertion, the rewards of fitness.  Sometimes I think that’s the best I can hope for for my two boys.

Luckily for us, that’s been the goal of most of the sports programs my kids have participated in here in Cedar Rapids.  Robbie’s swimming teachers at the Y and Rec Department have been so encouraging and enthusiastic that to this day, he still loves swimming and doesn’t even know he failed the tests.  T-ball coaches have also been encouraging.  When one child missed a throw in t-ball because his mitt was on top of his head rather than on his hand (I won’t name names here), the coach gently reminded him to pay attention and gave him a pat on the back.  In his preschool gymnastics class, Eli has learned that even little brothers can be strong; his teacher, won’t let the children say I can’t. She shows him they can. 

Fitness, exercise, activity, fun—they all seem like the best goals for athletics for small children.  Still, I sometimes hope that maybe my children might have thechance to actually be good at a sport.  I don’t want my non-athlete identity to hold them back.

Maybe it’s not.  On Mother’s Day, I was surprised to read this statement on a picture Robbie made for me at school: “My mother is special because she throws the ball to me when I play baseball.”  Do I?  I had to stop and think, and I remembered that I did, one time, pitch that big plastic ball to Robbie, who hit it with the fat plastic bat.  We played for a little while in the front yard.  He never told me I threw like a girl, and he didn’t laugh when I put my hands over my face and ducked when he hit the ball. 

Robbie doesn’t seem to know his mom is terrible at sports.  Well, if he doesn’t know that I’m a non-athlete, then perhaps he’ll never suspect that he’s supposed to be terrible at sports, too.  Maybe that’s why he still loves to play the game, and doesn’t seem to care whether he’s an excellent player.  I’m hoping that’ll be enough to give him a place on the team.