Aren’t Sports Supposed to be Fun?

#1 has never been particularly athletic or overly active, tending to prefer more sedentary pastimes like reading, drawing, chess, playing video games, building LEGOs, etc. Out of concern for #1’s general health and well being, I encourage active play but have never guided #1 towards sports. Nonetheless, this year I was pleasantly surprised to see #1 had signed up for soccer at school and seemed to enjoy kicking a ball around.

Today was the team’s first match, attended by an array of parents. Predictably, fathers were in full force — why do father’s find it so hard to volunteer for in-class activities but turn out in droves for mid-afternoon sports events and why do mothers tend to shy away from sporting events? Parents shouted encouragement from the sidelines like “Get the ball!” “Kick it!” “Come on! Run!” “Shoot!” and “Score!” After the match ended, parents offered words of congratulation and support (thankfully, the “Little League Parents” stayed away).

I realize it was a match, a contest with a winning team and a losing team, but why couldn’t any of us say something as simple as “That looked like fun” or “I was happy to have a chance to watch you play.” What would it look like if we parents praised our children for having fun and for trying something new rather than framing our praise in agonistic language. Can we encourage kids to do something without falling into the language of success (and its ugly twin, failure), a language in which the worth of any activity is directly proportional to the success in that activity. For me, it was wonderful to see #1 running around smiling, laughing, and developing new skills.

As usual, driving home I asked #1 what part of the day was most fun. Without hesitating, #1 answered: “Soccer.” Not winning the game, not scoring a goal, not sitting on the bench. Just “Soccer.”