AP, you broke our hearts

photo (1)It’s been a bad week for the NFL. Injuries, scandals and even arrests are nothing new for the multi-billion dollar sports/entertainment business, but this particular week seemed to tip the scales and, in our home, broke one little boy’s heart.
The news of Adrian Peterson’s arrest on charges of child abuse rocked our youngest son hard. His fascination with “AP” has become almost a private joke among family and friends. Certainly he’s withstood his fair share of jeers and comments about wearing #28’s jersey, or the giant AP Fathead above his bed. He even has an AP pillow.

Matt & APWe had no choice but to tell him the facts, at least as much as we know. The news is crawling across every station. We wanted him to hear from us and be able to ask questions. My husband held him close as our little boy absorbed the story of a man he admired beating a child with a tree branch. It’s truly terrible. Later our son went up to his bed and just stared at Peterson’s image, tears in his eyes.

I know there are people out there thinking “Shame on you” for letting a child idolize a sports star. (I know this because I philosophically agree.) It’s just not that simple. Of course we try to keep it in perspective. We’re always talking about the irony that guys playing with balls are making millions of dollars while teachers and police and paramedics struggle to earn a fair wage. We don’t call athletes heroes. We talk honestly about cheaters and drug users and the culture of sports entertainment.

But have you ever tried to dissuade a child from his passion? I don’t care if it’s dinosaurs or animals or spaceships or football, when a boy has an obsession, it’s tamper-proof. Years ago, our son watched AP run, and smile, and do his dance, and he decided on his favorite athlete. He has since waited through injury and withstood the haters to cheer on AP week after week.Matty vikings

Now he’s crushed. And he doesn’t want to talk about it. He’s in his own head and his own heart grappling with disappointment.
I’ll leave it to others to write about the culture of violence surrounding football, the illusion of impenetrability that accompanies celebrity, and the potentially deeper/darker issues plaguing Adrian Peterson. The best I can do is go and offer open, loving arms to my hurting baby boy.

Teaching Failure

“You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.” ―  Maya Angelou

I never set out to teach my sons to be failures. Yes, it’s a part of life and we learn from our failures, but come on…don’t we all hope that the successes will outweigh the failures? I do. And, luckily for me, my sons’ failures have been manageably few and far between.

But not this year. Not in youth sports. In 2014, throughout Basketball and Baseball seasons, we’ve been cheering on the underdogs, hearing a lot of “good try” from the stands, and returning home with dejected players in the back seat.

And I am here to tell you, it sucks.

My boys want to win as much as anyone else, work really hard at whatever sport they’re currently playing and show up ready to give 100%. These are all fine qualities in young men, but when they lead to losing results it presents a problem. Why is the hard work not paying off? If you study, practice, try…you should achieve success, right?

I don’t have the answers.

Let me be clear. I’m not talking about a loss here and there. My oldest son’s basketball team played the entire season without a single victory. My youngest’s travel baseball team managed only two wins this summer.

Game after game, day after day, late night after late night, I was left with nothing but platitudes about effort to offer my children. I got tired and repeating them and they sure got tired of hearing them. Yes, they were trying hard and their individual skills were improving, but they were frustrated and frankly, embarrassed.

Even in “recreational” sports, kids keep score. They no who the losers are. Wining matters to kids, mine included. We’re well past the “everybody’s a winner” just for playing leagues.

Still, ever the optimist, I tried a million different ways to boost morale. Pep talks, realistic expectations, even jokes, all stop working after a while. As Pat pointed out to me, he got sick of hearing that he had a good game, “Mom, what does it matter if we can’t ever win?”

That was a heartbreaking moment, but not nearly as bad as the few times they took personal responsibility for tough losses, blaming themselves for a shot missed or base runner walked-in. (This is not the kind of “personal responsibility” character education I planned.) No words of reason or explanations of team responsibility could assuage their guilt when they truly believed the team could have won “if only.”

I was thrown back to my own childhood, always one of the last ones picked for team sports, struggling with the Presidential Fitness Test, choosing to cheer from the sidelines instead of participating so that I wouldn’t fail in front of my peers. My sons were living my junior high nightmares. I was treading very close to that “living out our dreams through our children” line I vowed never to cross.

I learned to back off a bit. They know I have their backs. I’m there to cheer them on. I know I need to give them more personal space to work through their frustration as they learn to keep it in check.

By the time each season was over, we felt battered and bruised as a family. But they were not broken. It’s not what I would have wished for, but I have witnessed how my sons come out from the other side of failure. I’ve seen them stand by their teammates, never-say-quit and continue to shake hands with their opponents no matter the outcome. Maybe they’re not completely gracious in defeat, but I’m OK with that.  I’m ready to help them pick themselves up and rise again.

Team sports are finally (mercifully) over and we have a couple of months off before the cycle starts all over again with soccer and fall baseball. Meanwhile, we’re still Cubs fans, so lessons in failure continue to abound.

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Monday Quote: Resilience

The heart is a very, very resilient little muscle. It really is.”
Woody Allen, Hannah and Her Sisters

I’m a worrier. I’ve covered this ground on my blog before, but I’m specifically talking about the way I worry over my sons. I worry about their skin and bones. I worry about the way the “world” forces its way into their minds. But, mostly, I worry about their hearts. I want to prevent that little muscle from breaking more than anything.

When my boys were babies and toddlers, I was repeatedly advised to not worry so much.

“You’d be surprised at how babies bounce.” (Yes, someone said that to me.)

“They don’t break easily.”

“Little boys are tough.”

“He’ll get over it faster than you will.”

I heard all of this and more, but still, I worry about their precious little hearts. Last week I tried to prepare by 10 year-old’s psyche for the sure-to-be-disappointing baseball tournament – our first ever. I had been warned by other parents that our team couldn’t really compete with the other travel teams in the league. Our city had, in fact, lost by a score of 32-3 last year.

But how do you tell a little boy, chosen for this All Star team for the very first time that he wouldn’t emerge victorious? Wouldn’t it be worse to crush his hope than to deal with disappointment? Every night for three weeks, we dropped him off for two hours of practice in the hot sun. He never complained about the heat, or the commitment. He donned all the catching equipment every day and soaked up his coaches’ praise like a sponge. In fact, he blossomed.

We made the 45-minute trip to the tournament site with a supremely confident player. It only took a ½ inning for all that bravado to disintegrate, as his team struggled to keep up. Plays that had come easily during the regular season now appeared impossible. I watched with my heart in my throat as my sweet boy tried to keep tears at bay returning to his dugout. The strong hitting he had shown all summer evaporated in the face of new pitchers.

Although his team rallied in the second inning, they lost via the “mercy” rule, down by 10 runs in the fourth. (By the way – I’m not sure the word “mercy” is any less cruel than “slaughter rule” when it comes to 10 year-old boys.)

As I feared, he took responsibility for the loss upon his own slim shoulders, blaming himself for every missed out and missed swing. His coach called it…telling him that he had the biggest heart of any player. That big heart was broken and there was nothing I could do but reinforce his coach’s message that they win and lose as a team, always.

Night two was more of the same. I secretly hoped that his coach would pull him out and let someone else catch just to relieve that sense of responsibility. But, he played every inning, just as he had practiced. Less than 2 hours later, the umpire invoked the “mercy” rule. His team was finished. Double elimination. Double heartbreak.

Shoulders sagging, tears brimming, he made his way to the car. I tried to stay positive. My husband and I told him we were proud of his play, his attitude, his poise. He stared out the window for about the half the ride and then, visibly, shed his disappointment.

I saw his posture change, his face brighten. “Well, at least I don’t have to go to practice every night anymore. And I get to keep my jersey and my hat. Isn’t that cool Mom?”

Worry not, Mom. Resilience comes naturally to little hearts.

Secret Relief

I don’t divide my year by traditional seasons. Who needs Winter – Spring – Summer – Fall when I can use Basketball – Track – Baseball – Soccer?  Just like weather in the Midwest, my seasons overlap wildly. When my sons ask what to wear on any given day, I’m not thinking about the temperature outside; my mind is asking, “What time is the game?” “Will we be able to come home and change before practice?” “Is his game jersey clean?”

When I was the mother of two, I smugly placed my sons (only 16 months apart) on all the same sports teams. One practice schedule, one game schedule. I rolled my eyes at parents shuffling from piano to baseball to Chinese for toddlers. I vowed I would never be one of “those” families. My sons would focus on one extra-curricular activity at a time. In the recesses of my mind I was thinking, “One thing at a time, at my convenience.” I was a fool.

CT, ready to play.

Even when Matt was born ready to play, my husband and I managed multiple schedules without much trouble. We are all sports fanatics. Not playing baseball was not even an option for them, so luckily they enjoyed it and did well. We added basketball, and eventually came track with the school and a passion for soccer, seemingly born into Matthew. Pat & Connor still played on the same teams and we worked it out so we just moved our family from diamond to field to pitch to court.

Boys huddled to determine their next play.

But in the past year, something happened. The oldest two can no longer play on the same teams. And, apparently, my sons are not content to just let me schedule their lives. They want to choose their own activities. (Gasp!) They don’t have identical talents. (What?) They want to be on teams with their friends. (Why?) They dare to be well-rounded individuals pursuing multiple interests, socializing, and doing their homework. What kind of monsters have I raised?So now my husband and I are like proverbial ships passing in the night as we divide up dinner times, chauffeur duty and #1 Fan status. It’s working out. I wouldn’t choose otherwise.

But last night, when my oldest son’s basketball team lost in the first round of the post-season tournament, I was relieved. I cheered along with the rest of the parents, but deep in my heart I did not want them to win. It’s a terrible mom admission to make, but I wanted basketball season to end. I was dreaming of the endless hours I would have during the one single game-free week until baseball’s Meet-Your-Coach night.

When I admitted this secret shame to a friend, she agreed that it pretty much makes me a bad mom, but also “hilariously awesome.” I’m good with that.

Congratulations to the Cougars, for a great season that ended just in time.