I get it when people complain about the kids’ sports culture that waters down the idea of competition by giving everyone a trophy just for “showing up.” Once Jesse’s basketball team literally finished dead last in a tournament and every kid got a medal to hang around his neck. He was appropriately horrified. But I think my perspective has softened on that one a little bit, and here’s why: my sixth grade volleyball player.
Claire is every inch the competitor Jesse is. Despite her physical limitations from cerebral palsy, she has taught herself to shoot and dribble a basketball. This winter when she found out her elementary school was offering girls’ volleyball, she decided to learn that game. She had never played before. Because of the weaknesses in her left hand, she basically plays with one hand. She taught herself to serve by tossing the ball with her right hand and then popping the ball with the same hand over the net (sometimes – when all the parts fall into place perfectly). She has a pretty great bump when she can get under it. We’re very proud.
We’re so proud, in fact, we’d be thrilled to our toes to have a last place medal to hang around her neck. Because you know what? Just showing up is enough for Claire. Just showing up takes a lot of courage and tons of energy for this girl. She has every game carefully logged into the calendar app on her Kindle. Three days a week she goes to school early for practice, putting on and taking off knee pads over her brace – not an easy thing to do when I’m helping and very difficult when she does it on her own. (You try putting on socks one-handed.)
At first we weren’t even sure if she should play because it seemed to be making her nervous, but after a few practices she was pretty sure she could do it. Her coach (who also happens to be her principal) coaches her like anyone else, not just encouraging her but also challenging her to improve. Exactly what Claire wants and needs.
And her teammates? If you know anyone who wants to complain about tweenage girls, tell them to come with me to one of these games and have their faith restored in the fragile, mysterious species that is sixth grade girls. To be honest, these girls are also pretty great volleyball players. And I’d never thought of this before, but them being really good at what they do actually makes room for a girl like Claire to compete alongside them. They can score a lot of points so if Claire misses hers it doesn’t really matter. They’re athletic, jumping in to save a volley or back up a miss. (That’s another blog post altogether, but I’d never really thought about my strengths as a way of making room for someone else. That’ll preach, right?)
A few games ago when Claire totally whiffed on her serve, she threw her hands over her head and started to cry. I watched from the sidelines debating whether to embrace the impulse to run to her or to wait and see how she pulled herself together. Within seconds her coach and two teammates were at her side. They patted her on the back as she walked to the sideline (in this game they were all subbing out after their serves). I looked over later to check on her and saw two of her teammates making her laugh. She was fine. She had what she needed.
So I get it. It’s kind of crazy the way we do sports sometimes. And we might be really screwing these kids up. But, you know, for today, I’m just really happy we got to be here. I’m thankful there was a team that had a place for everyone, and even if we had lost all our games I’d have proudly displayed that participation medal with zero misgivings.