Wednesday, October 26, 2016

I Say, Good Sport

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: I'm writing this sitting at an archery range. Not inside, where the shooting is going on, but in the echoing outer room, where the overflow parents sit on plastic chairs and talk about equipment and tournaments. Why, you may ask, am I here? For one reason, dear reader: I've been deeply unlucky in my children's choice of sports.

Now on one hand, I recognize my privilege. I'm not a hockey mom, who has to get up at 3:30 because the middle school players' ice time is at 4am. I'm not a swim mom, paying $$$ toward the team – I could never understand why swimming was so expensive! Surely twenty centimeters of Lycra can't cost that much. I've never had to put in hours and hours of fund-raising time like the football moms, although to be fair, I've brought in quite a few casseroles and plates of brownies and bought more than my share of candles and wrapping paper for the drama club. (Let's not even talk about the mattress sale. Dear God.)

But here's the thing: those moms at least get to watch spectator sports. Hockey and football games are exciting! I've paid good money to watch them. Basketball is fast-paced and exciting. Swimming is explosive and you get to sit in a warm, moist environment. 

My two older kids did cross country. If there's a more mind-numbing sport to watch, I can't think of it. At least with curling, you can see all the players. With cross country, you stand at the edge of a field, bundled against the growing autumnal cold, and cheer wildly as your student-athlete races off with a pack of teammates and vanish into the woods. Then you wait. And wait. And wait. Finally, after a half hour or so, the first runners come back out of the woods, and the more determined parents start cheering again. (There are always a few so resolutely peppy and full of spirit you secretly want to key their Volvo station wagons in the parking lot.) 

They also did indoor track, and track and field, two sports that involve waiting around for interminable periods of time between races and other events. During the winter indoor track season, you try not to die of heatstroke in the arena, and in track and field you need binoculars to spot your kid because the events are spread out over an area the size of the Pentagon. Also? You never, ever know how your kid did with running sports. I would ask, “What was your time?” only to hear, “I dunno. Coach will tell me Monday.” The scoring is so arcane the officials don't know who “won” a track and field meet until two days after the event takes place. I believe they use slide rules to calculate the total points.

(The Sailor followed up cross country with rowing in college, which has a similar long, long stretch when parents are left staring at the river with no boats in sight. The bright spot is that no one judges you for drinking cherry whiskey at a regatta.) 

In the past two years, Youngest has taken up archery, a sport that combines the visual thrill of cross country with the clear, simple scoring of track and field and as an added bonus, requires upgrading some piece of equipment every three months. It's true that archery sounds exciting – Robin Hood! Merida! The wind in your hair as you fire off shot after shot! 

Needless to say, it's a little more constrained in real life. The instructor sets up the targets, then pipes a little whistle to tell the archers to take their position. Once the field is clear, the instructor pipes again. Everyone shoots three arrows. Then they all wait until the last person has shot, and when the instructor deems the field clear she pipes again and they all retrieve their arrows. This ritual, as inflexible as a Japanese tea ceremony, is of course designed to make sure no one gets an accidental arrow in the butt. However, for the patiently waiting parent...zzzzzzzz.

The targets are fifty-four feet down what looks like a bowling alley, and don't tell Youngest, but I can't make out if she shot well or not. As long as the arrow doesn't bounce off the floor, it's all the same to me. She's elated or cast down by arrows that hit a few centimeters apart, and I try to follow her lead. The tournaments are just as fast paced, with the additional bonus that the spectators must remain absolutely silent. It's like watching the chess grandmaster tournament, if the game boards were eighteen yards away and you didn't have the cultured British announcer whispering, “Karspinsky has just executed the Dunning-Kruger move!”

Oh well. At least she's not interested in riding. Right, honey? Right?

How about you, dear readers? Tell us your sports stories in the comments...


  1. I’m laughing over the trials and tribulations of spectator parents. But I’d be standing right there, cheering [or keeping silent] along with all those other parents.

    Both the girls were skaters, so we are intimately acquainted with cold rinks, early ice hours, and fitting in practice time around broom ball games. The girls worked on learning routines and showing off newly-learned skills while mom sewed costumes and dad became the team photographer.
    Of course, there was the time the youngest had a spotlight routine in which she was a music box ballerina . . . dad built the box for her to skate out of without any problem. We even figured out how, in the space of no more than one minute, she could push the box out onto the ice without help and get herself inside. That was the easy part. But the task of actually transporting that box to the rink . . . it was a very tight sque-e-e-e-ze getting it into the back of the Aerostar.
    Of course, learning new skills and jumps and such meant watching your child hit the ice so many times you’d wonder how she managed to get up and try it again . . . and again . . . and again. But the girls loved skating, we survived all the tension that goes with the competition side of the sport, and so family life revolved around ice rinks for many years. We wouldn’t have had it any other way.

  2. Julia, thank you thank you. Your words, the selected illustrations brought a smile to my morning. And memories of when (way too many years ago) my high school steady ran cross country. Ah, what patience and warmth young love has!

  3. It's the "well-cut Skit-Suit" I'm gaping at! From the description: "Here's cool comfort and body ease like you've never had before," complete with "no-gap buttonless fly" in the front and "elastic drop seat" in the back. Wow. Just wow.

    Ah, yes, cross-country and track and field. Loved that my boys ran, and improved their fitness as well as their times. Loved that the boys and girls trained together, that it seemed like most of the smart kids chose that sport, and that I got to host one of the night-before pasta parties every season, filling the house with generally polite and cleaned-up teens. But as a spectator sport? Forget it. When they were younger, the early-season baseball and late-season soccer games were also brutal. The kids are moving around and keeping warm. The parents? Sitting still on cold bleachers or our own fold-up chairs. But hey, nobody knows what's really in that travel mug of mine, do they?

  4. I won the camp-wide archery competition at my Camp Tocaloma! We had an instructor who actually taught us how to aim. SUCH a satisfying sport. But I had a runner-child so I get what you're saying about a sport that involves a lot of sitting and waiting.

    My runner also played soccer. Defense. And she was tough. That was fun to watch because she was always out there. Sadly, her team mostly lost. Thank God she wasn't a skater or a ballerina.

    There were NO women's sports when I was in school. We mostly were given a ball (or maybe 3 balls for 20 kids) and told to line up and throw and catch. Oh, and dodge ball (a sport that can be done with 1 ball and 20 kids) which was all about the mean girls ganging up on the rest of us. Pardon me while I take a moment to bow down to Title 9.

  5. Our daughter was a big athlete, so we had hours and hours and hours of soccer, softball, and especially lacrosse to watch. At least with all of those you could see the games. In high school, our son took up crew, which meant driving long distances to far-away lakes, and then if you were lucky, watching his boat cross the finish line. During his freshman year, his team went to the Henley regatta in England. So I got the bright idea of taking my stepmother and my father, who was getting slow of body and mind, on the trip. So exciting to see the spectators all dressed up, cheering the boats down the river.

    Sadly and unexpectedly, Andrew's team was knocked out in the first race. Still we had a wonderful trip--took the parents to Windsor Castle and Stonehenge and all through London. I will never forget it!

  6. ps Hallie, I'm bowing down to Title 9 too--girls these days have no idea what it was like back in the sports-less dark ages!

  7. Title 9! My high school had a girls volleyball team and a softball team. I think that was it, and I did neither.

  8. Sports? Forget it. I was completely uncoordinated and the target of all the dodgeball meanies..

    I STILL have dreams that I can't pass phys ed. and they wont let me graduate. Truly.

    But--do you remember that exercise song Chicken Fat?? I heard it the other day--and burst out laughing. GO you chicken fat, go away! Sung by Robert Preston. Please tell me you remember..

    And archery? Actually, my step-dad set up a real target for us on the side of out barn, all filled with straw. We had bows and arrow, I loved it. even though I was terrible. Hallie could have wiped me off the face of the earth, some things never change.

  9. This cracked me up..I hear ya!!
    I was the football, basketball, softball, marching band, mom.....All out and in your face and seeing everything , selling everything, working concessions, freezing, sweating.....having a ball!! LOL!!
    THEN......wrestling happened.....The first match- that other kid grabbed MY kid..and I stood up and started to yell (KILL HIM)!! When I THIS sport....they were supposed to grab and toss each other!!! Sat down real quick...afraid they would call the cops on me...This was THE hardest 4 years of a sport for me.....someone touching my kid..was NOT what my brain wanted to was great to know...he could toss with the best of them!!

  10. Have no sporting incidents to report, except that I always silently blessed my lucky stars when friends would return home from various children's meets with stories of parents coming to blows. REALLY?!!?

    With the exception of riding, all my childhood sports are with me still. Shooting, archery, running, swimming, scuba diving. I need to grow up? Nah!

    Loved the illustrations Julia. I am still chuckling.

  11. SueAnn - LOL on being the wrestling mom yelling "Kill him!"

    And yes, hurrah for Title 9! According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, the number of girls playing in high school sports has increased every year for the past 25 years, with a record number of 3,267,664 public high school girls playing an organized sport in 2014. And that's not including private schools or independent sports organizations! We've come a long way from dodgeball.

  12. Soccer, tennis, softball, baseball, basketball, swim team, cross country, marching band, chorus. With three kids, our lives revolved around practices and games for many years, Sundays the only night we ate dinner together as a family.

    Gouges in the kitchen ceiling from color guard flag drills. A car glove box filled with bandaids, ace wrap, ibuprofen, and instant ice bags, a box of school supplies and reference books in the back seat. My kids perfected homework on the road. A garage filled with bats, balls, and gloves, plus my folding soccer mom chair. I kept a stack of library books and a box of bills to be paid in my car during practices. My husband and I perfected the gas station kid drop, exchanging kids and sports bags. On game days, I carried not only sandwiches in a cooler, but breakfast in paper bags.

    Soccer games in the snow, sleet, and freezing rain. Swim meets that started hours late due to thunderstorms. Marching band half-time shows wrapped in a sleeping bag. Hours spent with the youngest in the ball park sand pile. Basketball was the highlight of my year because it was indoors, with real bathrooms. Eight and under tennis matches were like watching paint dry.

    When the youngest left for college, my life was finally my own again, and I started writing fiction.

  13. Hooray for Title IX, absolutely!

    I was both an athlete (softball, basketball and tennis, all reasonable sports from a spectating parent perspective) and an editor of my high school newspaper.

    In 1974,a couple of years after Title IX passed, we published an ambitious investigative piece (Hank, you would have loved us) that exposed the enormous disparity in spending between boys and girls sports at my central Massachusetts high school.

    I know now that it was too soon after adoption of this revolutionary law for the school's federal funding to have been in jeopardy because of the unequal treatment of female athletes. But our lead was that the disparate treatment was clearly illegal, and the stories led to something of an uproar in our town. Over the next several years girls' sports were expanded and funded, a great lesson in the power of the law and the press.

    BTW, Hank, Chicken Fat. Our ancient gym teacher loved that stupid routine so yep, I not only remember the song, it is now playing inside my head.

    So thanks . . .

  14. Oh sports.

    The Girl is not much of an athlete. We tried soccer, which she did mostly because her best friend at the time played. She was very good with all the skills, but when it came to the games? Her coach dubbed her "the politest player ever." She'd have the ball, another player would challenge her and she'd step back and let her have it. For six years, she did dance - ballet, tap, jazz, and gymnastics. She loved danced and still does. She'd be doing pointe - except for the teacher who habitually made her cry when she was 10. 10! We did the competition circuit for a year. Those moms are crazy. Truly. Now she swims. She likes it. She isn't the fastest swimmer on the team, nor is she the slowest. Swimming must have changed, though. I only pay the booster fee (and usually a pair of goggles). She swam in a summer league, but I don't think she'll be back next year (she got dropped from her 1st place freestyle relay for a slower girl - The Girl took a bit of satisfaction that the new foursome took second at champs; during the regular season they never lost with her swimming the anchor spot).

    The Boy -- oh The Boy. We did soccer when he was little. The "problem" with soccer is parents froze at the spring games and sweltered in the fall (really late summer). But as Edith said, no one knew what was in that mug.

    We did taekwondo for years, including tournaments. Those were fun until he got to the 11-13 year old boys black belt ring. He got kicked in the head at one match. Knocked him out of the tournament but fortunately avoided concussion. And the parents. Oy! What ticked me off about that kick is you didn't have to make contact. The Boy clearly didn't block and his opponent would have gotten the points if he'd held back a bit. But no. Ugh.

    We said no to football when he was younger. I didn't like the rate of concussion. We also said no to hockey because money...and travel (3am wake ups? No thanks).

    He started playing basketball in 3rd grade. A fun spectator sport - except his teams weren't very good so I watched a LOT of bad basketball. But I was rewarded when his team won the diocesan championship last year. THAT was a lot of fun. He wants to try out for the basketball team in high school, but there are 60+ boys vying for probably 12-15 spots. I don't think his chances are high because he's good, but not good enough.

    He also swims and he's very good there. He was the fastest 8-year old breast stroker in the section one year and still excels at that stroke. And he's a good freestyler. He swam in the same summer league, but I don't think he'll be back either. It's a perennial losing team and he's not having fun (losing isn't much fun). If he doesn't make the basketball team, he'll do high school swim.

    And he wants to try baseball in the spring. At least I like baseball.

    As for me, Title IX had come along by my high school career, but I was so not a sports girl. I tried out for the JV basketball team and wound up jamming my fingers two days before I was suppose to play piano at a chorus concert. The music teacher was not happy. I once had a gym teacher send home a note that I needed to work on my "ball skills." My father was not all that worried. =)

  15. I can remember driving an hour to a middle school football game--in the pouring rain--couldn't find my rain gear, so I improvised--a flat pillow in a plastic bag for a seat, an extra large trash bag slit lengthwise for a rain slicker. Not the oddest sight there, either--track & field, cross-country, wrestling, football, one year of band shows--it was great to see the guys so into whatever they were doing--the only thing I minded was being cold (and wet)-- I was too early for Title IX, but it wouldn't have mattered--I might have done well at running, but I had a bully for a gym teacher and she also coached all the girls' sports.

  16. Oh, man, 35 years of raising daughters included who knows how many hours of cheering on soccer, ballet, gymnastics, swimming, basketball, cross country, track, climbing and marching band. And starting all over again with my grandson. But I wouldn't trade those hours for any amount of money.

  17. Our son was never very athletic, so we only endured a couple seasons of trying soccer, baseball and basketball before it became evident ball sports were not for him. He did like snow skiing, but that was never competitive, just a club. Same with sailing.

    A good friend of mine laughingly posted just the other day that after successfully avoiding ball sports through a total lack of interest from four sons, her first grade daughter had signed up for soccer. But a few days later she posted that judging by the amount of kicking dandelions going on out there, she suspected her daughter's experiment with ball sports might be mercifully brief.

    And Hank, I VIVIDLY remember the Chicken Fat song. I heard it out of the blue somewhere recently myself, and had a compulsive shudder in reaction. No happy memories associated with that one!

  18. Julia, you are a hoot a minute! I truly think you should compile your essays on family into a book. Thanks for such a funny start to my afternoon.

    Our daughter and son weren't big on sports. Both were in drama and in the plays in high school, and I thoroughly enjoyed those. But my daughter did cross-country running, and I actually liked going to the meets. She did track one year, and I hated it, no idea of what was going on. My son did do soccer his freshman year, but it didn't stick, which was okay with me (It can get pretty cold sitting on those sidelines). I did go through the sports in the kids' early days. For the girl it was T-ball, softball, gymnastics, and dance. For the boy, it was only T-ball, as he seemed to get easily distracted out in the field and didn't care for it at all. He did theater early, being in some local productions.

    The grandgirls are both excellent swimmers, so at home in the water, and I enjoy going to some of their swim meets. While they both do well, the younger one is more competitive. She also likes running, so there may be some of that in the future (she's only in first grade now).

  19. Julia I spent years as a swimming mom. Driving to morning practice at 5:30, then, when they became elite swimmers, driving hundreds of miles to meets. (you are right. Expensive sport and no money kicking in until they are at the senior national level) Then two of them took up water polo and more driving or flying miles to watch them play in college or at national meets. Now it's my granddaughters who play in high school and I have to say it's an exciting (if scary) game to watch. Very violent, lots of holding under the water etc.
    My other grand kids are all black belts in Karate and that is a good spectator sport. And I sit in a warm gym. And delicate little Mary Clare is the best--quite scary when she fights.

    When they were younger the boys played soccer and Mary Clare did ballet. Then she wanted to play soccer too. Her twin, TJ, always felt himself in her shadow in most things but he was good at soccer. So Mary Clare joined the team, ran down the field and scored a goal in seconds. My daughter was sitting there praying "Please don't let her be better than him at soccer!"

    I was at a girl's school in England and was able to play any sport I wanted. I was on the tennis team both in school and college. My kids and now grandkids have always been able to enjoy all kinds of sports too (although when we lived in Texas girls were only cheerleaders!)

  20. And Julia, I meant to add to Karen's comment that you publish these essays on family life. They are terrific.

  21. My little Butch self was so enamored with Errol Flynn, that I took up archery at an early age. An aspiring 50's nerd, I wore a Robin Hood hat complete with feather to my self made archery range. I am sure snickering occurred, I was not aware. Shot many an arrow into the air. Took archery in college, and never once shot at an indoor range. No rain. What a concept.

    My daughters were not at all sports people. Both were book lovers so who am I to complain.

    I am trying to convince my eldest to join me at the gym; to date, no joy. Today I mentioned registering for a 5K race to support the Humane Society. She replied, Mom, give them $5.00 and go for a walk. Not sure which of us is making more sense. Time will tell.

    Thanks Julia for the update on your family. I am with others who suggest the essays should be compiled. I hope that while you were waiting for people to appear out of the woods, you were plotting story lines for Russ & Claire.

  22. I loved this post, Julia. SO funny! As for me and sports, I played tennis for my school in England in my early teens, but parents never watched our games; nobody's parents did. But I also was an avid dramatist and my long-suffering mother came to every play and lavished praise on me and my fellow actors. I loved the whole thing.