So, last night, my son Cooper's little league team, The Texas Longhorns, won their very first game of the season! As the season is just about over, it was a looooong time coming and quite a spectacular event. I really don't know who was more excited...the kids or us parents! I was in the scorekeeping booth and the other scorekeeper and I just about cried, we were so relieved. It was a bit ridiculous. After the game, Jimmy and I took the kids out for a celebratory dinner at their favorite restaurant, Souplantation.
After all the celebration and reliving of the game play by play, an uneasiness settled over me. I wasn't quite sure why. Over the years, I've come to the conclusion that my intuition has merit and shouldn't be ignored. But this time, I really couldn't pinpoint what was making me uneasy. After stewing it over for a while and dreaming on it last night, I realized that my uneasiness stemmed from my realization that what our reaction to the win was teaching the youngest Pettit and that was: Winning IS everything! At four, Mackie runs off her own little brand of intuition and feeling sensors. In processing the mood from last night, this little one made the statement, "So, winning is good!" In the glow of the elusive win, I didn't stop to talk with her about it and I wish I had. I realized today that her innocent little statement about what she was observing is exactly what gave me that feeling of unease. It may not seem to be a big deal, but as someone who grew up in team sports, the art of winning, and, even more importantly, the art of losing carry such incredibly important life lessons.
I was lucky to have played softball for Navajo Bobby Sox in what was most undoubtedly its heyday. Our teams won Nationals and made it to the big tournament in Buena Park yearly and for many, many years. I started playing when I was 8 and was forced to stop at 15. After that, I umpired behind the plate. It was a heady feeling being a part of such a league for so many years. We had talent galore! We had parents who volunteered above and beyond...and when I say beyond, I mean parents remained to volunteer even after their own children had grown out of the league! It was an unbelievable league and although I think I knew that then, I know it even more now as an adult with my own children in organized sports. I have turned into one of those "volunteer parents" just like my own. I know that these things don't just magically run by themselves, but only through the grace and fortitude of its volunteers.
Throughout my time in Navajo, I made All Stars yearly. Yes, it was about winning and getting to Buena Park for the National Tournament. Yes, it was practicing five or six days a week in the stifling heat of summer. Yes, it was living and breathing your sport, only hanging out with the families who were in it with you. It was all consuming from January's sign ups and the draft until you were back to school in September after the summer tournaments with only a one-week break. Even with this balls-out approach, there was a pervasive feeling that this wasn't just about winning or losing. It was about CHARACTER building. As a child and even as a know-it-all teenager, I somehow knew that was the ultimate goal. Weird and a bit magical, huh? Of COURSE, it definitely was about kicking Clairemont's ass in the District finals (Claire what? Claire MUTT!). However, it was also about how you were going to conduct yourself as an adult in your work place; in your home as a parent or wife; as a community volunteer; as a friend. It was just...bigger.
When Mackie came to her "winning-is-good" conclusion after Cooper's game last night, it registered in my subconscious as a concept that I desperately want my children to understand from team sports. I want them to learn the discipline it innately gave me. I am grateful for that now and I think it was quite useful even during my horrid teens. I want them to learn to be gracious winners with kind words and pats on the back to their adversaries for a good go at it. I want them to learn the art of being a team player, which is something in itself. There is more to be gained with supportive words when a guy makes an error than getting down on him, which often drags everyone down and causes a downward spiral that's hard to come out of. I want them to be able to manipulate the inherent team "mob mentality" into one that has a positive, healthy spin. I want them to learn that there are very good lessons to be learned from a loss and that those lessons are often not absorbed as easily as they are by a loser. Winners aren't forced to become introspective! Treat that loss as an opportunity for growth and look at what you can be taught through it.
These days, the leagues give trophys to every single kid, no matter what their W-L record is. I'm all for recognizing things like "Best Team Spirit" and "Most Improved" within the team itself. I'm talking about league fees being used to purchase large trophies with the kids' names engraved on them and these trophies being given to each and every child on even the last-place team. Everyone. This is where the winning/losing thing becomes an important symbol and tool for me.
Back in my day, you didn't get a freaking trophy for being a LOSER! Because of that, you coveted those damn trophies because they were hard to come by. You had to kick some ASS! Now, the kids get a trophy and they practically shrug their shoulders and toss it immediately aside. It's a mere dust collector almost immediately relegated to the closet shelf. Why SHOULD it be a big deal?! What is this teaching our children?
In voicing my disbelief at this trophy-for-losers phenomenon, I have heard reasons why the whole "tradition" started. Some self-absorbed, enabling parent couldn't handle their kid's disappointment and tears and sued the freaking league, causing everyone to scramble to cover their butts. It's a travesty! It is a crime! It's frankly SAD. How on Earth do we expect to teach our children what it feels like to strive for something, work hard and then win it? How do we teach them how to appropriately treat the person or team they just beat to get it? Or for that matter, how do we teach them to deal with striving for something, working hard and then NOT getting it? Hi...welcome to LIFE. Now, do you pick yourself back up and keep on striving, learning from what didn't work for you? If you're the kid of that enabling parent, I would think you crumble, cry your eyes out and expect everyone to give you something for nothing. You have been trained that if you make enough ruckus and complain enough, someone will be there to pick up the pieces, but it's certainly not going to be YOU. I picture some little overindulged, Buddha wannabe looking around frantically and empirically for someone to DO SOMETHING, but it's certainly not going to be THEM. Here's my question: If we keep giving kids trophy's when they're on the last place team, what's it going to be like for them when they get out into the real world and they find out that trophies aren't handed out unless you've shown with skill, fortitude and perseverance that you deserve that trophy? If team sports isn't the place to learn that kind of life lesson, where the Hell is it learned?
I truly think my time in Navajo was laced with magic...one of the magicians was Mr. Nello Pierozzi (Mr. Pepperoni). He was my coach, mentor and friend for what I believe was possibly the most impressionable, painful time of my life. He was one of those parents who volunteered while his daughter, Lisa, played and who never stopped. Never. He lived well into his 80s and was still a part of Navajo. An amazing man in so many ways! He was a founding member of the Blue Angels. Although we all knew that, he never lorded that amazing history over us. He used that training he learned in the Navy which was the ultimate lesson in camaraderie and relying on your team to teach us how to ACT IN LIFE, not just in the sport of softball. Everything he taught us seemed to transfer over to LIFE. We ran laps for being assholes to our fellow teammates. We did push ups for a bad attitude. We did situps for saying, "I can't." We came early and helped set up the field for not listening to our coaches. It was about learning how to ACT THE RIGHT WAY. I remember kids crying and complaining. I don't, however, remember any parents objecting or calling the punishment unfair. I think they were grateful and they knew they were in the presence of someone in possession of magic. Maybe my parents would tell us there were complainers or that Mr. Pierozzi had to fight a fight with one of those enabling parents of a sniveler. I don't remember hearing about it, however.
There were others...Mr. Acevedo (Avocado) who could not only discuss softball plays and games 'til the end of time, but could give you advice on how to deal with the neighborhood bully like a pro. He volunteered for long after his daughter, Stacy, left the league. Jim Clark, who turned out to be lifelong friends of my parents and family. He started as a volunteer from SDSU while working on getting his teaching credentials and was one of the best catching coaches I've ever had. He would spend HOURS in our backyard with me, beaning me with softball after softball so I could literally stop everything. He would call all night long to make sure I was still squatting in front of the TV because that's how my legs would get super strong and I could move around like a freaking crab behind the plate, scooping up everything. He did this all for free and on his own dang time, while as a college student at the biggest party school on the West Coast! He's since moved to Pleasantville in the Bay Area, has his own family and is a high school science teacher and award-winning basketball coach. There was Mr. Geilenfeldt, Bev Zukor, Dot Dyck, Mugsy and so many, many more amazing volunteers involved in Navajo. Watching these people give their time not for their own personal benefit, but because they basically enjoyed helping and watching the process of forming us as PEOPLE has shaped my life. It's what I want my children to know.
Mackie's innocent, "winning" statement last night has cemented my desire to keep my children in organized sports whether they go into it full force like lunatics as I did or whether they just play something for fun here and there. I will make sure that I never let a teachable instance pass by me again like I let happen last night! Winning isn't everything, but it sure is fun...losing isn't the end of the world, but there are valuable things to gain from losing. What's important is how you learn to deal with them both after the game's over!