Tuesday, March 7, 2017

It's Not About Winning or Losing...Except, It Kind of Is

So this year for the first time Ethan decided to play basketball. This has been a learning experience -- for all of us.

I may be a huge football and baseball fan, but basketball, eh, not so much. The last time I really remember watching it regularly was as a child when my dad would flip on Channel 38 from Boston to watch Larry Bird and Kevin McHale, so we're talking ancient history here. At that time I took little away from the game except that these men had scarily hairy armpits.

All those years ago I never really picked up the rules of the game (same for Dan), so watching Ethan play basketball has felt a little bit like flying blind. Maybe it's for the best. I can't be an annoying parent from the sidelines if I don't really know what he's supposed to be doing, right? Obviously, everyone knows (well, except Anna, who is completely and utterly sports-averse) that a basket is two points and that you can't run with the ball, you have to dribble. Other than that, I've been learning as I go -- and it doesn't help that in his league, they don't play by all the rules (no three-pointers or foul shots) and they kind of enforce others but not fully. Let's just say there's been a lot of hearing a whistle blow and having no idea why.

So we're learning, and we've also learned that Ethan is pretty good at basketball. As often seems to be the case, he's not the star of the team but one of the better players. And the fact that he never complains about going to a basketball practice tells me he likes playing.

As for his team? They're okay. Middle of the road. They seem to score about 12 points every game, which is about what every other team seems to score. Twelve points in 45 minutes. Yeah, we're not talking NBA here.

One day we were in a restaurant chatting about sports and I heard Ethan talking about a mantra all of the kids say because they've heard it so many times at school. "Mamma?" he said. "I don't like when they say it's not about winning or losing, it's about having fun." I'm not sure what precipitated this, but I knew where he was coming from. Every field day I'd attended, every class game I'd seen them play, I'd heard teachers say this. I feel as if somewhere along the way, the pendulum had swung from maybe over-zealous competition to a complete elimination of celebrating a win or lamenting a loss. That night I was feeling a little punchy.

"You know what, Eeth? I understand. Guess what? Sometimes it IS about winning and losing. It's about having fun and learning, too. But yes, it's okay to want to win." Didn't we just go crazy over the Patriots winning the Super Bowl? Didn't we seethe every time the Yankees beat the Red Sox? In all of Ethan's team sports, while they haven't emphasized win-loss records or keeping score, every kid kept track and of course celebrated a victory.

Ethan seemed surprised that I would at least halfway contradict a message he'd heard so many times. I tried not to sound indignant. "I just want you to know it's okay to try to win," I told him.

A few weeks later, we walked into the gym for basketball on Saturday morning and saw we were playing a team Ethan's friend from next door was on. There were also two kids from his class on the other side. It was a good game. It was a close game. Both teams were very evenly matched. It really could have gone either way, but in the last few seconds Ethan's team failed to score and the other team won by two points.

I could see Ethan's face crumple up. For the first time all year, he was struggling to keep it together. He's been so much better about this, but close games are hard. Especially close losses against friends. While everyone else gathered up their things, he was sitting on the floor of the gym, crying, head in his hands. The coach looked questioningly at me, probably for the first time realizing why I had given him a heads-up about Ethan's background. I never know if I should do this, but really it's for moments like the one we were having. "He's not hurt," I explained. "It was just such a close game..."

Somehow I managed to get him off the floor, while he continued to cry and people continued to ask what was wrong. Out in the hallway, I tried to reassure him. "It was a really, really close game. Anyone could have won."

"I DON'T CARE. It IS about winning. Winning is everything!" he shouted.

Ugh. I knew where this was coming from. In a second, I understood in part why the schools emphasize over and over that it's "just about having fun." Emotional regulation is such a valuable skill these days, and it seems to be lacking more than ever, in all of our kids. How in the world are they supposed to run a field day with not one but 10 kids in a class losing it over a loss?

"Ethan, it's not just about winning. Winning is great. But it IS also about learning and growing. You guys have gotten SO much better since you started. I'm so proud."

He calmed down a little, but not much. As it turns out, he was worried most of all about the boy from his class, who he felt was going to tease him on Monday for their loss. Then he turned on us. "You should have cheered more! Why did the other team have more fans?!"

"They had at least three more kids on their team than you guys did...there were more parents because of that."

"Well, why did they have more players? Then we couldn't rest ours! That's not fair!"

This went on for a while. Then he wanted me to buy him a treat to cheer him up, and I said no, since I didn't think it was a good idea to always try to solve every sadness with food.

By the time we got home, Ethan took some time in his room to calm down and finally put the game behind him. We all did, except I was left wondering how to best address this issue of winning and losing...because even though I wasn't thrilled with the meltdown, I still didn't want to let go of the message.

I still want him to know that it's okay to WANT to win. It may not be the only thing, but of course it's important. Such is the nature of sports and competition. I have no problem with my child being somewhat competitive and having an internal "drive" to do well. It's when the rigidity gets mixed in that we run into trouble.

There's not an easy answer to this one, but that's okay. I think it's more of a "learn as we go." Maybe we got a little too focused on winning last time, and need to turn the dial down just a little. But I refuse to turn it all the way off, because there will be times when he wins or loses, and there are a lot of big emotions that are going to come with it. It's better to learn to deal with them now rather than just convincing him it doesn't matter. Winning DOES matter...but sometimes it's our response or reaction after that win, or loss, that is most vitally important.

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