Coach's Corner

It was late in the afternoon when the receptionist announced my daughter was holding on line three. I'd been anticipating this moment all day, but now that it was here, my heart skipped a beat. But that is the end of the story.

Both my children have grown up in the Eanes School District. There are many opinions regarding the "spoiled rich kids in Westlake," but I think the reason these kids dominate all of Central Texas in sports has little to do with being rich or spoiled. It's because from the age of 5, kids of both sexes are exposed to organized, omnipresent, competitive sports programs. I doubt statistics are kept on the percentage of eligible children who at one time or another enter these programs, but I can assure you the number would be staggering.

The philosophical shadings of placing children into the boiling cauldron of these programs are certainly open to debate. Is it a healthy environment where kids learn teamwork and the values of physical fitness? Or, does it instill the message that winning, if not everything, is at least damned important, that competition and domination are a part of life? My own views reside somewhere in the middle. I've raged against -- both as a coach and a loudmouthed parent -- the seemingly uncontrollable adult urge to create "select" (read: elite) teams at ridiculously young ages. My heart went out to kids who clearly didn't want their shins kicked or to be nailed in the nose with a baseball. As they got older, I hated to see kids I'd known now being rejected as not good enough while the teams they wanted to play on became ever more competitive.

I'd be a liar to say I didn't have hopes for my kids to excel at athletics. Part of it was me, living through them my frustrated sports fantasies. Part of it was quietly enjoying (though I always pretended it was no big deal) when other parents would compliment me on the achievements of my kids. Having said this, I went out of my way to steer a moderate course. I encouraged -- but was careful not to cross -- the little league parent line.

My son progressed through all the levels of the district's sports programs. At 13, he abruptly quit. Though an excellent athlete, he simply stopped playing sports. I was surprised but didn't push the issue. I never got the feeling being good at sports was really that big of a deal to my son.

His sister, four years younger, was a different story. Also an excellent athlete, being good clearly meant more to her. Was it adult approval and praise she thrived on? Did she just bask in being good? Whatever, it mattered to her.

This fall Janie went out for the school volleyball team, a sport she'd never played. The try-out process was intense: three days, 60 girls trying out for 25 spots. I was shocked when, for the first time in her life, Janie was not chosen.

An obvious but nevertheless harsh reality became apparent. Many kids in Westlake had, long ago, made sports the central focus of their lives. I mean to imply no negative judgment here at all: There are far worse things a young teenager can be doing with his or her time. Many of her friends had been playing competitive volleyball for years. She simply did not possess the necessary technical skills to compete.

To my surprise, she didn't seem too concerned by this rejection. I did, however, discern a heightened interest in basketball, the next sport for which she would try out. I knew the same situation would exist. Janie played many years of sloppy, dad-coached, recreational basketball. The competition was poor, skill-teaching almost nonexistent, her teams never very good. Most of her contemporaries, playing in private organized leagues basically year-round, would be far more advanced. As the fall progressed, she worked hard and her improvement was apparent. I now had to really try to beat her in driveway games. A rejection this time would hurt.

As the five-day tryout period finally began, I found myself increasingly anxious. One night at Randall's, I ran into one of her friends, also trying out for the team. I was embarrassed by an unintended venting of my private fears on this 13-year-old girl. The night before the team would be chosen, I decided I'd give up Clinton's victory, if I could. I figured the country will still be here after Dole -- this was much more personal.

Perhaps you're thinking this is a bit extreme, maybe saying more about me than her. This is not true. I'm worried about my daughter losing her center, damaging fragile self-esteem. My greatest fear? A rudderless drift in the dangerous world today's teenagers must navigate. That night I actually said a prayer.

So, now the little phone light is blinking relentlessly. I'm frozen. A hot lump suddenly in my stomach. What's waiting behind that blinking light? A trying-to-be-brave-but-broken-hearted little girl? A sobbing, disconsolate daughter? It even occurred to me she might only be calling to ask what's for dinner.

"Daaaad," she said, hiding any emotion from her voice, "guess what?" Jesus, Janie, I think. What?! What?! What?!?!!
"I made the team." n Write me: Coach36@aol.com

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