I played a lot of sports in high school, but I didn't get a whole lot of playing time. (Am I right, high school classmates that are my new Facebook BFFs 4EVER?) In fact, if the game wasn't close and the starters were ready to come out, you might have heard a cheer rise up: "Clear the bench! Put in French!" Which you can take as either endearing or derisive, depending on your interpretation of the adolescent mind. (OK. It was derisive.)
I got four varsity letters, and three of them were presumably for 1) being a senior and 2) remembering my uniform. The one letter I actually earned was for golf, for which I actually started more than half the matches and actually helped my team actually win a few. And let me tell you, a letter with a golf bag on it looks completely bad-ass on one of those leather-sleeved varsity jackets.
I was a spindly punk, but I also never that fire-in-the-gut competitive edge. In fact, I sort of went the other way and derided people who did. One guy in particular was my JV varsity coach, a real tool with a pockmarked face, pornstache, talent for trouser hockey. He used to stand with his hand in his too-tight sweatpants and bark cliches at us while we ran windsprints or lay-up drills. And my buddy Rich and I would crack wise, saying stuff I wish I could remember because I'm sure it was overflowing with withering and pitiless wit. To the point where the coach took us aside and called us "cancerous agents" and benched us for the rest of the season.
Cut to: senior year soccer. For three years I had been coached by our history teacher, a sweet guy whose main claim to competency was that he was Hungarian. Practices were easy, and we got shellacked every game. Senior year, however, we got a new coach, a former all-state player who knew what he was doing. He ran us mercilessly, mile after weary mile, until we all prayed for the sweet release of death. I was killing myself like everyone else but not playing much because 1) he wanted to win and 2) I didn't really care. So for the last game of the season, I turned my jersey inside out and wrote "log 3 9" on the back in masking tape, because I knew Coach didn't know a logarithm from a log cabin. I spent the rest of the afternoon running laps around the field until I honked like a seal.
I'm telling you all this because last night's Little League playoff game gave me a flashback moment. The game was sort of uncomfortable from the beginning, because the two coaches obviously didn't like each other. And our coach, a normally even-tempered bloke who had never coached with such high stakes, started getting agitated by errors and other standard 8-year-old goofballery. By barking at kids for swinging at bad pitches or overthrowing the cut-off man, he was sort of dipping his toe in a tributary of Dick Pond.
Late in the game, when it was still tied, Robert got on base with a single. However, the next batter flied out and Robert, oblivious to his coaches' urgings to get back to first, was doubled off. He trotted off the field and didn't seem to care much. But his coach caught him smiling and said something about it, and Robert shot back with "I don't care about this game! I hope we lose!" He spent the rest of the game on the bench, and the team's loss ended the season.
I'm really conflicted about this. I'm glad that Robert seems centered enough not to make winning the fulcrum of his emotions, and poised enough to call bullshit when he sees it. But I also don't want him to doubt his abilities, as I did, and turn to wiseassery as a coping mechanism. I can't fault the coach for benching my kid, but I can't fault Robert, either. Because dude, that was me.
I figure for now, screw it. He's 8. There's plenty of time to watch this mole and see if it grows any larger. But I hope at some point he discovers a desire to strive and succeed as a part of a team, instead of spending his teen years feeling excised.