Here’s a newsflash for men and boys everywhere: You don’t have to be an athlete to be awesome.
One of my favorite pastimes is watching 5-year-olds play tee-ball, not because it’s inspirational to usher children into a new era of athleticism, certainly not for the thrill of the game or the spirit of competition, and not even because it’s hilarious to watch the chaos that ensues when attempting to explain the rules to babies, who want nothing more in life than to run over to the swings on the playground where they’re free from restrictions. Hit the ball. Run. No, not that way. Run to your right. No, stay on the path. No, he shouldn’t be throwing that at you. Timmy, don’t throw that… ow! Timmy!
I love watching tee-ball because it’s the only time in a boy’s life when he can do what he really wants to do when playing - and watching - a game. He can climb the fence behind the dugout. He can take a nap on the pitcher’s mound (Why is there even a pitcher in tee-ball, anyway? Is it so the fathers can go back to work on Monday and announce that their sons were pitching in the game that weekend?). He can weave little, grass wreaths between his fingers and toss them at his buddy, who is lying on his belly watching the ants march across second-base. He can do whatever he wants without judgment or labeling, except walk over to the swings. They’ll definitely stop him for that one.
Sure, some boys love sports from the moment they can utter the word, “ball”. I have a nephew who started running at nine months and scored two points when he launched a cherry tomato into my grandfather’s iced tea from across the room at 18 months. I don’t know if that’s a standard indicator of talent or success, but he certainly embraced his natural abilities and went on to play Division 1 basketball in college, and I was there to cheer him on, because that’s who he is, it’s what he does well, and it’s his passion.
When I took my own toddler son to Short Sports at the Y, however, he was interested in nothing more than walking along the lines on the gym floor and felt like a champ when he had carefully followed all the patterns to the center of the room. I caught sympathetic glances from other moms that seemed to say, “It’s okay. He’ll get better,” but really, as his artist mom, I was pretty impressed and wanted to cheer, “That was a very clever way to get from point A to point B, little man!” He had no interest whatsoever in learning how to shoot a ball into a net. Zilch.
But, because I truly believe that we should let kids use whatever crayon they choose to color the sky in their world, I didn’t want to label him as a non-athlete just because he didn’t want to participate at Short Sports as a toddler. I tried to keep my mind open to things that did not interest me, like sports (and cooking, but that’s another story), because I realized that perhaps those activities *would* interest my children, and I didn’t want to push a square peg through a round hole. I tried multiple times to engage him in various games until I figured it was pointless because he wasn’t drawn to anything that had to do with kicking, hitting, or throwing a ball. All he wanted to do was play with trucks, watch trucks, read books about trucks, ride his bike, and listen to music, so there you go. Live your dream, kid. Let’s crank the tunes, ride bikes, and look at trucks. But wow - the reactions I received when I opted to skip mini soccer! It was as if I announced that I had decided to stop feeding him. You do realize he can live a full life without soccer, right? We’re all on the same page with this?
By the time he was wrapping up elementary school, though, he started asking to join all different kinds of teams, and he wasn’t bad at any of them. In fact, considering the fact that he never showed any type of interest in the activities as a younger child, he was pretty good. The pressure to join sports teams and talk sports, though, increased tenfold in middle school and again in high school, and I realized that no matter where we went, whether it was to church, a family event, or a trip to the mall or movies, without fail, a friendly older boy or man would shake his hand and unwittingly ask, “So, what sports are you playing now?” It was an undeniable and overwhelming social expectation.
We make a big fuss about encouraging girls to be who they are and follow their hearts and dreams, whether it be through ballet or STEM careers, yet, our society as a whole forces boys to feel like there is something wrong with them if they have interests beyond the playing field. In turn, a cut from a team runs much deeper than the elimination of a name from a roster. Such a rejection is a shameful experience that excludes boys from what our society tells them is the ultimate brotherhood - the brotherhood of athletes. Whether the expulsion is due to the lack of skill, an injury or illness that prevents participation, or a mere disinterest, the boys are disconnected and constantly reminded of what and who they are not, without being asked about what and who they are.
To be sure, I have nothing against athletics or anyone who loves to talk about sports. I am, however, considering the millions of males out there who have other interests and talents that are deemed less important by a society obsessed with ballgames. For the sake of them and all that makes them awesome, how about we change the conversation when we talk to the men and boys in our lives? Instead of asking the second-base ant-watcher how much he loves baseball, or asking a kid who’s about to enter a movie theater what sports he’s playing these days, ask boys, “What do you like to do?” and let them tell you about all the different things that fascinate them in this very big, wide world.