One Practice A Week

“There’s only one soccer practice a week,” he said, “Seven to eight pm on Mondays, and then the game is on Saturday…  It’s not bad.”
I had trouble fathoming it.

But what time do you eat dinner? 8pm. Do you come home and cook afterwards? Cook before or during – parents don’t have to stay for the practice and it’s in the neighborhood. What time do they go to bed? 9pm.

I still had trouble imagining how this would work.  I was exhausted just hearing about it.  And I was lucky.  I had three boys, so no other day a week that we’re going to dance class.  But it must be worth it, right?  Those parents who are pushing their kids who are pushing hard, too hard, so that the children might excel at this one sport?  Well, no actually.  These were parents with well-rounded aspirations.  Their kids also had music lessons and extra math homework and dance for the daughter.  Well then, it must be that they have a busy mother who works outside the home, who isn’t able or willing to take care of her children properly and so they’re stuck at these late night events.  Wrong again!  These are the families of the stay-at-home-mom and the career-but-quite-involved-at-home dad.  It must be a good way to meet people and make friends I thought.  But wrong again, as they drop the kids off and rush home to make dinner, then come back to pick up.  “You don’t have to stay, the soccer coach is there,” he said, and Oh, I thought, who would want to be the soccer coach!

In the debate whether to focus on one thing and do it well, or to pursue many activities recreationally, it is not, I think, the pursuit of excellence and hard work that is daunting, but the scheduling.  It is the subjugation of the entire family to the hurried ferrying to and fro various “relaxed recreational” or “intense and semi-professional” activities.  There is nothing relaxed about committing every Saturday to a soccer game and a practice making for a late weeknight.  What is relaxed sports participation is what many of us had growing up.

When my sister and I were little, we came home from school, then we walked across the street to get our friends to play.  We  played various sports and activities including jumping and running games.  We roamed the neighborhood and grew into larger groups.  Sometimes as many as 10-20 of us would organize to play soccer games, or a variation on dodgeball, or “arrows” where one team would run ahead and leave arrows of chalk as a trail while the other team followed in hot pursuit.

Our parents didn’t decide to enroll us, we didn’t depend on an adult to coach or supervise us, and we played when we wanted, we stopped when we were tired, and the group participation taught us about self-organization, socialization, how to entertain ourselves, and how to take care of ourselves.  And when we did stay out until 8pm to play, it was our decision, those long summer days would let us linger until dusk when we couldn’t deny it was time to go home anymore.  What these days of recreational sport most certainly did not involve was the burden of commuting and scheduling for our parents.

Over a few years I also participated in a variety of lessons and organized activities.  All of them involved me getting to the classes and lessons without my parents, and all the activities were over before dinner time.  Eventually, my parents realized that signing up for something when it seemed fun and then quitting as soon as it got hard wasn’t what they had in mind for me, so we focused on tennis.

I played tennis competitively.  Very competitively.  It didn’t get more “Spartan” than going to a boarding tennis academy, family vacations scheduled around regional and national tennis tournaments, organized practices supplemented with extra coaching and extra practice with our father.  And even so, I do not recall having  many practices from seven to eight pm because, well, kids are tired too.  If you really are meant to be good at something, then you need to get better practicing it when you’re most able to absorb it, not when it’s another obstacle to your bedtime and a box to be checked off the list.  Soccer? Check.

“You can do anything, but you can’t do everything.  At least not at the same time.”  A tennis coach told us.  And it’s true.  We all have to focus at some time.  We go into the world as adults better at some thing.  That thing is generally how we make our living, and it’s fair to say we’ve spent our requisite 10,000 hours getting expert at it.  One can reasonably argue that narrowing that focus is better done at seventeen, not seven, but that too, depends.

My kids are five and three, and as far as I can tell, this is the age to learn virtually everything.  As a character on Downton Abbey says “Love is like riding or French.  If you don’t learn it young, it’s hard to get the trick of it later on.”  And so it is with sports, and language, and music.  Other interests, writing, philosophy, history, art, or science do not require the same motor memory and may be pursued with more focus later in life.  There are no “prodigy” writers or historians.  But practicing a lot does not a prodigy make, and perhaps that’s worth mentioning as well.  That we are talking about kids that fit broadly into society and whatever their strengths and weaknesses, they are not likely to be playing piano at Carnegie Hall at four, no matter how busy the schedule or how motivated the parents.

Doing anything, no matter how much you love it, for too long or too hard leaves you not happy, but craving a respite from the onslaught.  And it doesn’t matter how much you love what you do – drawing, reading, playing soccer, your job, taking care of your children.  You love doing it, you even love doing it long hours, but at some point, you’re just exhausted and you need a break.  And it is this that worries me most about these allegedly “recreational” activities.  That what I would be teaching my kids by making them go to practices on weekday evenings with late bedtimes and sour mornings is that you pursue activities because everyone else is doing them too.

The reason I want my kids to play sports is because I want them to learn what I learned playing tennis.  I want them to learn to stick with something hard, to get the confidence of getting better at something they’ve practiced, to keep going when they’re tired or don’t feel like it, especially when they don’t feel like it, and that sometimes, no matter how much you practice, others will be better than you, because, well, they will be.

I don’t claim to have the answer, but it occurs to me that parents and children of America need to claim their weeknights back.  We ought to demand to be neither the chauffeurs nor the chauffees.  Yet what other choice is there? As we drive home in the evenings, we often see a group of teens skateboarding down the windy mountain roads in our neighborhood.  And while I love the idea of a group of kids engaged in a physical activity together without a parent or cell phone in sight, I am even more terrified of the cars quickly driving up the mountain.

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