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The competitive spirit July 24, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in family, younger son.
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I have often joked to the older son that I learned, far too late, that I didn’t have to do everything perfectly: I just had to do it better than everyone else.

While that statement reeks of hubris, it comes with an extremely large side of truth.  More importantly, it was something that enabled me to get over my perfectionistic tendencies and just get things done…because I would never find out if I did it better if I never did it at all.

That never-doing-it-at-all thing is something that keeps showing up with both of the kids.  Both of them have this huge fear of not doing things perfectly, and it will keep them from even attempting.  I do realize that both of them grew up comparing themselves with the adults around them as reference points, and knowing they can’t do things as well as much older adults has had a pretty lousy impact on what they perceive as success.  That is, no effort will ever be good enough to compare to the adults, and they want to give up before starting.  (I have wondered if this would be different had they been closer in age, but that’s an experiment for an alternative universe.)

I discussed earlier how the older son is fighting with perfectionism in his classwork.  The younger one has had a related set of challenges.  His, however, center around sports.  He is in two somewhat related sports, the second one showing up as a desire to improve his skills in the first.  Earlier this year, he was told he could move up a level in the first sport.  He has repeatedly told me he doesn’t think he wants to because he wants to get the current level “perfect.”  Once I heard the word perfect, I decided it was time to move him up.  He has no idea that he’ll never really get it perfect, and that sometimes the practice to get better comes from starting to master more advanced skills.  Given he has complained about going over basic skills that he knows inside and out, it’s definitely time to move on.  I’m just waiting for the complaints, however, that the next class is too hard.  He often forgets that the hard things become easier with practice.

In the second sport, we started looking at another training facility, and someone asked about evaluation for the competitive team.  The younger son immediately said, “I’m not competitive.”

I’m going to be honest: I’m a pushy mom.  I’m not one of those moms that expects their kids to be perfect at everything.  I’m not one of those moms that signs her kids up for everything regardless of their actual interest. I am, however, one of those moms that wants her kids to push themselves.  This, to me, was bald-faced fear that was going to prevent younger son from even trying.  He was afraid he wasn’t going to measure up to the other kids, so he wasn’t even going to try.  In doing so, he’d never learn to push himself.

Unacceptable.

However, forcing him to go through the eval without any interest is not the solution, either.  He would intentionally flub it if he didn’t absolutely refuse to do anything at all.  (It doesn’t take much to figure out that would be the end of it.)

I spent a lot of time thinking about how to discuss this with him, and I finally settled on telling him a couple things that I wish I’d known when I was younger.  I suspect it would’ve completely changed my view on sports, as well as academics…and, well, on life.  (And it’s a much healthier viewpoint, IMO.)

First, I said that if the coaches think he’s good enough to be on the competitive team, he really ought to try and see how it goes.  If he has a talent that he’s interested in developing (and he has expressed the desire to learn to do this stuff really well), then he will move a lot farther along with some good coaching.  I also told him that the coaches are the best judge, and if they don’t feel he’s good enough for the team, that’s okay: he can still go to lessons and keep learning.  He just won’t get in as much time to develop this skill as if he were able to make the team.  If it’s still fun, he should keep doing it regardless of what the coaches think.

Second, and far more important, is that being on a competitive team does NOT mean that I expect him to go and win awards and beat people all the time.  Being on a competitive team means that I expect he will work hard to improve his skills.  The only person he’s really competing against is himself.  If he happens to win awards doing it, that’s great, but that’s not required.  He just has to want to work hard to improve himself and to keep improving.  It’s about learning how to work hard to become better at something.

I know that coaches are evaluated on how many of their protege do just that.  Unfortunately, that’s reality, and so I think coaches are smart enough to spend time on people who they know will be able to become really good.  Therefore, if they don’t see the talent, I doubt they’re going to want to spend much time on that particular student.

I also know that, in the back of my head, there are people who think competition is beating everyone else.  I’ve seen the uber-competitive parents at various sports throughout the years, and they bug the heck out of me.  The idea that it’s about winning is a thought that robs a lot of people of the joy of doing things and making them better people.  I did a triathlon a few years back that brought that front and center: if I had done it to compete, I would’ve never started training.  After I finished, dead last, no less, not only did I not care that I didn’t place, I didn’t care that I was last.  I accomplished my goals and did something that I’d never done before (and that many people thought was extremely crazy to attempt), and that was far better than winning an award.

There is an inherent satisfaction that comes with mastery of a particular skill that has absolutely nothing to do with what other people think or compare.  Pushing yourself within healthy limits and without regard to what the rest of the world thinks is very rewarding, and, to me, makes almost any endeavor worthwhile.

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