I never thought it would happen to me. I would read those articles on Huffington Post and everywhere else about problems associated with kids specializing early in one sport or another. And parents contracting Psychotic Bleacher Syndrome whereby they focus all of their own childhood sports failures and triumphs into radicalized sideline encouragement. And I was smug. I thought, that will never be me. First of all, I don't care about winning or losing. I care that my kids are active and coachable. Second, my kids don't really play sports. Problem solved. We tried peewee soccer. We tried gymnastics. We tried dance. None of it really took. My oldest is into riding his bike and that's good enough for me. And my daughter has made it clear that she is not interested in any sport where she has to do anything in front of anyone. She's just not one of those kids who like to be in the spotlight or warrant any undue attention. Unless we're at home and then she wants a lot of attention. Mostly mine. And her brother's. Separate issue. But I still wanted her to do a sport because I believe practicing a sport is important, especially for girls. Self-esteem and all that. So last year she started Judo. There were a few meets over the course of the year but she made it very clear she was not interested in competing. And I didn't want to drive her an hour to the meets so that was fine with me.
I come from a fairly sporty family. My brothers and I all played competitive sports through high school. My husband too. He was on the Men's Israeli National Gymnastics team. So of course I wondered why my kids don't want to compete? What's wrong with them? They cheat at cards so they obviously like to win...But because I get distracted easily by other questions like, what am I making for dinner and why is there so much laundry, I forgot to be overly concerned. We also don't live in America, so competitive youth sports is less of an issue.
But last Saturday everything changed. We took my daughter, as a family, to a town near Tel Aviv, for her first Judo meet. When we first heard about the meet I told her that I thought she should try it and she immediately spelled out in no uncertain terms that she had no interest in competing. So I backed off. A few days later I casually brought up the subject again and said, well maybe we can just go and see what it's like but you don't have to compete. Don't bother bringing my uniform, she said.
The day of the meet we tried to convince her that it would be fun. She might enjoy competing. It's not about winning but about trying your best. Her dad talked about how he used to get nervous before gymnastics meets. And I told her how I used to have butterflies in my stomach before soccer matches. But then once you're doing it you forget about anyone watching and you just have fun. We basically regurgitated all the regular stuff. She wasn't convinced. I brought her uniform anyway.
I texted her coach to say she would need a little encouragement. We got there early and she suited up while giving me the hairy eyeball. We entered the gym and there were fifty little kids ages 4-8 running around and maybe a dozen from our town. Chairs were set up for the parents. She was looking around, taking it all in. She was visibly nervous. Her coach walked over and explained that the kids would first just warm up like they always do so she could just start with that if she decided not to compete that would be fine. She had tears in her eyes. She walked out to the mat anyway.
After the warm up the other coach split them into groups by age and belt and by then she must have felt more comfortable or maybe couldn't figure out how to escape because the matches began and she wasn't going anywhere. The other coach called her name and she walked over to the center mat and met her opponent, a seven-year-old boy with a yellow belt. She was completely calm and knew exactly what she needed to do. She walked to the side and when the coach shouted RE, she bowed. Then he called AJIME to begin the match and she ran at the little boy across from her and THREW. HIM. DOWN. I mean I couldn't believe what we were watching. We had never seen her fight before. Sure we'd seen her have tantrums about practicing piano and doing her homework and we'd seen her try to kill her brother. But this was something else entirely. She was completely in control. After she pinned him the first time both kids popped up and again, AJIME. And she threw him down again. Three times! Then there was a final bow and they shook hands. She had two more matches after that and did very well in both.
After the meet we gave her a huge hug and asked how she felt and she talked about how her heart was beating really fast and it was a lot fun. And how she wants to go to all the meets and the spring retreat too. I had videotaped all the three matches and in my euphoric state I posted the best one on Facebook. And the comments and likes poured in. I watched that video about fifty times. I was overcome with pride for my little judoka. And I realized that I had never contracted Psychotic Bleacher Syndrome before only because I had never had the opportunity.
A few days later I started to wonder how I would have felt if my daughter had been the little boy that she crushed. Would I still have been proud of her for just competing, as I had always said I would be. I never imagined myself the kind of parent who would get so caught up in my kids' achievements but here I was suddenly wondering if maybe she shouldn't start practicing judo twice a week. And what if she wants to quit, like she tried to at the end of last year. Would I allow it? But she's so good, I could here my future self whining. I just want for her all of the self-esteem and personal growth and satisfaction and physical strength that come from training in a sport.
What happens next? Do I just let her decide to do something else next year if she feels like it and squander her natural ninja talents? I definitely think this competition has made her want to continue but she's as mercurial as they come. She could very well want to play skate hockey next year and that will have to be fine. I have to just hope that she will continue to enjoy an active life. And that I'll be able to support her choices, her triumphs and her defeats with the same spirit and grace she showed last week on the mat.