Still fighting it

Just before dusk on a sultry Melbourne night. Twilight sports night at my son’s school. He is in grade one and has two races, a solo sprint and a three-legged race partnered with an assigned “buddy” from a senior class.

He’s anxious. I can see and feel it. At the start line he chews his lip. Frowns. Looks at the ground. Scuffs his feet in the dust. Other boys his age are jostling each other or staring down the track like future Olympians. Then the starter’s gun sounds and he misses it, taking off well behind the bunch. He finishes a distant last.

One of his mates is holding a blue ribbon aloft when I walk around the oval to hug my son. The little dragon and I sidle away from the finish line bustle, pausing only as he is handed a ribbon marked “competitor”. He’s in tears and doesn’t want his peers to see. Obscured from view, I crouch and he perches on my knee, pressing his face to my chest.

I know what he’s feeling. I’ve been there. I know intimately the devastation that festers in the gulf between sporting ambitions and abilities. I ache for him.

In the next race the boy who comes last couldn’t care less. He’s not even slightly interested in sport and is just going through the motions. The little dragon doesn’t have that liberty. He’s not genetically blessed with athleticism but has the heart of a fierce competitor. It’s an agonising combination whereby any pleasure from participating is frequently eclipsed by failing to meet one’s own exacting standards.

I hold him tight. Tell him how proud I am. Suggest that, if he wants to, we can practise together so he’ll be better prepared for racing next time.

The three-legged race arrives. The winner of the solo sprint triumphs again, somewhat slowed by his older companion. The little dragon is basically dragged across the line by his “buddy” and finishes second last. I meet him at the results table where his mate now waves two blue ribbons.

It’s all too raw to expect the little dragon to congratulate his friend. I escort him away, remembering.

I remember hiding in a toilet cubicle during my event at a swimming carnival because I knew I couldn’t compete at the expected level. I let the house team down. Got abused afterwards.

I remember the humiliation of waiting to be last picked for team sports.

I remember completing an endurance running event in a far better than expected position. Then vomiting, poisoned by performance-anxiety and unable to enjoy even that modicum of success.

In part, these experiences are a symptom of a society that places so much emphasis on winning and success that the “fun of taking part” evaporates. Children very quickly perceive that life is a contest and everyone other than the winner is a loser.

Now the little dragon is suffering the same agonies that I did. It’s taken me decades to make peace with my own limited athleticism and unlimited competitiveness. I hope the little dragon gets there quicker than me.

No matter how hard we try, not all of us are genetically predisposed to run faster, jump higher, be stronger or smarter than our peers. One of life’s struggle is learning this. Accepting that we’re each uniquely equipped to make our mark on the world some other way.

Knowing this doesn’t make it any easier watching the little dragon wrestling with it. As Ben Folds says in his superb father-son song, Still Fighting It, “You’re so much like me I’m sorry”.

Sorry, little dragon.

3 thoughts on “Still fighting it”

  1. Oh, Tim, this is a topic so close to my heart that your blog made me teary (I’m also over-tired by these school holidays, but that’s another story). My husbnad was a great sportsman in his day (district cricket, VFL, etc.) and still competes at a stupidly high grade for a 47 yo man who should be spending his Saturdays at Bunnings. Our son has inherited neither his father’s ability nor his fierce competitive steak, thank goodness- he’s the one with a drawer full of “Competitor” ribbons and who loves Sports day because he gets to have a water fight afterwards and pizza on the oval with his parents and friends.

    Our daughter, however, shows some sporting promise but even more drive and determintaion than either of her parents. She is a great little gymnast and swimmer, yet I can’t even point out a nice flip that another girl did without her squaring up to me, chin thrust in my face and declaring “*I* am good at flips also!” She is only grade 1 and swims in a class with grade 4 and 5 kids, yet her teacher has told me she has to send Cam off first every time they do their 200m warm up because otherwise she spends the whole eight laps trying to overtake people and nearly killing herself/getting kicked in the face in the process. I’m sort of proud at how competitive she is, but also horrified and worried that such drive will only lead to tears and thwarted dreams. I just want her to enjoy sport, not have to go out there and win everything, but I feel like I’m already losing the battle.

    Sorry so long, but great blog… hope you’re enjoying the Tour!

  2. Hi there Kylie – will reply to your earlier email next time I’m in at work (but things looking up in book-land, thanks).

    The competitive streak can certainly be a curse. It’s injured me in more ways than one and I’m really struggling watching it happen all over again… And perhaps even seeing it in Cadel who doesn’t seem to have the team to back up his ambitions either. BTW, Ashes + Tour = a sleepless month at your place!

    Chat soon, T

  3. Wasn’t going to ask about book-land but can’t wait to hear!! Agree with you about Cadel too- that’s particularly heart breaking- having the drive and the talent but not the support 🙁

    Oh, and July is *not* looking like a good month for my marraige, you’re quite right. Should I choose, however, I could spend every single evening at the PC without one single complaint about neglecting my wifely duties!

    Again, I just loved the blog- it really hit a nerve. Good stuff. Will talk when you’re back in the real world- stay away as long as you can!

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