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.