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Dad Next Door: Game on

A little encouragement from across the fence


If you had walked down our street on any cold, rainy evening from about 2002 to 2009, you might have heard a strange, unfamiliar noise: a metallic PING, followed immediately by another sound like a rim shot on a drum. You’d hear it every five seconds or so, punctuated now and then by a yelp of pain from a middle-aged man.

And if you’d followed that sound to our brightly lit garage and peered in through the window, this is what you would have seen: me wearing a catcher’s mask and chest protector, pitching Wiffle balls at my daughter, and her swinging an aluminum bat and driving them back at me as hard as she could.

I was Maddie’s softball coach, which is ironic, since my own Little League career was short, undistinguished and half-hearted. But despite all that, I was her first coach and her biggest fan.

And from the first time she stepped up to the plate, barely able to heft a bat, to the last game of her college career, I was there. I beamed with pride when she drove in the game-winning run. I cringed when she got wiped out by a collision at home plate. I fumed when she sat on the bench while lesser players took the field. I did the sports parent thing for everything it was worth.

At the time, I thought I did it for her, but that was only partly true. I was a faded high school jock, craving one more ride on the Glory Days Express, and she was my ticket. So when Maddie outgrew me and started playing for real coaches, and when my younger daughter Juliana decided she wanted to play Ultimate Frisbee in middle school, I eagerly switched gears and picked up my coaching whistle again.

Little did I know, my real education as a sports parent was about to begin.

Whereas Maddie inherited both my love of athletics and my competitive zeal, Juliana had never really taken to sports. She’d tried softball and soccer, but was always the kid standing near the sideline, as far from the action as possible, trying not to be seen. So when she showed a genuine interest in playing Ultimate, I was thrilled. I made it my job to help her succeed.

We had some work to do. Her running style was awkward, to say the least — like Pee-wee Herman chasing a bus. We worked on bending her elbows and knees. We added leg drive and lean. We sprinted up hills and stairs. She got a little faster, then a lot faster, and soon she was faster than me. Next, we worked on quickness and acceleration, then jumping and changing direction. And finally, we threw a Frisbee. And then we threw it some more. And some more after that.

But the thing about Ultimate is that it’s not like other sports. Sportsmanship isn’t just a side dish — it’s the main course. Players self-referee, and decide disputes by discussion and consensus.

If a player they’re defending scores a point, they congratulate them. Sometimes teams play wearing goofy costumes, just for fun. And at the end of the game, both teams lock arms in a big circle and play silly games and give out awards. They call it The Spirit of the Game.

That spirit extends to the sidelines as well. It’s almost bad form for a parent to know what the exact score is. You cheer for your kid’s team, but you’re expected to cheer for good plays on either side. For a hypercompetitive guy like me, that took some getting used to. But in the end, it forced me to take a hard look at why I wanted my kids to play sports in the first place.

We often equate “success” in sports with winning, even though scoring a goal, hitting a home run or winning a particular game is meaningless in the end. But that doesn’t make sports trivial.

They’re a great laboratory for life skills that kids never get to practice in the protected little bubbles we build around their lives. Where else can they push themselves beyond what they thought was possible? Where else can they experience risk, and failure, and grace under pressure? Where else must they subordinate their individual desires to the needs of a team?

But of all the lessons in sports, I think the most valuable is the one my daughters learned whacking Wiffle balls in our garage and throwing Frisbees for hours on end — that if you keep doing it, you get better at it. As blogger, humorist and deep thinker Tim Urban once wrote: A remarkable, glorious achievement is just what a long series of unremarkable, inglorious tasks looks like from far away.

It’s hard for this prideful sports parent to admit, but it doesn’t matter that my daughters got good at sports. What matters is that they figured out how to get better at anything, and that now they know how to do it again.

Jeff Lee makes fewer painful yelps than he used to, in Seattle

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