I've watched my son play sports for five or six years. Soccer... baseball... basketball... football. Whatever sport was seasonal. He is sinewy as a whip, fast in short bursts... but he is twitchy. I don't mean he has a twitch. I mean that the energy bursts from him like a hummingbird which doesn't serve you well in sports where long graceful motions are often necessary. Where the other boys were out gracefully scooping grounders and dancing toward first base, throwing in one smooth flow... my son was bouncing around like he had to pee... diving on balls and whipping them around with questionable accuracy. He hated soccer because it was all running all the time. He can only run in short bursts. We didn't make it past the second practice for basketball because jerky motions don't fit with the smooth jump shots. In football, his jerky motions helped him elude some tackles... but his heart wasn't really in it.
Don't get me wrong... he was never the worst at anything he did. In fact, he had natural ability in nearly everything he tried. Just not enough to make him excel. He was a "second group" kid. You can categorize the kids in three groups... the kids who are naturals... the big, kids, with the right genes whose parents were the stars of their respective sports and push their kids from birth to be good at what the parents think they should be good at, until such time as the kids come to their senses and go off to find there own way in the world. Group two... are the kids that aren't terrible... but aren't great either. These "B" players will luck into making the star play from time to time... but as time and talent separates the level A from the B... the gap becomes apparent to everyone... the kid included, and so they hang up their cleats. Group three... are the kids the have no ability at all. Every team has at least two. The crowds roar for them if they happen to stop the ball with their stomach... or in sheer blind luck the ball finds their bat once during the season. At the beginning they think the cheers are cool, but after a few years, even THEY roll their eyes at themselves and hope that their parents will give up the whole ruse.
For years, my son lobbied us to let him play hockey. My wife and I were both firm with our negative answer. "Too rough... too costly... too much travel..." We had heard it all before. Rolling our eyes at those parents that spent time and money driving hither and yon at all hours of the morning to get their kids to practice. But my resolve weakened one day and we signed him up for a no-checking in-line hockey league. For several practices and several games, I watched him... as I have for all the other sports...twitching away with nervous energy. Except that this twitchyness was on wheels. Unless he was on his back, which he frequently was. He scored a goal or two mostly on lucky rebounds. His twitchy, jerky legs standing in contrast to the better skaters and their long fluid glides. I was ready for the inevitable "group two" status.
Then before game three the coach asked if anyone wanted to play goalie. And my son's little hand shot up like a rocket.
Hockey goalies are a different breed of person, I have found out. They are loners in a team sport. They are a little "off" as one of the coaches said. You have to be, I suppose, to subject yourself to hard pucks coming at your head at speeds up to a hundred miles an hour. They are the last line of defense... the ones that lose the game, not the ones that win them. And never in his short life have I ever seen my son embrace something so whole-heartedly. His quirky little movements and hummingbird motions suddenly gelled... like a fuzzy picture that suddenly snaps into crystal clear focus. When he strapped the pads on and went to "play the line" as they call it... he was at home. He knew the angles, and the motions, and the strategy even though he hadn't had a teacher. They were hard wired into this skeleton. And all I could do was stand behind the boards and hold my breath.
He embraced the "offness" that was expected of him. He began wearing mismatched socks... red and yellow... garrulously contrasting with his blue uniform. His games consisted of long periods of boredom punctuated by moment of flurrying terror. To overcome the boredom, he sings to himself. And his jerky movements have fine tuned themselves into catlike reflexes... with the vision to track and follow a three inch puck in the middle of eight crashing bodies.
In his first game... his team won... in overtime. In his first season... his team made the league finals... only to lose by a goal. In his second season... his team returned to the championship... and this time won by a goal... in overtime. In the stands... we would hear once a game..."Who is that goalie?" When I started coaching, the opposing coaches would seek me out to talk about what I had done to create this prodigy. And I laughed and admitted that I had done absolutely nothing. What else can you do?
The lesson is there. Loud and clear. There are things that all of us are wired for. You are. I am. Often times we get lost in the shuffle of life doing what others expect of us, rather than doing what we are good at. And when you find those things, they pull you in unforeseen directions. It is best to follow that path... for however long it lasts. "Follow your bliss," as the great Joseph Campbell would say.
He might quit next week for all I care. It will take care of itself. And there are many other discoveries ahead of him, I hope. Things that he falls into that are as natural as putting on a glove... a hockey glove. Parenting isn't about working them in to something that you want them to do. It is getting up and driving them places to try new things until something clicks... and then holding your breath while you watch them do it. And maybe... just maybe... learning from them, and taking the risk again to play your own line.
It is never too late.
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