Recently my son has been talking about something new - basketball. While I should not be entirely surprised given my own famed Jewish middle school basketball career (2 points and an incredible bounce pass), his interest is definitely not something I seeded.
I am nothing if not a supportive father, so we decided to sign him up for a boys youth basketball team.
On the day of the first practice after school he had a snack, changed into a pair of mesh shorts, a t-shirt, and threw on a Denver Nuggets warmup sweat suit, which was freaking adorable.
We drove across town to the recreation center where practice was held and my son was pumped. We got to the gym and it was swarming with little kids running all over the place and parents assembled on some sideline bleachers.
I walked over to the coach and asked if this was the boys 7-8 practice. He told me that this was the 5-6 year old practice and the 7-8 practice would start shortly. My son and I found some space on the bleachers to wait. This was the first sign of trouble - my son was probably average size for the 5-6 year old group.
We noticed another boy on the bleachers and asked his dad if he was waiting for the 7-8 year old practice. He was, so I thought I'd get my son to introduce himself so he'd have a "friend" on the team from the start.
The coach blew the whistle and told all the 7-8 year olds to grab basketballs and "warm up." I got nervous because my son has no organized sports experience outside of whatever happens in gym class. To my surprise, my son just ran out grabbed a ball and started dribbling with all of his concentration and effort. I was very proud.
I was also concerned. The boys were for the most part much bigger than my son. They all seemed to have played a lot of basketball judging by their shooting acumen and cross over dribbling. The father of our new "friend" commented that his son was on the young side having turned seven only a few months ago. My son turned seven a week ago!
The start of practice went great. There were running drills, which my son put all of his heart into. He was easily 25% slower than the next slowest kid out there. When all the other kids were at the opposite gym wall, my son was still at the three point line. And as the kids ran back to the original baseline, my son would shrink away to avoid getting hit by the bigger boys.
The coach taught the kids the different lines on the court and had the kids run to each line as he called it out. In spite of being smaller and slower, my son was giving it his all and participating. Everything was going great.
Next the team moved to dribbling practice. The kids had to dribble in single file up and down various lines on the court. My son was by far the least coordinated dribbler. No surprise here - he's hardly ever played basketball.
I looked up and noticed my son sitting on a bench on the opposite sideline. My feelings of pride at the effort my son was showing and the risk he was taking trying something new changed to worry. I walked across the court to see what was up.
My son was hysterically sobbing and my heart sank. I knew what he was feeling. My thoughts turned to the time I tried out for my high school's soccer team in ninth grade.
I keenly remember having to run a mile and being dead last with a 7:15 time. I also recall being asked to juggle the ball, seeing every other boy juggle indefinitely while all I could manage was one or two kicks.
It is the feeling of being out-classed, over-matched, and of not belonging.
I told my son how proud I was of him and asked him what was wrong. I told him to take a breath and then another. What he said next broke my heart.
"I'm not good at this," he sobbed.
"Of course you aren't! This is your first time doing this. Basketball takes a lot of practice and all of these boys seemed to have been on teams before." I said over and over again that I was incredibly proud of him and that he should be proud of himself.
To my surprise he went back out into the practice! I was totally ready to take him home at that point, but he got up with his youth sized basketball and ran back into line for the next drill.
As proud as I was over his risk taking at the start of practice, I was even more impressed and in awe of how he was able to recover and persevere. I went back to the bleachers, the practice continued, and my son showed resilience.
The final drill was a shooting drill. While all of the other kids could hit the rim and even sink some baskets, my son couldn't get the ball within two feet of the already lowered hoop.
The coach divided the boys into two teams and had them line up and shoot one at a time from the block under the net. After each basket, the boys had to count. The team that counted to ten first would win and the losing team would have to do push ups.
This proved to be too much for my son. He didn't want to be embarrassed and walked back off the court to where I was sitting. I reiterated how proud I was of him and we watched the end of practice together. We thanked the coach at the end and then got some french fries.
My son told me he didn't want to go back.
I'm actually okay with this. I'm not going to force my son into playing on this team where he is going to just feel uncomfortable all the time. I should have realized that he'd be the youngest kid having just turned seven, so I set him up for failure. And it is not like I don't want him to have to exercise some grit, but he does this in so many other spaces of his life.
The big picture is that while he was the slowest, least coordinated, and youngest kid on the court, he was also likely the best reader. I have no doubt that he could easily assemble a lego set that would leave any of the other kids on that team in tears.
When he is ready for team sports again, there will be opportunities. Until then he and I resolved to go to another recreation center and shoot around together each week after school. And hopefully we'll get more french fries.