Here is the conversation I have with my son three months before a given sport is meant to begin:
Me: Do you want to play [soccer, football, basketball, baseball] this year? Because sign-ups are now.
Here is the conversation I have with my son three minutes before the first day of practice for any given sport:
Me: Come on, get your shoes on, we’ve got to leave for practice!
Him (in tears): The thing is, mommy, I don’t really want to play [soccer, football, basketball, baseball] this year.
I used to get angry. We used to have fights about it. But now, after so many repetitions of this particular cycle, I’ve come to realize that it’s just his anxiety talking, and, if you’ve ever had any kind of anxiety yourself, then you know that there’s no arguing with it.
So now, what I usually do instead is try to remind him, in soft, soothing voices, that he’s just anxious, and that once he gets there he almost always has fun. Of course, this does absolutely nothing to relieve his anxiety and he cries and complains and plies me with what ifs the entire way there (what if I don’t know anyone on my team? What if my coach is mean? What if I’m the worst player?), but still, it’s better than arguing with him.
This weekend however, we had a sports anxiety of a different sort. It wasn’t that it was the first day of baseball season. Rather, it was evaluations for baseball season, when you get out in front of all of the coaches and bat, field, and pitch while they rate you on a scale of one to five. Because, you know, it’s really critical that we judge eight year-old boys as if they’re being scouted for the majors. But then again, it is super-important that dads with failed baseball dreams get to act out their fantasies of belonging to a professional ball club by standing on the sidelines with pens and clipboards, so I guess I can see why they do it.
Anyway, let’s just say that on a scale of one to five, my son’s anxiety level that morning was around, oh, maybe a twenty. So of course the crying and the I don’t really want to play baseball this year began the second he woke up. The way I saw it was, I had two choices. Choice number one: I could let him cry and be upset and talk to him in soft voices and remind him that he was just anxious but that it would pass and he would be okay. And I was fairly positive that if I did that, he would be a total mess and when it was his turn to try out he would suck really, really hard. Or, choice number two: I could turn into something akin to a high school football coach from west Texas. I had no idea how he would react to this, but my hope was that I could just shock the anxiety out of him, so that when he tried out he would… well, he would suck less. It was choice number two the whole way.
We got in the car. I plugged in my iPod and started blasting Eye of the Tiger. After a few refrains, I drew upon every sports movie down-at-halftime-depressed-locker-room-in-need-of-a-pep-talk scene I’ve ever watched, and began to yell.
Me (at the top of my lungs): Who’s gonna’ crush the ball?
Him (quietly, looking at me as if I’ve lost my mind): Me?
Me: Yes, you! You have skills! You’re good! But you have to yell it! I’m not going to stop yelling until you yell back! Now, who’s gonna’ crush the ball?
Him (slightly louder): Me.
Me: Yell it! Say, I’m gonna’ crush the ball!
Him (yelling, but still not fully onboard): I’m gonna’ crush the ball!
Me (realizing that this is the best I’m going to get out of him): Woooo-hoooooo! That’s right, baby! You are gonna’ crush that ball! Come on, now, let’s go to 7-11 and get you some Gatorade even though I just read in the New York Times that it has a chemical in it that’s banned in Europe because it causes cancer! Wooooooo-hoooooo! And let’s go crazy and get some real barbecue potato chips – not the baked kind!!
Him: Really? You’re letting me get real potato chips?
Now, it’s possible that the chemicals in the Gatorade did something to alter his brain, but I have to tell you, it worked. By the time we got to the field he was laughing and in a good mood, and I won’t say that he had the Eye of the Tiger, exactly, but at least he wasn’t paralyzed by fear.
He fielded pop-ups and grounders; when he was at bat, he made contact with the ball. When he pitched, he landed the ball almost in the vicinity of the strike zone. He hardly even sucked at all.
But the best part of it was, when it was over, he said he’d had fun, and he wanted to know how long he had to wait until the season started.