Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Doing Your Best (part one)

Eli 11.2 has had a tough flag football season.

His coach has the players swap positions on every drive, so everyone plays on the offensive. On those drives, Eli is the center. He's also a wide receiver, but he's rarely targeted, even when he's wide open, to the point that even the quarterback's father is saying "Throw it to ELI!" at points during the game.

The team is successful--right now, they're undefeated--but they're leaky. The quarterback has thrown 5 interceptions in the last two games because he either locks on a to a receiver before the play or just heaves it downfield whenever he feels pressure. Plus, Eli is the fastest kid on the field, and in four games, he hasn't touched the ball once where he was in a position to run.

I've watched practice, and Eli is always the hardest working kid there. He has no idea why he isn't getting targeted on offense. Neither do I--the coach has always said that Eli is one of his favorite kids in his entire teaching career, and doesn't say it casually, because he talks about all of Eli's positive qualities, and he knows all of them.

There's also a kind of funky social dyamic on the team, and I think that bothers Eli more than anything else. Some of the kids, even in the sixth grade, have a huge desire to be the alpha male, so they do everything they can to align kids on "their" side.

Eli doesn't want to do any of that crap. He's the fastest kid out there, he works hard, and he wants to see the ball. He's happy that they're winning, but it's bittersweet, because sometimes he feels left out during games.

We've talked about this before, a few weeks ago, and I told him that football was an asymmetrical game in terms of roles--unlike hockey, where everyone is touching the puck and everyone is contributing. Plus, in hockey, he's the unquestioned leader. The other kids rely on his strength during games, no matter if he's in goal or playing as a defenseman, and he loves that. His effort is always rewarded.

In a larger context, this could be a good thing. The one sport I don't want Eli playing is tackle football, what with the incredibly disturbing data on sub-concussive impact accumulation. I didn't tell him he couldn't play, but I did have him read some of the articles about what researchers are finding, and they were very persuasive. Plus, he doesn't want to hurt other people by hitting them, and he's not too keen on getting hurt, either. That's why goalie will eventually be his one hockey position--he doesn't have to hurt anyone.

So this is his last season of football, because flag football ends after sixth grade, but it's turned into survival instead of enjoyment.

Last Wednesday, his team played a game, and he hit rock bottom. He'd been sick for a few days with some kind of respiratory virus, and that day was his first day back at school. He was jogging his routes, never running, barely even trying, and while he played well on defense, he looked so unhappy.

I can't remember the last time I saw him this unhappy.

I had planned to talk to him after the game, but since we he wanted to go to CPK for dinner (and Gloria had come in a separate car, because she comes later), he went with her and I went home to get some work done.

That night, about 8:00, I decided it was time to talk.

"I thought you played pretty well on defense," I said. "And your kickoffs were strong."

"Thanks, Dad," he said.

"Now I'm going to say one more thing, and you need to think about what I'm saying, becasue I'm trying to help you." He nodded. "Your routes sucked."

"No, they didn't," he said.

"You were jogging them," I said. "I wouldn't have thrown to you, either, because you were never open."

"I WAS open," he said.

"No," I said. "No, you weren't. You can't get open unless you run hard, and you weren't running."

"None of those plays were called for me!" he said. "I might as well jog. John's never going to throw to the second or third receiver. He'll never even look at me. It's just a big waste of time!"

"Look, I know you're getting screwed in targets, but all you can do is make yourself a better target," I said. "When he looks at you, you have to be looking at him, and you have to have your hands up like you're waiting for the ball."

"I do that. It doesn't do anything," he said, sullenly.

"It doesn't matter," I said. "You have to keep doing it. You have to run so hard, and be so open, that everyone there knows he's screwing up by not throwing you the ball. And you keep doing it, and keep doing it, until it starts to change."

"Dad, I was," he said, looking like he was about to cry.

"Little man, I"m sorry," I said, " but you weren't giving your best. You know you weren't."

"What does it even MATTER?" he said. "I almost never even touch the stupid ball!"

"I know," I said. "And I know it's not fair. But but not trying isn't going to make you feel better."

"NOTHING is going to make me feel better," he said, and a tear spilled down his cheek.

We never have a conversation like that. I don't even know how it got to that point, but I totally failed my son at that moment. Everything he was disappointed and upset about went in the wrong direction. I wasn't finding the right way to say what I wanted to say, and I wasn't saying it at the right time.

The next day, he was fine before he left for school, but I still felt terrible. His hockey development team had a big scrimmage that night (against the Squirt travel team), and he hadn't played in goal for over a week because he'd been sick.

I didn't need to fix him, or change him. I just needed to help restore him to be who he was.

When school let out, we walked back to the car and started driving. "Let's talk for a few minutes," I said.

"Okay," he said.

"Listen, I'm sorry about last night," I said. "I was telling you the truth"--

"I know you were," he said.

"--but I shouldn't have talked to you so late. You were exhausted. It was the wrong time."

"I was just too tired to listen," he said.

"I know," I said. "I think I was, too. So yesterday we were weak when we tried to talk, but today is different. Today, we're strong."

"Yes," he said. "I feel good today."

"I needed to say something to you last night, but I couldn't quite think of the clearest way to say it," I said. "I thought about it, though, and I can now. Why does it matter that you give your best effort?"

He thought for a moment. "Because I'll make people unhappy if I don't?" he asked.

"No," I said. "Because you make yourself unhappy when you don't." I paused. "Do you know why you were so unhappy yesterday? Because you knew you weren't really trying. Isn't that a miserable feeling?"

"Yeah," he said. "It really was."

"Do you know how many unhappy people give their best effort at everything?" I asked.

"Not very many," he said.

"None," I said. "In my whole life, I've never known anyone who was unhappy when they gave their best effort at everyting. I haven't known many people like that--it's pretty rare--but all of those people were happy and fulfilled, even if they weren't rich or famous or even noticed."

"Why is it rare? he asked.

"Because it's not easy," I said. "It's not easy to give your best day after day. It's a craft that you have to learn. But almost every unhappy person I know isn't giving their best at anything. Not their true best."

"Why do they do that?"

"It's not on purpose," I said. "Maybe their job isn't challenging them, so they can get by with doing less. Or they don't feel like their best is going to be rewarded, or even noticed. Or maybe they feel like there's nothing in their life that even needs their best. But not giving your best, not caring, is like a disease--it starts with one thing in your life, but then it infects something else, and before you know it, you're miserable."

"I never thought about it that way," he said.

"You're not giving your best effort for other people," I said. "You're giving it for yourself. And when you do that again and again, it's like a big wave that you've learned how to  ride, and you will do things that other people don't believe can be done. It will change other people's lives, and that's special, but mostly, it will change yours."

"So it doesn't really matter if I'm not getting the ball," I said.

"It does matter," I said. "It hurts, I know. But it doesn't mean you give less than your best. You run every route like your pants are on fire. You get open on every single play. You pull every flag you can on defense. And when the game is over, because you did that, you'll be happy when you walk off that field. You're happy because you did your very best, and that's something that no one can take from you.

"That's what I'm going to do," he said.

"It's not about the game," I said quietly. "It's about you."

We went in silence for a few seconds. Then I remembered one more thing.

"By the way, do you know how I learned all that?"

"How?" he asked.

"You taught me," I said.

[tomorrow: the hockey scrimmage, and another flag football game the next day]

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