The summer of 2021 provided a lot of sports to follow for those who are so inclined, from the Tokyo Olympics to local baseball and swimming. As someone who has played competitive sports most of my life, I think this is a good time to reflect on the good, not so good, and funny aspects of these endeavors.
I learned to play tennis at the ripe old age of five, and participated in my first tournament at age six. Although the equipment was very different ( racquets were made of wood), I remember being about the same height as the net. So the above photo from Pexels media fits.
Everything was fun- I liked the sport, you only played in the summer, and lots of kids my age learned to play at the same time. Tournaments were very low key, and we were all fairly evenly matched. This continued until middle school, when you moved on to more practicing and tournaments if you were progressing in the sport. Eventually, it included travelling around the Midwest to more competitive play, but remained a good experience.
There were occasional glimpses into the less desirable aspects of kids sports- over zealous parents, kids who broke rackets on the court, and some cheating. But overall, it was a good activity from my point of view. Especially since Title IX hadn’t come around, so school sponsored competitive sports for girls were non-existent.
The funniest thing that happened to me was the time I was playing in a tournament out of town and I got a fly stuck in my ear during a singles match. You can’t take breaks other than to switch sides on the court, so my “fly in the ear” issue could have made me default and lose the match. Luckily, the tournament director took pity on me, and let me get it out. This involved lots of jumping around, shaking my head, and some tweezers. And I managed to finish, and win, the match.
My next phase of competitive sports was as a parent, and this started with micro soccer for my kids. Micro is for 4-6 year olds, and is played on a short field, without goalies. The kids can run, kick the ball, and shoot at will. No score is kept, and all of the players get a chance to play.
The above photos sum it up pretty well- varying levels of participation is the norm. Some kids run all over, some never move. If you have a very reluctant player, parents can take the child on the field and swing them like a pendulum so that their feet connect with the ball. And some kids sit out the entire time, or decide to play goalie even though there aren’t supposed to be any.
If you want to pursue soccer and play in high school or beyond, you have to switch to try out teams and year round playing by about fifth grade. This is true of other team sports, but I am most familiar with soccer.
The select teams and year round play weren’t my favorite thing, and it has only gotten more serious and competitive since my kids were young. I think playing a variety of sports is better than hyper focusing at such a young age. But if you want the best coaching, it tends to be on the select teams. And keeping kids physically active, and away from electronics, has some merit.
There were fun and funny aspects to some of the soccer games and tournaments. At one game, when my daughter was about 12, we were playing in a nearby city on a cloudy afternoon. Sitting with our team’s parents, I noticed the opposing parents arriving late, and several of them had large coolers on wheels. I thought they really went all out and brought food and drinks for their team.
Au contraire, naive soccer mom. The coolers were full of beer- tall boys to be exact- and by the end of the match many of the other team’s parents were well lubricated. And as the match ended, it started to rain. Two of the more colorful dads on the other team decided to start wrestling in the middle of the field, which quickly turned to mud. A teachable moment for ourgirls.
The other most memorable time was at a tournament in Kansas City. Our coach was in charge of two teams- ours and a group of younger girls, so we all stayed at the same hotel. They offered free breakfast and cocktails each evening, so what’s not to love? At the first night’s free cocktails, some of the moms on the second team decided to do cartwheels in the bar. The girls were there, and thought this was embarrassing but funny.
Some of the moms on our team, yours truly included, weren’t drinking, but decided to try some cartwheels too. But we went to our floor, and tried this in the hallway. It didn’t go too well. Let’s just say the center of gravity had shifted for all of us, who were in our 40’s at the time. So partial cartwheels were all we could muster, and I am being generous calling them partial. As luck would have it, our daughters came upon us trying to do this. They all thought we were inebriated when we really were just old and a bit pudgy. Thankfully, this was before smart phones and videos.
My adult years in sports started with some women’s tennis teams that were part of a program throughout the country sponsored by the USTA. This offered great competition, and if you won at the local level, you could play regionally and nationally. I enjoyed the first few years, but eventually the competition really got out of hand.
Cheating was rampant the closer you got to qualifying for the regional event. This was done through bad line calls- yelling “out” when a ball was clearly in. It topped anything I ever encountered in my younger days, including playing in college. Something about getting those crystal paper weights shaped like tennis balls as prizes turned several women into nasty opponents. So between that and several injuries, I gave up the game and switched to golf. I know better than to play golf for anything other than fun, so no stories about competition gone awry there.
My current competitive sport is pickleball. It is a recent sport, developed by older folks, who still want to play a racket sport but need some adaptations. So it is played on a smaller, modified version of a tennis court, with large plastic balls, and a small racket that resembles a ping pong paddle. Games are usually doubles, and the first team to 11 points wins. It is great exercise and easy to learn.
But like all sports there are some interesting things that happen, especially if Baby Boomers are involved. Outside of cities that have lots of retired folks (like Phoenix), games are co-ed. This creates some awkward moments when some of the older guys assume they are better players than all of the older women. This leads to lots of unsolicited advice about strokes and strategy.
I can usually hold my own with the guys since it is very similar to tennis, but the advice still rears its head occasionally. I used to ignore it, but have now developed the perfect comeback- “That’s interesting. I’ll let you know if I need any help”. The other way to nip it in the bud is to win a few points by myself.
I avoided learning to play pickleball for quite awhile because I thought the name was so strange. But once I took it up, I found it to be great exercise and one of the most inexpensive hobbies around. It’s also way more fun than a treadmill or exercise class, so I usually play several times a week.
I plan to play golf and pickleball for as long possible. Even with the occasional three putt at golf or missed shots on the pickleball court, these are great hobbies that keep me out of trouble in my retired years. But I’ve only been retired for 15 months, so there’s still time for some strange things to happen. I’ll save those for a future post!