Did I state that too bluntly? I think not. You want her to spike that ball down the other team's throat, pop the net from the 3 point line, slap-bunt that ball, for all the times a boy teased her and made her feel inferior, or when that girl looked her up and down and made her feel worthless, or when the teacher didn't take her seriously. I know you.
I also know when your amazing daughter serves the ball into the net, air-balls a free throw, or errors at first base, you feel her disappointment and humiliation in your guts. And you feel it that keenly because you know how many gallons she has sweated, you know the late nights of homework after games so she can keep up her grades, and you know when she's had a hard day of feeling like she's not enough because even if she's the kind who doesn't want to talk to you very much, you know stuff about her by the way she carries her backpack to the car after school, by the way her eyes hit the ground when she walks past that boy.
And you feel it because when she is playing, you are out there with her. You are picturing yourself righting all the wrongs committed against your own femininity with every successful slide into home.
I know these things about you because I see the intensity on your faces, hear the pain in your voice when you protest the official's call and I know that most of you who are mothers of female athletes, used to be athletes yourself.
I know because I am you.
My dad started teaching me to shoot a basketball back when I was so small I had to use both arms to scoop up that giant ball. He mounted a full sized goal about 3 feet off the ground on the wall of our garage so he could lower the door and keep the area warm with a space heater while he "practiced" with me in the winter. I played on my first rec league team when I was in the 4th grade. Here I am in the 6th grade:
|Sunnyvale Raiders, 1983|
Like most 4 year old girls, performing a gymnastics routine for my parents in the living room, I thought I was fabulous. No exclamation point needed. It was just a simple fact. At 4, I'd never had a dance lesson in my entire life, but I was destined to be a famous circus performer. Of that, I was sure. But by the time this picture was made, I felt plain, ordinary, unimportant and ignored. (This isn't a commentary on how I was parented. I know this because I read Wild at Heart and Captivating when my girls were young. I make a very conscious effort to instill the belief and confidence in my girls that they are beautiful, they are valuable, and still they are assaulted by unseen forces that tear them apart from the inside out.)
But, unlike some girls, feeling unnecessary didn't make me cower inside myself. I was a true, stereotypical redhead, of the hot-tempered, Irish, Oklahoma land-run variety. I got angry. Very angry. I was angry at boys for not noticing me. I was angry at teachers for not calling on me in class or failing to nominate me for yearbook staff. I was mad at my sisters for being happy and giggly all the time - the nerve. I was mad at my parents for you know, just, whatever.
And I released it all on the court. Dodgeball, kickball, basketball, volleyball. The harder I could throw, kick or hit that ball, the better I felt. Here is a picture of me in the 8th grade that made it into the yearbook:
|Sunnyvale Raiders, 1985|
#5, behind me, is Monti, my partner in crime for many years.
Fist-bump to Monti, who was one of the strong girls in my life.
I was really good at putting on the "I'm sorry I let you down, Coach" face, as I walked off the court to take my place on the bench for the remainder of the game, when, in truth, I was notching my proverbial belt with every foul-out and technical foul I earned. I had a problem, ya'll. And what I once wore with defiant pride, I now re-visit with sadness for that girl who didn't know how to view herself through God's eyes.
Eventually, sports did for me what all the studies say it will do for girls: It made me more confident, more focused, kept me drug and alcohol-free. But it took years of sweat, thousands of bruises, one horrific, skin-shredding fall over the hurdles at a track meet, and a final spat with the volleyball coach, before the anger started leeching out of my soul.
|Poteet Pirates, 1986|
(This picture was taken my freshman year of high school. I played volleyball and basketball and ran track until my sophomore year, and continued playing volleyball through my junior year, but this is the last picture I have because of a "mishap" when the people we were renting a house to took it upon themselves to "clean out" a storage shed for us. An incident that cost me almost all of my high school and college pictures and mementos.)
So, yes, in a fit of anger at a coach, I quit the team my senior year. Such a proud day in my history.
But, the good thing that came from me being a bratty quitter, was that I found out this thing I thought was my life, wasn't. I started to learn there was more to me than just being angry, competitive, and hot-tempered. I figured out that I cared passionately about downtrodden, mistreated, alienated people. Hmm, degree in social work?
I will confess something to you: Just a couple of days ago, I was sitting in the stands watching my 13 year old and her teammates warm up before a volleyball game against the arch-rival team. Crazy, wayward balls were flying all over the gym and I was fantasizing about one of them flying up into the stands where I was sitting. In my fantasy, I would stand up, with perfect timing and precise aim, spike the ball down to my girl, who would libero-style dig the ball with a perfect pop-set to her teammate. It was a beautiful scene...until I remembered I never could spike the ball, even when I was 17. And then I recalled about a month ago, when I was at a sports-themed birthday party for a 5 year old boy, I attempted shooting some hoops with a friend. Every time I shot the ball I peed my pants. It's the truth. And the last time I played a softball game, my left rotator cuff rose up in angry protest and said, "You're 41, not 23! Get REAL!"
And, yet, with all my personal issues, God saw fit to give me 4 daughters to raise. I am humbled and a little scared. Two of my girls have traditional athletic potential, and the other two are bent toward art and theater. Make no mistake: in our house, art and theater are competitive, athletic events...only with more interesting "uniforms". (Note: My theater girl refers to her sister's team uniform as a "costume." It's all fair. No flag on that play.)
So, here's the deal, Sports Mamas: I know you. I see your heart. You might be on the sidelines physically, but your spirit is on the field. You are in the huddle, offering encouragement. You are on the bench, giving high-fives as girls are subbed in and out of the game. You win the award for Best Supporting Actress! Just yesterday, a cheer mom was lamenting to me that she couldn't be at the game to watch her girl cheer and she worried that she wouldn't be there if her daughter was injured during a stunt. Even though I have only recently personally accepted Cheer as a sport, I applaud that mama because she gets it.
It's about uniting with our daughters in a sisterhood that makes them stronger. Not brute feminists, like I was for so long, but truly strong. Confident. Focused. Beautiful. Secure. Knowing our strength and value are bestowed on us by our Creator at birth, not something we have to take by force.
So, the next time I hear you cheering for your girl, even if she is on the rival team of my girl, I will remind myself to not take it personally. I will smile, knowing there is one more girl in the world who has her mama on her team.
And I will pray for the millions of girls who are playing the game alone.