I was a swimmer in high school. Not a very good swimmer, although looking back, I realize that I worked hard and probably had more natural talent than I gave myself credit for at the time. During those years, swim team was all about the music we piped underneath the water (lots and lots of Steve Miller Band), wearing our Stratford Swimming sweatshirts on meet day, riding the bus together, and huddling in the team circle before we took to the blocks. It was not about racing. In fact, the only blemish on swimming season was the fact that I actually had to race.
I’d stand at the blocks, surveying the competition, looking to the center lanes to see the gleam in the eyes of the strongest swimmer. Unlike me and most of the girls in the other lanes, she wanted it. I just wanted it to be over– the nerves, the anticipation, the knowledge that I wouldn’t win. I’d often be ahead of the predicted winner going into the final lap, but I’d seen the gleam, I knew she wanted it more, wouldn’t it be rude not to let her have it? Of course, I don’t think not giving it my all was a conscious decision, but I do know I that I valued playing nice over winning.
My area of expertise in sport is limited: I’m pretty decent when I just have to go forward in one direction, hopeless when a ball enters the picture. Twenty years later, I still don’t think I have the gleam in my eye, the desire to go out and kick butt. I’m still likely to be deferential when I think someone else wants it more during a race. A few weeks ago I ran a marathon hard for the first nineteen miles, and when I realized I wasn’t going to beat my personal best time, I took a break, got a drink, and jogged easy the last seven miles.
Is this a trait peculiar to me? One that goes hand in hand with my inability to ever stand up for myself as a child when the girl across the street bossed me around, with my utter lack of confidence, even now, to tell those close to me when I think they’re about to do something dumb?
In the Winter 2009 issue of Segullah, Marilyn Bushman-Carlton seems to imply that the desire to play nice in sport (and in life) is a trait that we may instill unknowingly in our daughters in her poem, “The Girls’ Game.” She speaks of fathers, watching their young girls play soccer:
where they watch their own daughters
hesitate, lend a hand
to another who is down,
and hear, Oh, sorry! No, YOU go ahead!
rise like doves from the din of the game,
The fathers walk from the field, disappointed, but what about the mothers? Are they pleased by their girls’ good manners or do they hesitate when they see their own deference reflected in their daughters?
My husband and I both spend time on our favorite message boards. On mine, the women say happy birthday to each other, cheer for successes and pray for their friends in times of trial. We rarely criticize. On my husband’s message board, they wisecrack, point out lapses in logic, and call each other boneheads (and worse). Mine’s a community. His is a lot more fun to read.
So when my own daughter stomps to the car in a rage when her project doesn’t win at the science fair, do I tell her it’s okay and that winning isn’t that important, as I’ve been wont to think? Or do I help her strategize and make sure she kicks tail next year? Do I help her become a warrior? Do I even know how?