At aged six or so, my dreams began as I disappeared through the headboard of my bed. My headboard was made of black, shiny plastic, think patent leather, but cheaper, with a mirror like surface. I thought I could make out my reflection. Like Alice, but before I’d heard of Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, I’d somehow slip from my bed into an alternate world in my headboard’s reflection.
The tennis great Arthur Ashe said, “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.” It is a perfect life lesson to be sure, and I wish I had that quote as motto when I was coaching soccer, both for myself and for my kids. But tennis, better than any other sport I know, reliably rewards that mindset.
In all the team sports (and most of life), kids like me struggle with the sensation of being out of place. Putting a team together, in baseball, softball football and soccer almost always results in participants who at least half the time feel inadequate. A few will revel in stardom, and now and again someone like my Romanian team member, a soccer savant, will appear in a league that offers no challenge at all.
If you’re like me, all discussions of sports begin with trauma. Growing up, I was that cliché, the pudgy kid picked last for every team. My signature sports moment came around fifth grade when the little league team I played on (as the kid in left field who couldn’t catch a fly ball) designated me to be traded to the first-place team. If you’re an athlete, this might strike you as good news. But our league had a practice of making the teams more competitive at midseason by trading the worst player from the last place team (my team) for the best player from the first-place team. Imagine the ignominy of meeting your new teammates: “Hi, I’m here to ruin your chances.”
When Mr. Alex asked me to contribute to the Bookshelf for Father’s Day, as the old guy looking back on raising three sons, I thought I’d offer some reminiscence about about my kids’ eccentricities. I imagined I’d gently make the point that our kids need to be their own true selves, not our reflections, no matter how attractive we may find the mirror.