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Doing It Wrong

The upside of having a child with interests different than your own is the opportunity to learn about and appreciate something new. The downside is the nearly limitless potential for botching it.

Here at Cowling Avenue, Simon’s sportiness is bumping up against my cluelessness in surprising ways. Specifically, I have misread what is telling and/or meaningful about Simon’s athletic efforts at this point. Any new insight is owing to our friend Barry, the most accomplished athlete I know, and the BBC World Service on the radio.

Let’s start with swimming. Simon plugged away at lessons for 10 straight months, a half-hour per week. All but one month occurred when the outdoor pool was closed, so there was no pool time other than lessons. By early spring, he had a nice little backstroke and was being recruited for swim team. A coach even called him “a natural”.

He’s not. What he is is teachable and eager to please. All the while Simon learned the mechanics of stroke, he remained somewhat nervous in the pool, and he never worked to develop any independent underwater or doggy-paddle swimming ability. I thought this strange, but didn’t know what to make of it.

Then just this week, I caught an Olympics-related interview with a swim coach on the BBC. He explained that competitive levels of swimming required three things: genetic athletic ability, a natural feel for the water, and a willingness to sacrifice years and years for the sport. He then elaborated on the second bit: Some people naturally work with the water, while others fight against it.

A light bulb went off. Simon is a fighter. He’ll learn to swim and he’s starting to have fun, but he’s no fish. By contrast, his friend Caroline is part mermaid. I had both kids at the pool Tuesday, and at one point we were practicing a pre-backstroke exercise both had learned at lessons. Simon does it perfectly but still won’t go far on his own in the pool. Caroline never got it: her arms either didn’t move at all or moved the wrong way at every command. Then she got bored, told me that she’s seen the backstroke on TV, and proceeded to swim a credible little backstroke clear across the pool. She even has the natural side-to-side swivel that Simon never quite got. She’s such a natural that she didn’t even understand why Simon and I were cheering so loudly at her accomplishment.

Next up, tennis. Many of Simon’s McEnroe-esque on-court melt-downs came after he failed to chase down a ball I knew he had no chance of reaching. No one under four feet is going to be able to go from the extreme right side of the net to the extreme back corner of a full-sized court in time to get in position and hit the ball. Given the heat this summer and up against limits of human endurance, I’d beg him to let those balls go. “Simon,” I’d say, “there’s no way you can run that far that fast. When I accidentally hit to a corner like that, let it go. Save your energy for the ones you can reach so you can get lots of practice hitting the ball.”

Again with the bad advice! This past weekend, Barry explained to me that lots of people overly focus on hand-eye coordination when it comes to kids’ tennis. That’s all wrong. Kids can improve hand-eye coordination with time and practice, especially when they are old enough to start mastering specific techniques. (Not me, for the record, but most kids.) What’s important, he explained, is that kids have the speed, endurance, and desire to chase down every ball that comes across the net, no matter how far or how fast it travels.

He illustrated this story with the tale of a YouTube sensation who could seemingly hit everything that came to him, was declared a prodigy and sent to an expensive tennis clinic, and ultimately bombed out because he only wanted to stand still in one spot and hit balls that came straight to him. It’s good that Simon has a natural stroke. It’s great that he understands how to move his feet to get into good position for those strokes. But the most telling and significant thing about his tennis playing at this time is his instinct to do exactly what I was cautioning against!

Will Simon ever be on a swim team? Probably not, but who knows? Will he play tennis in high school or college? Again, it’s too early to say. But the odds of one are certainly greater than the other assuming his athletically challenged mother doesn’t muck it all up with bad direction.

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