April 11, 2009

How Good I Want To Be

Playing sports with local kids here has given me a totally new outlook on how good an older person should be at sports. After some reflection, I've realized these are also things I learned from my dad. I think older people should be good enough in sports to:
  • Throw a ball and make kids say, "Wow, look at that!" In Mongolian kids say, "Yaaa, yamar goy!" ("Yaaa, how nice/beautiful!") This isn't complicated. Sometimes it means throwing a football with a nice spiral, or shooting a basketball with good form, or tossing a frisbee right where you want it to go. Play well enough that kids look good when imitate you (and they will trust me).
  • Have enough energy to keep up with kids for as long as they want to play. This means you say "yes" when kids ask if you can play, no matter how tired or busy you are. It means you keep playing even when you would normally give up, and it means you smile even when you can't believe you are being outrun by a kid one third your size.
  • Play hard enough that it makes kids want to play that much harder. Chase them to the ball, but let them beat you to it right at the end. Run when you could jog. Jog when you could walk. Go get the ball when it goes out of bounds. And hustle because hustling is more important than talent. Kids need to hear about it but more importantly they need to see it; you need to show them what hustling is.
  • Play every sport well enough that you can teach it to a kid. Soccer, football, frisbee, basketball, volleyball, golf, tennis, ping pong, swimming, baseball, everything. Learn it, play it, practice it. You don't have to be great at it, it doesn't matter. Kids will think you are great. And when you play with them, you will be great.
  • Always throw the ball to every kid. The kids standing nearby watching you play wanna play too. Toss them the ball, softly right to their chest so they can't miss it, and tell them to come play. Constantly change up teams and include every kid you can. Pass to the small kids the same as the big kids, the girls as often as the boys, and keep teams even. Step out when you need to and let the kids play together.
  • Congratulate kids infrequently enough to make it special and consistently enough that kids know when they can expect it. Clap when someone makes a good play (no matter which team they are on), pat kids on the shoulder, give them high fives, smile at them, give them a hand when they fall, say "good job!" in whatever language they love the most and tell them thank you for playing hard and giving their best. My favorite thing to do is clap for a kid who gave their all - ran as hard as possible, dove for it, did everything they could. If they missed, that doesn't matter. If they keep playing like that throughout their whole life, they will always get better.
  • Do things that will amaze kids. You can do this many different ways: you can bounce a golf ball on your club like Tiger, dribble a ball between your legs, throw a frisbee across a football field, spin a basketball on your finger, or do something special like my dad...

I already thought my dad was special when I was a kid. He could play everything, his spirals were perfect, his placement was always spot on, and he never seemed to make a mistake. But as I got older, I noticed I would challenge him sometimes. Occasionally he would miss a shot, I would steal the ball from him, or I would have to jump to catch a throw of his that was just a little off. I thought I might getting better, but that wasn't the whole story. I'm not sure how old I was when I finally figured it out, but I was much older than I care to admit...

One day when we were playing football, I noticed he switched hands while he was throwing with me and I saw the prettiest spiral I had ever seen. Later when we were playing basketball, he switched hands halfway through a game and he never missed another shot. Much later, completely beat, I asked him what hand he had been using. "Usually I use my left hand," he told me. I knew he was right-handed, not left-handed. "You're right," he said, "but I like the challenge of playing with both." My whole life he had been beating me, in basketball, in football, in ping pong, in tennis, in everything, with his left hand. I thought I was getting better and I was. I had just learned I was now good enough to play against his right hand.

As I get older, I am starting to enjoy the challenge of playing with both hands too. Hopefully one day I'll be good enough to play with my own kids and break the same news to them, as they stand there staring back at me with their mouths gaping wide open. When it comes down to it, I guess that's really how good I want to be, as good as my dad.