Of Sportsmanship and Siblings


Two roads diverged in yellowed wood, and being lone traveler long I stood. Except the roads were actually choices because everything is a metaphor and the yellowed wood was more like a drought-ridden park. My wife was on her bike somewhere in the distance and I was walking toward her. The part about the choices was spot on though—Robert Frost knew his stuff.

The first option was a cowlicked boy all legs and dimples. He was upset by the actions of the other, who is a few inches taller and covered in shades of bronze and gold. The former was mostly justified and overreacting, the latter was seeing his brother behave in a way that was once his own market to corner: dramatically.

It was one lesson versus the other, the chronic rule breaker against the sudden poor sport. One having little respect for the game and the other believing it the only thing that matters. Both are too extreme for my tastes.

My athletic career is checkered at best, which isn’t so much a nod to checkers as it probably should be. I played little league baseball for a few seasons, but I couldn’t run, throw, hit, or catch, all of which were deemed important by everyone else involved, so I took to feigning afternoon headaches and blaming it on allergies, spreading out in the dugout with a bag of ice upon my head while my teammates rounded third and headed for home, their eyes on fire with the glory of childhood.

I joined a youth football team, and I only remember being in for one play—ever. I don’t even remember practicing. I was on defense and I had no idea what I was doing or why. Needless to say the other team scored right over my confused head. Granted, this scenario is due more to faulty coaching than anything else, but the ridicule and disgust that followed were enough to sour me on the idea of trying again.

There are similar stories about basketball, bowling and track, but the theme should be clear—I was not an athletic kid. I was too uncoordinated and not very good. It happens. The problem, though, was not my inability to achieve success, but that I was led to believe that my lack of skill meant I couldn’t play the games. Playing was for winning, not for fun, and so I found the other distractions of boyhood: comic books, dirt, and video games, and I pursued them with every ounce of my imagination.

It wasn’t until well after high school that I finally grew into my frame and gained any semblance of athletic prowess. It was then that I finally learned to love the game(s) and the joy that it brings. Still, I don’t regret the path I took. I had a blast and it got me here. But like every tale there is caution in it, and I see the warning signs in my boys today.

Which brings me back to the park, caught in backstory, where the boy that doesn’t want to play is no longer playing. His story is most like mine, but whereas I was driven by doubt his is fueled by apathy. He is athletic enough, although the constant losing to his brother does wear him thin, but he is not one for the status quo and thinks that game rules should be more like guidelines, open to improvement and improvisation. For instance, let’s pretend that the guy with the ball is invisible.

The boy that lives for sport had finally had enough. He started walking in the other direction and throwing his worldly positions every which way in the process. He understands that rules establish safety and boundaries and integrity. He understands that he is better than most at the games people cherish, and that drives him to be even better. It’s circular.

In their own respective ways they are both perfectionists and often perfection, but those ways overlap and they butt at each other. Something has to give, hence my standing in the middle wishing for a bicycle.

I decided to let the mad one calm down on his own. I had no desire for a flying shoe to the face, and besides, he was further away. Instead I approached the instigator.

“You know that it makes him mad when you don’t play right, don’t you?”

“I am playing right. I’m just not playing the way he wants me to play.”

“Fair enough, but if you agree to play a game you should play by the agreed upon rules.”

“He never lets me change the rules.”

“Have you ever asked him?”

“I tell him that we’re playing something different,” he said.

“You tell him,” I repeated. “Why not take the kind of approach that you would appreciate? Something a bit more conversational.”

“Plus, I have to change the rules because he always wins.”

And there was the rub.

Then we talked of skills and passions, of interests and joys, and through it all how we should strive to support one another. Eventually we were joined by his brother, his shoes loose upon his feet, and together we found a sidewalk that pointed the right direction. There was a blur of hugs upon it.

“The players make the game,” I told them. “The game does not make the player.” It sounded deep at the time, full of truth and prone to interpretation. I’ll probably use it again.

By the time we got home dinner was ready. It smelled amazing.

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