Recently, a friend of mine asked if I am competitive. It was a friendly question. I laughed,
“Who me, competitive?”
I was being sarcastic. We were at a party, it was one of those exchanges where I wasn’t sure how she meant the question or how she would take the answer. What I wanted to say was that there are only three types of people who go to MIT: the naturally brilliant type, the extremely tenacious and competitive type, and those who are both. Since I have met plenty of brilliant people, I know that I have to fall into that tenacious category. I did not say that. I laughed and filled her wine glass. I took it as a compliment. I try not to be competitive with my mommy friends.
On Saturday, I was at my daughter’s soccer game. She is three years old. At three years old, soccer is more of a photo opportunity than a serious game, but the kids have fun and gain the confidence of having played before. I have never been a super-athlete, but team play is important. I am extremely competitive with myself. I try to spare my children.
Gladys became one with soccer on Saturday. She was raging down the field in purple striped pants, sparkly sneakers, arms flailing, tongue lolling out, unkempt curls waving in the wind, and complete control of the ball. She would stop it heading in the wrong direction, turn it around, dribble it down the field and score. She did it again and again: eleven goals. E-LE-VEN.
I started thinking about my field hockey coach in high school. He was a 6-foot 4-inch Vietnam Veteran, a marine. When he wasn’t teaching remedial math, he was pumping iron. He ran us hard; the good kind of hard that makes your eyeballs sweat, but leaves you looking forward to practice tomorrow. He ran up and down the sidelines during our scrimmages, shouting out encouragement, pointing out errors.
“Jennifer, you should have had that one, stick down, head in the game.”
“Pass it, pass it. Kristin, you weren’t ready, keep your feet moving, anticipate the play.”
During the games, he would give us a little encouragement, here and there, but mostly he was quiet. The ref would make a call and you would see him walk towards the bleachers, turning his back to the team.
Towards the end of practice one day, one of my teammates asked him about it.
“Coach, I thought that was really a bad call in the game Saturday. You didn’t say anything to the ref. Did you think it was a bad call? Wasn’t it a bad call?”
“I’ll help you ladies in practice, but the game is up to you. The ref doesn’t make you lose a game.”
“You ladies can win the game. You play to the call. Play your best. That’s it.”
The silence remained.
“Now, what do you think it looks like when someone my size gets upset about something he cares about?”
We were all looking at our cleats.
“Go! Five laps, give me all you got, then take it in.”
We did. We all gave it all we had. He did care. He cared a lot, maybe too much. We didn’t win very many games, but we all tried really hard. I ran sprints with my hockey stick on weekends. I charged the ball so hard once, the other girl was taken off the field due to a concussion. I bet it was hard for him to watch sometimes.
“Hey coach! Look! Maybe there WAS an athletic gene in my body. Maybe she’ll be as athletic as she is tenacious. Now, wouldn’t you have just loved that!”