Only a Game

November 16, 2007
By Shalyn Stevens, Novato, CA

Ever since I was in kindergarten, I played softball every free moment I had. My sister joined a team when she was in third grade and I tagged along to all of her practices, watching with awe through the fence. I couldn’t wait until when I would be old enough to be on the other side of the fence, playing on that pristine field. When my mom would play catch with my sister in the backyard, I would grab my miniature glove and eagerly stand next to her, making my mom alternate throwing to us. As soon as I turned five, my mom signed me up for the mini division, and she hasn’t been able to take me off the field since. Throughout my softball career hardly a day went by that I didn’t have a sore muscle. I have broken bones, twisted countless ankles and sprained fingers. Right before a championship game I hurt my finger, but insisted it was fine, and pitched that whole game before going to the doctor to find out that it was broken. Two summers ago I was played in a tournament where I broke my nose and got a huge black eye that was swollen shut. My mother was more hurt by my injuries than I was. Be it broken, fractured, twisted or torn, none of the injuries bothered me because I loved the game and wanted to keep playing.

In sixth grade I joined a team from Petaluma and my parents had to drive me for an hour to get to every practice. My coach was very intense and was determined to send all his players to college with a softball scholarship, even though we were only 11 years old. While on his team, I went to nationals in Utah and western nationals in southern California. We traveled all throughout California, Nevada and Washington playing in tournaments. His serious and overly competitive attitude occasionally took the fun out of the game. Most of the time I tried to ignore his constant yelling, but when it was directed towards me, it was all but impossible to ignore. He refused to let us play any other sports, and if we did, he made us choose softball if there was any conflict. I didn’t play on any other organized team, but I still liked to play basketball with friends, throw a football, and attempt to learn skateboarding.
One weekend, I was enjoying nice afternoon with my friends when they decided to teach me how to ride a skateboard. They told me to “just get it going really fast, then it’s easier to turn.” I didn’t think twice about jumping on the skateboard; all of my friends already knew how to ride one and I didn’t want to be left out. They gave me a push and I was off, cruising down the sidewalk. It was hard to keep my balance, but I managed, until the sidewalk turned around a corner. I was going too fast to jump off, so I tried to turn around the corner. Not having any idea what I was doing, I shot diagonally off the curb into the street, landing in a twisted up mess in the street. My arms and legs were twisted around my body in ways I didn’t even know were possible. As I attempted to untangle myself, I felt a throbbing pain in my knee and I could hardly move it. I hobbled back to my house and my mom took me to the emergency room. I soon learned that I had torn my meniscus in my right knee. The doctor gave me a regiment of heat pads and ice packs to reduce the swelling and ease the pain. “Mainly,” he said “you just need to take it easy. With lots of rest it should be healed in about a month.” Immediately, I knew that my coach was going to be furious that I had hurt myself doing something as juvenile as riding a skateboard.

I did not want to stay off my knee for a month, but it hurt so bad at the time that I didn’t see how I could do anything on it. I cringed at the thought of telling my coach that I hurt my knee while playing on a skateboard. I convinced my parents to make the dreaded phone call to Phil, my coach. “She hurt her knee skateboarding? Well, we don’t have practice until next Sunday. She’ll be better by then.”
Apparently a torn meniscus meant nothing to Phil and he wanted me to stop my whining and come back to practice. My parents refused to let me go until my knee had healed. The first week was agony. I wanted to play, but at the same time I knew that my knee was not strong enough to handle any rigorous physical exercise. After three weeks the pain was gone from my knee, but the doctor said it would take another few weeks and it would gradually strengthen. My coach called my house every few days, persistently questioning my parents. “How long are you going to keep her out? The doctor’s don’t know what they’re talking about; she’s been off of it for long enough.”
I felt I owed it to him and the team to return as soon as possible. I felt guilty for getting hurt doing something that every kid should be able to do as part of their childhood. I went back to practice after three weeks and told my coach my knee wasn’t completely better so I might not be able to do all of the strenuous exercises during practice. “What? Three weeks wasn’t long enough? Now you want an excuse to take it easy?”

I did as I was told and I played my hardest in practice. During water breaks I felt my knee begin to throb, so I got right back up and started moving again, hoping that the pain would dissipate. During the car ride home after that first practice I had to try and hold back my tears so my parents wouldn’t notice the pain I was in. For weeks I would lie in bed every night with a heat pad around my knee, and for months I tried every stretch I could think expel the pain from my knee. Eventually the bursts of pain in my knee lessened and I learned to play with a continual, but manageable ache in my knee.

I never told my parents that my knee hurt. Once in a while they would see me bend down to try and work out a pain. “Is that knee hurting you? I don’t want you playing if it hurts.”
“Mom, it’s fine, I just twisted my leg.” My coach never asked about the recovery of my knee after the first week. He assumed it had healed, and I never mentioned that it hurt. I went on to play in tournaments that summer. I even skipped a family vacation to the east coast to see my grandparents for their anniversary. I went through the rest of the summer reluctant to go to practices and dreading waking up early for tournaments.

At the end of summer I realized that I had completed the third year of playing on this highly competitive team. I had to struggle to enjoy the game, when I used to love to play. I didn’t know what to do; quitting the team after being with Phil for three years did not even seem like an option. While pondering my dilemma, I went to my mother for advice. “Mom, I don’t know what to do. I like playing softball, but Phil puts me under so much pressure that I feel like it’s taking over my life.”
“Honey, I know you’re reluctant to quit because you don’t want to leave the team hanging. The fall season is coming up; why don’t you take a break and if you miss it you can go back in the spring. I think you need this break; I don’t even know when the last time you had a free weekend to spend time with friends.”
When the school year came around, I decided not to go back and tryout for the fall season. I didn’t want to face my coach and tell him the news. My dad understood my hesitance and told my coach, “Listen Phil, you have taught Shay more than any other coach and we are very grateful for everything that you have done for her. But, she’s at a point in her life where she realizes that she wants to enjoy her childhood. She doesn’t want to go to practice three days a week and spend all weekends at tournaments anymore. She loves the game, but to her that’s all it is, a game.”
My coach was shocked. I had dedicated years to the team, and it just all seemed put to waste now. I didn’t understand what I had gotten myself into, and before I knew it, I had gotten caught up in the competitive world. It seemed as though I blinked and three years had passed and I was making a commitment for the rest of my life to dedicate every waking moment to this sport that I just wanted to play for fun.
Since then I have played softball in high school, for the sole purpose of having fun rather than striving to earn a college scholarship, and I have realized the ridiculous nature that youth sports have taken on. The first time I went to my younger cousin’s soccer game I was shocked. I could hear the coaches yelling, “Melissa, why didn’t you pass the ball? Jackie was wide open. Jackie, you need to take control and make her pass you the ball.” The coaches put so much pressure on the seven year old girls that by the end of the game the girls were tearing each other down for missing a block and not passing the ball. Instead of building trust and teamwork, the main concern on each girl’s mind was winning and scrutinizing their teammates’ every mistake. This intense atmosphere is not needed in the realm of seven-year-old soccer, especially on a recreational team.
Sports should be about running around, learning how to play the game, and building self-confidence, not destroying it. When coaches intimidate their players to the point that they are scared to make a play because they might make a mistake, the game has gone too far, and it no longer is a game. I’m not sure what the motivation is for coaches to be so overbearing; maybe they are trying to make their team successful because they had some failure at the sport. Maybe it is their ego: they want to show the other coach that they are better and their team can win. Or possibly, the coach has the best intentions in the world, and he doesn’t realize that he has taken things too far.
Whatever the reason, it is obviously a concern for many parents, and some have taken action by creating the Positive Coaching Alliance that gives free clinics to coaches in order to promote a positive playing atmosphere. I have seen coaches over the years realize that they were coming on too strong and completely change their attitude towards the game. The kids have a completely different experience. Instead of dreading practice, they want to go because they have fun while learning instead of trying to learn while being yelled at. My high school coach understands the pressures from school and knows that softball should be about forgetting those pressures and doing something that you love without having to worry about making it your career. Since I contemplated quitting softball after Phil, Bruce, my high school coach, has completely changed my attitude towards the game and I found something very important that I had lost over those three years: my love for the game.
I thought I had learned a lot of softball skills, but I realized that in fact, I had learned more about life. It’s not worth it to give up your childhood, to try and grow up too fast. There are certain things that you can only do as a child, and I was missing out on those things. It is important to act childish sometimes because it helps shape you as a person and prepare you for future life experiences. Interacting with friends, even if it is just playing on a skateboard, gives you life experiences. Just last weekend I had free time to attend my friend’s birthday party, without having to go home early because I had a tournament the next day. All I had gained from three years of softball was the ability to recognize a pitch coming from 40 feet away. While my coaches may think that is more important than enjoying childhood, I have a different opinion.

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