Parenting: The importance of athletics in an academic life

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"You have to study. You have to be smart. We aren't wasting our time on sports. It isn't meant for us." This was my parents' mantra. Weeknights were reserved for reviewing algebra problems or reading a novel. Participating in sports, my parents decided, wasn't an ideal fit for my life.

What would it mean to hit a home run or high-five my teammates after a win? Sports morphed into a foreign language I sought to not only understand but experience.
Rudri Bhatt Patel

Their reluctance to embrace sports stemmed from their upbringing in India. Physical fitness just wasn't a part of the culture in which they grew up. For them, the Eastern idea of exercise dwelled in the spiritual -- yoga and meditation were preferred to activities like running, basketball or tennis. When they settled in America, this mindset followed. Although they watched football and other sports, my father believed education offered the best opportunity for success. The idea of pursuing a sport with the same dedication as education seemed frivolous.

So I devoted my energy to spectating. I stood on the sidelines, watching my peers dunk a basketball or round the bases during softball. My achievements came in the form of an A on the geometry test or crafting a debate response to a controversial issue. I accepted that my strengths resided in the cerebral; I'd hide near the bleachers during P.E., even though I longed to know what it felt like to move with grace, running on the gym floor or landing a volley on the tennis court.

During school I heard about a team hoisting a trophy or a coach congratulating players on a good game. What would it mean to hit a home run or high-five my teammates after a win? Sports morphed into a foreign language I sought to not only understand but experience. But instead of pushing my parents to sign me up for volleyball or softball, I acquiesced to their wishes and continued to focus on intellectual pursuits.

Now, as a parent to a 10-year-old daughter, I carry on the encouragement for her to solve math problems and read books. I also emphasize practicing tennis. Every week, she devotes several evenings to her serves, backhands and forehands. On the weekends, she competes in tournaments. In a short amount of time, I've witnessed her grow in ways I didn't get to experience in my youth.

When she lost matches in her early tournaments, she would hunch her shoulders and shed a tear, unable to control her emotions on the court. She asked to quit, but my husband and I encouraged her to sit with her angst. Navigating this terrain wasn't always easy since it introduced a level of unease, irritation and, well, loss. It also introduced resolve.

Together, we would endure losing streaks, painful practices and tears. Then, in the middle of raw irritation, she'd hit a brilliant backhand or ace a serve. The flashes of her hard work started to sprinkle the court in unexpected moments. As her tennis game gained momentum, she would talk about how much she enjoyed the rallies on the court.

When she swings her racket, her shoulders relax and a smile appears on her face. During a match, she pumps her fist and acknowledges how much winning a point means to her. A few weeks ago, she said, "I love tennis. It helps me relax."

Maintaining a balance between sports and academics isn't easy. We encourage her to employ time-management skills, limit her screen usage and anticipate the unexpected and imperfect when splitting time between schoolwork and tennis. Some days may be academic heavy, while other afternoons and evenings might sway more toward athletics. We've seen the balance pay off. Earlier this month, down 3-1 in a set, she evened the score and eventually won the match. I watched as her nervousness and frustration turned into grit and glee, all in a single afternoon.

On the ride home from that memorable win, I reminded her she still had to finish the last few problems of her math assignment. I smiled, realizing she's embracing a well-rounded education, one that teaches her the importance of studying and working hard on and off the court.

Rudri Bhatt Patel's work has appeared in the Washington Post, Brain, Child Magazine, Role Reboot and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter  and Facebook or her website, Being Rudri.

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