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No guarantees: Realizing what sports can, and can't, do for my daughters

John Leyba/The Denver Post/Getty Images

"I want to play hockey," I said.

"Over my dead body," my mother replied. "Those people are crazy."

She didn't mean the players. She meant the parents -- mothers, mostly, back in the mid-1980s -- who rose before dawn to drive to freezing rinks where they buckled barely conscious children into expensive equipment. But my brothers and I begged, and she relented.

I couldn't wait for my kids to play hockey. After the Basketball Debacle of 2008, my eldest, Maggie, rejected sports flat-out, but her little sister, Lucy, gamely agreed to be bubble-wrapped and shoved onto the ice. I deeply regretted not picking up the sport until my teens. Lucy, at 8, was already late to the game but had plenty of time to improve.

And she did. She quickly got sturdy on her skates, and by 10, she was a fearless blueliner with great speed and positioning. If Lulu played the body, you were out of luck -- and probably on your rear. Her puck handling needed work, but she couldn't be at the rink every day when there were other things she liked to do: tae kwon do (she's a black belt), drama and singing. Then, when Lucy turned 13, her coach demanded that she commit to hockey -- just hockey, for once and for all.

We live in a world that pushes kids to specialize. Here in New York, even some of the middle schools require a "major" -- computer science, creative writing, instrumental music. It isn't just the schools. Lucy "kind of" wanted to keep playing hockey, but these days, it seems, you can't "kind of" do anything. You're in, or you're out.

So after five years of hockey, Lucy chose "out." I was heartbroken.

It took me a while to figure out why I was so upset. For starters, I was going to be covering New York's first paid professional women's hockey team, the Riveters, at the very rink where Lucy had played her first full-ice game. She was finally going to see women's hockey at the highest level, inches from her nose. How could she walk away?

But my regret went deeper than that. Growing up, my days were shaped by the dual obligations of school and sports. We studied hard; we practiced hard; we gave our all on tests and in games. It wasn't just about success, though. To me, sports signified order, discipline and safety. The goals, both literal and figurative, were clear. According to my father, sports kept us out of trouble.

Unfortunately for me, the opposite was true: trouble eventually kept me out of sports. My senior year in high school, I discovered pastimes that were not conducive to 7 a.m. ice times or 90 minutes of full-field running. I know now that undiagnosed bipolar disorder had a lot to do with my abandonment of things I loved. But by the time I got the treatment I needed, sports were definitely in the rearview mirror. At 25, I was left with a gym membership and a lot of regret.

You can't live your life obsessing over the implications of each and every choice. You certainly can't parent that way (though we all do sometimes). But you can pay attention. When I paid attention, I realized that the things my kids wanted most to do were probably the things they couldn't stop doing.

I had spent hours in my driveway roofing wrist shots. Maggie drew and drew. And Lucy sang. She sang in the shower, she sang alone in her room, she sang at school. She wanted to sing more, but hockey got in the way. To her, the choice was obvious.

For me, sadly, it wasn't -- not at first. Twenty-five years after my own final whistle, it was hard to not associate my daughters' rejection of sports with a rejection of the order it created and the physical well-being it required.

Then again, maybe my vision of that order was flawed. For better and for worse, we know a lot more about athletes today than we used to. We hear stories of substance abuse, sexual assault and domestic violence. We learn about players who perform through physical and emotional pain. Athletes are hardly insulated from the problems and pitfalls that affect the rest of us; their commitments come with greater rewards but also steeper costs.

I realize now that sports make no guarantees. In fact, the opposite is true: Sports force us to recognize what we can and can't control.

Maybe, by deciding to not be an athlete, my daughter wasn't rejecting fitness and resilience. Maybe she was simply choosing a different game.

The more my kids commit themselves to the things they love to do, the less I understand about how they do them. I just watch in wonder, cheering when everyone else does, like one of those hockey parents who never got the hang of icing. When something goes wrong, I don't critique or explain. I can't. I don't know how gradients work or when to use a "head voice." I can only offer hugs and hope and encourage them to get back out there.

At least my kids still join me on the couch for the NHL playoffs. I tweet and scream. Maggie sketches. Lucy chirps underperforming D-men as if she were a grizzled veteran. We order too many pizzas and stay up for too many overtimes, but it's worth it. We're together.

Beth Boyle Machlan teaches at New York University and writes about hockey for SB Nation's Blueshirt Banter.