Saturday, June 25, 2011

Learning to Lose Your Own Way

So much about my two boys is similar. They look alike to the point that people (and even iPhoto) confuse them with one another. They both like the same toys such that they would stab each other in the neck to get an extra Lego set or pack of Pokemon cards. Their grades in school are even mirror images of one another. To save on printing, their school may have just changed the first name on one son’s report card from the previous year and handed the same one to his younger brother.

Both of their baseball seasons ended this past week, both with playoff losses. In defeat, I was afforded an opportunity to see a major difference between them highlighted.

My older son plays in a more competitive league. The kids were pitching, the games are twice as long and the parents were at least ten times more critical of the head coach’s decisions. His team was particularly good this year (perhaps due to all the pressure from the parents) and finished the regular season with the best record.

Meanwhile, my youngest son’s team had the coach pitching to the kids. Everybody was allowed to bat every inning until the playoffs when outs started counting. They were encouraged with each play, even if they completely blew the tag and cost their team two runs by not having their head in the freaking game!

Both of my sons improved as the year went on. They were both good teammates and had fun playing. That’s all I expected or even hoped for.

Still, when my oldest son, whose team I thought had a pretty fair shot to win their league’s championship, lost his final game, I expected it to bring him down. I thought I might see some tears.

What I saw instead was a boy who left his catcher’s gear on, gathered with his team and listened intently as his coach gave a heartfelt and touching final speech about how proud he was of all of them. He looked right at the coach and nodded in agreement, never looking like he was upset. I was proud of how he was handling it. Then, when the coach’s eyes would turn to another player, he would subtly reach down and unfasten another strap on his shin guards.

I shrugged mentally. It was not the reaction from him that I had expected as he usually gets upset with losing, occasionally shedding a tear. Instead, he was attempting to tend to his business with the emotional display of a robot. He apparently just wanted to get out of there.

Contrast this with my youngest son, whose team had never kept score prior to the playoff game he lost. He has always been one to say, “It’s just for fun,” when friends around him get too competitive and begin to argue.

As his team’s fate was sealed, he high fived each player on the other team with a stone-faced expression. He repeated, “Good game,” to them all and quietly thanked his coach for the season. We walked to the car and I told him he played well in that game as he had all season long. Once he was in the back seat, I turned to ask him what he would like for dinner. At that point, he began sobbing. All I could do was hold him for a few minutes and let him get it out. Then he finally related that he just wanted to go home and take a shower. He was spent.

My heart broke for him. Yet, while I hugged him and patted his back, I took solace in the fact that he obviously cared. A lot. He was competitive enough to be devastated by the loss. Provided it didn’t last all week, I figured it was something we could work with for next year.

And as I began looking forward to next year (as we Cub fans have been forced to do for over a century) it dawned on me they will most likely be on the same team next season. It made me start to ponder whether their attitude toward losing will become even more obviously different or they will start to see things more similarly.

That caused me to remember a question my wife had once asked the two of them that I thought shed some light on this issue. One day, while in a particularly existential mood, my wife inquired of my sons as to how they would spend their last few days on earth if they knew the world was going to end in a week. My seven-year-old quickly answered that he would have a party with his friends and family and spend time having fun with them. We nodded, thinking it was a fairly good answer. My eight-year-old continued reading his book and without looking up said, “I don’t know, I guess I’d just sit in a coffin and wait for it to be over.”

Just a hunch, but I think my youngest will be the more competitive of the two and my oldest will continue to accept that things won’t always go his way.

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