Early athletic success may have been the worst thing that ever happened to me.
Things came easy. Classwork came easy. Grades? No problem. Even playground games were a delight because I could hit, catch and kick with minimum effort and much success.
Who wouldn’t love to play games they are good at? And I did. Lots of them, as we did back in the day. Tennis, softball, basketball, volleyball, swimming, soccer. Everything that girls played, I was up for. Up until I heard the whispers: She’s really good…you might go far…you could get a scholarship…play in college.
The whispers of expectation, mixed with accolades and minor achievements, spurred me to get to work to make myself into what people thought I could be. Practice. Perfect. Perform. Repeat. No one made me do this. It came from inside. Inside a little 9 year old body compressed by the weight of expectation and convinced that hard work would guarantee success.
And I did garner my share, perhaps more than my share, of success. But, as an early-achiever – someone to whom movement came naturally and easily – I missed something. I skipped over (or fast-forwarded through) the time of pure delight, pure joy, pure passion.
“Have you ever watched a child dance? Jumping, skipping, leaping, turning, the child shows sheer joy, in both the music and the need to respond. What is beautiful about the dance?
I didn’t know I’d missed this joy, mind you. How would you know it if something – especially a feeling – is not there? I was getting better, my performance sounder, my mental toughness greater, my stroke smoother. All outward signs pointed straight ahead.
A supportive family purchased equipment, paid for lessons, found me a mentor and teacher, confirming what Buckley concludes:
Discipline will come later. Technique will make the movements more fluid. Practice will add control. BUT … If we are fortunate, when the discipline, technique and practice offer more alternatives, the spirit will remain.
What if the spirit wasn’t allowed to develop? What if it’s rushed? What if it isn’t allowed time to grow and mature? What if, instead, we pay or push to speed it along, and the force of expectation snuffs it out altogether?
It may, to the spectator’s untrained eye, be hard to distinguish. How will we know? Buckley draws it beautifully:
Think of the skater who executes a flawless performance. The choreography is beautiful. The jumps are timed with precision. Everything is in its perfect place.
Think of the next skater. Her movements do not just fit the music, they express the music. Her hands don’t just lift but seem to lift toward you. The jumps are flawless, but they also make you feel as though you executed the jump yourself. You are now moving with the skater. When the music is complete, there is emotion left hanging. Passion. Purpose.
Which child are you? Which child is yours?
Let’s let them dance, shall we.
*Ray Buckley in Dancing with Words, Storytelling as Legacy, Culture and Faith, a “storysharer” in the Lakota tradition.