Nat made the travel team. We had to work pretty hard to make it happen — practice almost every night — but the work was fun. I’m the goalie coach. We didn’t have a goalie for a long time because hardly anyone at that age wants to do it — there’s too much pressure and they all want to run around. My goalie is a remarkable little girl from a tough family situation who decided she wanted to take the position because, as she told her mom, she wanted to save things, to keep bad things from happening.
I got a chance to run Natalie’s soccer practice the other night because the real coach couldn’t be there — and because after a season-plus as assistant coach I know almost all of the parts, such as the “corner arc,” and the “touchline,” and, most puzzling for us cyclists, that thing called the “ball.”
Along with stuff I’d heard the real coach say, I also used quiet authority to maintain my command of the nine-year-olds. For instance, when I told the girls to keep their heads up during the foot-skill drills, and Audrey said, “I think we’re supposed to look at the ball for this one,” I whispered, “Are you sure?” That was working pretty good until Madison informed me that the “2-1-1” scrimmage formation I’d put them in was actually a “1-1-2,” and I blurted out, “This isn’t my sport.”
The next day, Natalie and I were driving home from somewhere when she said, “Dad. I’m not sure soccer is my sport.”
“No?” I said, scrunching my eyes at her in the rearview mirror, then looking back out at the road. I knew I had to say something else. I didn’t know what that should be. What that could be.
Natalie said, “I don’t know if it’s my best sport anymore.”
I thought a few seconds, then said, “You’re still having a lot of fun, though, right?”
She didn’t answer. I looked in the mirror again and she was nodding her head, waiting for me to look back — for some reason wanting me not to hear her answer but to see it.
“Then play it for fun,” I said.
I took a breath and said, “Look, kiddo, you have the whole rest of your life to worry about being the best, to focus on finding out what you’re best at and how to make the most of it. Pretty soon there’s going to be all this pressure to perform at your highest level in everything you do from sports to work to buying a car or, heck, raising a kid. But you don’t have that much time left to just have fun.”
I looked into the mirror. The earbuds of her Shuffle were in, and she was leafing through a book.
Her best sport is probably swimming — she won the 25-yard breaststroke at her meet a few weeks ago — or running, at which she glides along like a natural. We threw a baseball around for a few weeks and watched some games, but she says there’s too much standing and doing nothing. She retired from dance after six years of study. Gymnastics bored her. Skateboarding scares her.
She loves cycling.
But, for her, riding is not a sport. She knows it can be. Her favorite race is Paris-Roubaix. She bangs on the boards at the Lehigh Velodrome when the pack screams past, and she stands in the grass beside the crit course on Thursday nights and shouts at me, and from October through December she looks forward to Thursday Cross nights with the same fervor she awaits new episodes of American Idol. But when she rides her bike, it’s for fun.
As I drove, in the back seat Natalie bobbed her head and read, and laughed, and looked out the window seeing colors and trees and buildings and people she’d seen for only nine years instead of the 43 I have. In the same way she’d heard me tell her to play soccer for fun, then said simply, “okay,” and moved on, Natalie was way ahead of me when it came to cycling.
I tell myself that cycling is my sport, but I’m like a kid playing dress-up. I put on my expensive jerseys and imported shorts and rub lotion into my legs and mix up energy drinks and I suck wheels from the local pros and neighborhood strongmen, and I do my little races, most of which are really just training races, and I sprint for town signs and our arbitrary KOM peaks at lunch and it feels good to win and bad to lose but mostly it feels great just to be out there. The suffering is fun. The risk is fun. Even the aches are fun, the way nursing them is a little like owning an exotic pet.
No matter what fantasies I spin to make dress-up feel more real, cycling isn’t my sport. It’s my fun.
My little speech to Natalie had it all wrong: There’s actually so little time when it matters if we’re the best at everything we try. We have our whole lives to have fun.
I thought about making the kid take her earbuds out so I could be sure she’d be listening when I laid all my newfound wisdom on her. But I didn’t want to ruin my quiet authority.
Originally published in the April 25, 2008 Sitting In