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youth sports

From the time we’re teenagers, we’re taught to control our emotions. As we get older, people tell us not to make emotional decisions.

We see our emotions, particularly the ones in the moment, as being at odds with the rational decision-making side of our thought processes.

We roll our eyes and shake our heads when a teenager makes decisions or declarations that seem driven more by the hormones surging through their growing bodies than by the intellect we hope they’ve developed.

And yet, every so often, we and our teenagers take those raw emotions out for a few hours or even days.

This past weekend, my wife and I did our periodic Texas two-step, where she brought our son to his baseball game in one state and I drove hundreds of miles to our daughter’s volleyball tournament in another.

The journey involves considerable effort, finding food that doesn’t upset allergies or sensitive stomachs at a time when indigestion or a poorly timed pit stop could derail the day.

The games themselves are filled with a wide range of emotions, as a player’s confidence and ability can rise and fall quickly from one point to the next, with slumping shoulders quickly replaced by ecstatic high fives.

In the stands and outside the lines, the emotional echoes continue to reverberate.

One girl sat next to her father, sobbing uncontrollably with her ankle high on the chair in front of her. Her father put his arm around her shoulders and spoke quiet, encouraging words into her ear. Her coach came over, in front of a stand filled with strangers, and said the girl would be able to play the next day as soon as the swelling in her ankle went down — the coach didn’t want to risk further injury. The girl nodded that she heard her coach, but couldn’t stop the torrent of tears.

Not far from her, a mother seethed as her daughter missed a shot. The mother was angry, defensive and, eventually, apologetic to the parents of the other players for her daughter’s performance. Other parents assured her that it was fine and that everyone could see her daughter was trying her best.

Another parent hooted and hollered, clapping long after the point ended, as her daughter rose above her diminutive frame to hit the ball around a group of much taller girls.

Many of the emotional moments included unbridled joy, as a group of girls continued to embrace each other after winning a tough match, replaying point after point and laughing about the time the ball hit them in the head or they collided with a teammate on the floor.

What will they remember next week, next month or in 20 years? Will it be satisfying when they find a picture of a younger version of themselves, beaming from ear to ear with girls they may not have seen for many years?

Even if they do think about one particular point or a strategic decision that paid off in a game against talented competition, they will also remember where and how they expressed those raw, dramatic emotions.

While feelings can get in the way of whatever grand plan we’re executing in our head, holding us back from
taking a risk or preventing us from showing how much we care, they can and do enhance the way we experience our lives. Despite all the work driving behind slow-moving vehicles which take wide right turns and encourage you to call a number to let someone know how they’re driving, the effort — even when the event doesn’t turn out as well as we might hope — is well worth the opportunity to drop the mask and indulge those emotions.

I looked around the packed

Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia this past weekend. Let’s face it, I and — more importantly — my genes, fell short.

It’s not necessarily a character flaw, but it’s not exactly the kind of advantage I’d want to give my children.

There I was, cheering on my vertically challenged daughter in a game where height matters. Despite her stature, she has developed a royal passion for volleyball. The perpetual smile that crosses her face when she steps across the lines makes it all worthwhile, despite the effort, the expense, the endless attempts to get the stink out of her knee pads — and the driving through horrific traffic.

She couldn’t be happier than when she’s throwing her small body around the floor, trying to get to some giant’s smash that seemed only a moment earlier out of her reach.

When you have children, you want them to find their way, to develop outlets that they find rewarding and to contribute to something bigger than they are.

Sports, I know, don’t cure disease. And yet, somehow, it’s become part of the American way, with people flying, driving and caravanning from all over the country to play in competitive tournaments where, if they succeed, they can get enough points to make it to nationals.

So, there we were, listening to whistle after whistle at this volleyball attention-deficit-disorder factory when it occurred to me how my genes did my daughter no great favors. Many of the fathers towered over me. If I lived in a land where food were placed near the ceiling, I and my offspring would starve.

My mother played volleyball when she was younger. She was tallish for her generation. I played volleyball as well, although not nearly at the competitive level that has taken my daughter to places around the area, including Penn State.

While my daughter is involved in numerous activities inside and outside school, it is volleyball that tops the list. When we go on vacation anywhere, the first thing she looks for is a place to play volleyball.

As I watched her warm up for the third match of the day, I chatted with some of the parents from Virginia, Texas and Arizona that we met this past weekend. After some pleasantries about the event, the conversation inevitably turned toward the identity of our daughters.

I could see the satisfaction they felt at pointing out their children from across the convention center floor. “My daughter is the one ducking her head down to walk under the exit sign over there.” “My daughter? She’s just a hair over 6 feet tall, but she’s still growing. How about you?”

I’d smile sheepishly. “My daughter is in the middle of her teammates over there.”

“Where?” they’d ask politely.

“She’s No. 9.”

They’d squint into the group. Just then, my daughter would laugh her way to the outside of a circle of girls that looked like a group of gnats, diving in and out of the center of a circle of joy.

Then again, as I watched her throw herself across the floor, I thought about the match between her personality and the role she plays in this sport. Sure, it’d be easier for her to stand out if she were taller. But, given her need to defy expectations, she’d probably want to be a jockey if she were 6 feet tall.

As the weekend came to a close, I asked her if she wished she could play volleyball every day. “Of course,” she said.

“Can you imagine having a job one day that made you feel that way?” I asked.

“Yeah,” she smiled, trying to imagine a job that fits her interests as well as volleyball.

What would a victory be without a trophy? We faced that awful question this week.

In the championship game, my daughter’s volleyball team battled their opponent and their nerves to win that coveted trophy, to claim the top honors in their division, and to cap off a successful and rewarding season that involved floor burns, mishits, turned ankles and all manner of emotional challenges as they went toe-to-toe with teams in gyms filled with exuberant fans.

Nothing went right in the beginning of the match. They gave away point after point, until the unflappable coach, whose only sign of anxiety was a few extra gulps of water, called timeout and told the team to relax and play their game.

They were down 12-2 in a 25-point game. Maybe, my wife and I thought, they’d make the first game respectable, get their bearings and then win the second and third games. The benefit of a best-of-three-game set is that they didn’t have to win the first game.

And then a funny thing happened on the way to a potential lopsided loss. They pulled themselves together and they made important shots that landed just inside the line. Momentum, which is such an intangible, shifted quickly, forcing the other coach to call a hasty timeout.

Ultimately, they won that first set, 25-23. The second set was closer throughout, but they also won that one, 25-20, leading to a euphoric celebration. They took turns holding a trophy, which had a volleyball figurine and a plaque.

The coach handed the trophy to my daughter, who was the captain. She cradled it like it was an infant, passing it gently to her teammates who posed for their own pictures with the team’s prize. She got to take the trophy home for the weekend. I drove her friend and her to a diner for some celebratory curly fries and raced home to relatives who were eating a wider variety of food.

After the meal, I offered to take Uncle Jordan, who had come out from the city, back to the train. My wife graciously suggested he sit in the front seat. As soon as he sat down, he asked, “Hey, what’s that?”

Yup, he sat on the trophy, wounding our daughter’s “baby.” When I turned on the light in the car, I saw that the figurine was still intact, but the plaque dangled at an angle.

Jordan laughed. Our son was in hysterics. My wife, who was in the back seat, laughed nervously, while I considered going into panic mode, wondering if I should call the factory in Singapore to ask it to ship another trophy overnight.

We thought about gluing the pieces back together, but that would be like bringing a messy art project to school. Maybe we could take it out of the car and run over it 20 times, and then say we lost it. No, destroying it wasn’t the answer.

“Take it to Home Depot,” Jordan suggested.

What if they couldn’t fix it? What would we tell our daughter?

When she got to our house that night, I did everything I could to keep her from asking about, or looking for, the coveted trophy.

The next morning, we raced to Home Depot, where a couple of good-humored men at the tool rental section got to work. Fortunately, they repaired it. When we returned, we shared the story with our daughter who laughed, too, even as she compared the pictures of the trophy from the night before to the rescued object in her hand. Somehow, like her team, the trophy endured.