sportsvirtual children by Scott Warnock

The character of an injury

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If you read between the lines in this space — or sometimes just read the lines themselves — you know that my now teenage daughter is not always the easiest person to get along with.

As I wrote a few weeks back, most of her bad behavior is reserved for us fellow housemates, so when I peer ahead to see her future trajectory, I think she’ll be okay.

Yet I have still fallen into the trap of trying to see in her specific actions indelible signs of character. We parents do this kind of thing at great risk.

Several years ago, when she was about 10, her soccer team had a late season make-up game. It was a bitter December day, and we played the best team in our little division. The season had been a struggle. We’re a small town, so a lot of kids who might have been better off playing locally were instead thrust into the travel soccer scene, driving all over South Jersey to compete against big clubs.

Midway through the first half, sleet started and the wind gusted, but we were hanging in there against this team that had whipped us earlier in the season. As Dad-coach, I got swept away by it all. I could hear John Facenda‘s narration. Our girls stuck it out, playing in the miserable cold, and they did something they rarely did back then: They won. They all huddled together at the end, chilled but euphoric. They looked at each other in this way that indicated they had found something in themselves and each other. It was, I felt, a great day for them as young athletes, a triumph of youth sports.

Except my daughter missed it.

You see, she spent the second half sitting in the car. It was too cold, she said at halftime, and that was that. Ah, this killed me. We’ve all been there, watching our kids miss something we think is important, and before the game was even over, this event had reached mythic proportions for Dad-coach.

Of course, at that moment, half-frozen as I was too, I couldn’t get over myself, and I saw an apocalyptic future of quitting for my daughter. Forget her pragmatism — “I’m freezing out here” — I went into frustration, then anger. Rumor has it I used a bad word in describing her character while I told my wife about the game. My daughter may have overheard me.

Life moves on, and here she is a teenager, still playing the game of soccer. A few weekends ago, on a rare Saturday when I had to work and miss her game, I get a phone call. My wife says my daughter is on her way to the ER. She got hurt in a collision, suffering perhaps a broken leg. I hear sobbing in the car.

I get to the ER and the x-rays are negative. She’s getting back to her normal self, insulting her brothers, but she’s in major pain and can’t walk without crutches. She gets a big splinted boot. She needs an orthopedic follow-up. She can’t even take gym, let alone play soccer.

So I’m sad, because she loves the game. She’s facing injury and a long period of inactivity. And we all do realize that having her with splint and crutches is unlikely to increase her household charm. Indeed, it isn’t fun for anyone. Getting to school: A drag. Getting ready for bed: A drag. She is confined to the house.

But this interesting thing happens: She insists on attending practice. One night, she stands in the rain, with umbrella and crutches, watching her teammates.

Ten days after the injury, a follow-up MRI is negative, but she is still hobbling badly. Yet the next day, reinforced by the judgment of medical technologies, she announces she wants to wear an ankle brace and practice. And she does.

Two after that, she declares she will play in her game. The two coaches, who I’ve worked with for years, have one thing in mind: Her health. We all recognize we are not playing in the World Cup. So she plays some, but she spends the afternoon on the sideline badgering everyone about playing. When she’s in the game, she does well, even getting an assist.

The team does well, but she comes off the field fuming, complaining that she’s no good to her team on the sidelines, etc. In the car, we have this exchange:

DAD: For a kid who couldn’t walk without crutches on Tuesday, you played a great game.

DAUGHTER: Yeah, well, Dad, how does that make me feel better? That actually hurts. ‘Oh, you played good for someone who is hurt.’ It’s actually insulting.

DAD: Ugh. Why don’t you be quiet, and let’s go get milkshakes?

I drink that Wawa milkshake — which, I was informed, being dad and all, I didn’t know how to mix to the proper consistency — and think about her response to this injury. As I sat in the hospital, I had no idea I would watch a two-week journey of character, toughness, and resilience. The kid who once sat in the car because it was cold was presented with an obstacle, and she dealt with it. She hung in there with her teammates. No excuses.

Who are these little people who live in our homes? We should not be too quick to form our view of them.

Scott Warnock is a writer and teacher who lives in South Jersey. He is a professor of English at Drexel University, where he directs the writing center. Father of three and husband of one, Scott is on two local school boards and coaches all kinds of youth sports.

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2 Responses to “The character of an injury”

  1. Everyone who is anyone knows that the WAWA milkshake is to be mixed on the THICK setting.

  2. As you know, I too am a coach-dad. I’ve been fortunate enough to have several successful seasons and a lot of great victories because I have great kids on my teams and they work so damn hard. I coach U8 and U12 girls and among some kids, there’s a competitiveness that is inherent in who they are. But those girls also tend to be the ones that push themselves too far and most afraid of disappointing others.

    In the past, I would have been the first person to observe and react to one kid belly-aching while the others on the team are giving it their all in less-than-ideal conditions.

    That is, until I played in a coaches game last Thanksgiving. For 90 minutes that afternoon, I got the first real, and most vivid, sense of what we’re asking these kids to do: Long matches, cold winds, overcast skies, full pitch coverage, competitve/combative opponents, and people yelling from both sidelines. Physically and emotionally, it’s incredibly demanding.

    I learned that afternoon that sometimes these kids just need a break. Even the toughest ones. Because by halftime, this 42-year-old midfielder was close to a heart attack. And afterall, they’re little girls. A fact that’s easy to forget in the heat of a 2-2 game with minutes left.

    I’ve concluded that when the best players take a spill that was more of an intentional fall, or when they clutch a body part that’s clearly not injured, they’re asking for a break without asking for a break because they just don’t want to dissappoint us.

    It’s likely no coincidence that her injury took place when you weren’t present. If you had been, she probably would not have wanted to appear that she was quitting on dad again. You’re an awesome coach, and no one wants to let awesome coaches down. Especially our own kids.

    I worry a lot that my girls push themselves too hard because they think it’s expected of them. I know it isn’t, their mom knows it isn’t, but it’s impossible to communicate that point to them. I coach because I love it, and I enjopy working with the kids, watching them improve as players and as teammates. But, sometimes I have to ask myself whether my presense on the sidelines increases the pressure on my own kids to perform. I’m pretty sure it does, even though I wish it wouldn’t.

    Anyway, another excellent column, Scott. Very thought provoking and relatable.

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