When I was in grade school, I was desperate to become proficient at sports. Until I was about nine, I had no particular guidance or encouragement from my parents to be athletic. Neither of my parents ever watched sports on television, nor were we a particularly active family. My parents spent most of their spare time reading.
We moved to the U.S. from Europe when I was about six. Soon after, I became enamored with the idea of doing sports. Sports stood out to me as something particularly American. My grandparents in Texas were constantly riding their bikes, and swimming, and playing tennis, in stark contrast to the elderly people I had known in Italy who seemed far more sedentary. In addition, as I have written before, sports seemed to entitle the boys I knew to a lot of respect that the girls didn’t get.
Unfortunately, I was a terrible athlete. During Phys. Ed. Class, I was always that kid who was chosen last for the team (oh the shame, how it burns!). I couldn’t understand how the other kids, and the boys especially, seemed to know how to throw and catch and bat and shoot baskets and make goals. Many years later when I was babysitting a two-year old boy, I realized that a lot of parents nurture their kids’ athletic potential from the cradle. The kid I babysat had been encouraged to jump and throw balls from infancy. He had zillions of athletic toys, like little bats and little footballs and little soccer balls, and his father had already started teaching him how to throw a ball through a basket.
But for me, sports weren’t on my parents’ radar at all and, furthermore, there were no sports teams for girls at all in our community. I was desperate to play a competitive sport but there was no opportunity for that whatsoever.
I tried hard, though. I read biographies of Pele and got books from the library on “how to play soccer.” But I learned very quickly that learning the rules of soccer and reading about proper technique does not a soccer player make. One needs coaching and practice with other players. Later I decided that baseball would be my sport. My grandfather brought me a bat and a glove and a ball when he and my grandmother visited us. After I begged and begged for some coaching, he also spent countless hours with me practicing my batting technique. When we got to the baseball portion of my school’s Phys. Ed class, I shocked everyone who knew me as an uncoordinated dweeb with my prowess at bat! Unfortunately, it hadn’t occurred to me that I also needed to practice catching and throwing so I continued to be an uncoordinated dweeb on the field.
I finally started to make real progress as an athlete when I was nine. In fourth grade, we had to take the Presidential Physical Fitness Test and I was determined that I was going to do well enough to score a “gold medal.” I thought it was ridiculous that the boys had higher standards to meet and I said so to the teacher. She told me that I was not physically capable of meeting the boys standards. When I told my dad what she said, he stepped up to the plate to help me, bless him. We practiced sit-ups, push-ups, chin-ups, running the mile, and all the other categories. When the time came for the test, I did indeed earn a gold in each category according to the boys’ standards -- and I did the best in my class in the mile!
(I felt further vindicated many years later when I read Collette Dowling’s analysis in The Frailty Myth of the Presidential Physical Fitness standards. Apparently, many of the differing standards for boys and girls were completely arbitrary and not based on actual strength differentials between the sexes at the elementary school level.)
Around this time, my parents got caught up in the fitness boom of the late ‘70s. They read Jim Fixx’s book and took up long-distance running. I decided running would be my sport since success in running seemed to come from hard work and will power, rather than coordination. My family spent many weekends competing in road races. When I reached high school, I was a bona fide runner, and the first person in my class to earn a varsity letter. Suddenly I was considered a “jock” rather than a “brain.”
I was in top physical condition during my teens and early twenties, and I still am quite disciplined about doing some form of physical exercise every day, although I don't really push myself very hard anymore. I am looking forward to taking up kayaking in the next couple of years, and when I retire I am going to try to find a novice ice hockey league for old ladies-- because what American could watch the 1980 Olympics without wanting to play ice hockey someday?
I am happy to report that my parents have been consistently active since 1980. My dad kind of put-puts along on a 3 to 5 mile jog every day, and my mom, who is more driven, is basically a wall of muscle who does a solid and very grueling hour on the treadmill six days a week. She is also developing a six pack through crunches and weight lifting.
Of course, in the long run I would prefer to be a “brain,” if one must choose. But my slow and, at times, painful quest at jock-hood was an important part of my development. I am glad I went through it and that sports and fitness became a part of my life. There is no question in my mind that the “fitness boom” and the proliferation of sports opportunities for girls is an unqualified improvement to our society.