My son sat between the three-point line and half court with his arms crossed around his chest. Tears were rolling down his face as he hung his head, murmuring, “I don’t like basketball.” He had spent the last few minutes trying to dribble the ball, only to lose control of it and watch it roll away. Prior to that, he was embarrassed to find that he couldn’t even hit the rim when he took a shot.
Just 30 minutes earlier, a happy little boy was in the back seat of the car, admiring the new pair of Jordan’s his father had bought him.
“What if he goes out on the court and is just amazing?” my husband asked as he spun a basketball in the passenger seat. “Like, what if he just dunks it?”
“You need to have reasonable expectations about this,” I warned him.
Now, as I watched my son feel frustrated and defeated, I wondered if we all had unrealistic expectations about our 4-year-old simply participating in an organized sport.
Sports programs are now marketed to kids as young as 18 months. I know, because before I ever had kids or was even married, I taught a soccer clinic for toddlers. We didn’t do much with the ball and instead focused on getting the kids to do things like chase after and kick bubbles. The kids would cry, and we would baby them. We picked them up, tickled them, made funny faces and generally reminded them that they were here to have fun.
Now, as I watched my sobbing son on the basketball court, I couldn’t help but think about how much pressure he was probably feeling. He didn’t feel like he was here to have fun. He felt like he had to perform.
I approached my son, sat on the floor next to him and put my arms around him. I didn’t care that I was the only parent on the court, or that people were looking, or that the coaches were uncomfortable.
The kid is 4 years old. I never played sports as a 4-year-old. Instead, I played in the dirt, ran around the backyard chasing lightning bugs and climbed trees.
How could I have thought that my child was ready to stand in a line and wait patiently to shoot a basketball? Why would I think that his endless amount of energy could be focused enough to dribble a ball?
Sure, several of the other little kids were dribbling and shooting with ease. But this day was the first that my son had ever even touched a basketball.
I never pulled him from the 10-week session. We went every Saturday morning. He was shy and withdrawn but did the exercises as he was told.
Initially, I had to stand next to him through every single drill, encouraging him and supporting him. All the other parents were on the sidelines, cheering, congratulating and sometimes admonishing their children for doing the things that 4-year-olds do, like not listening and rough-housing.
Several parents said things to me that suggested they thought my son had a behavioral or social issue. Things like, “Does he usually have trouble around other kids?” and “Does he ever show interest in activities like this?”
I wanted to scream, “He’s 4! He is 4! He is a 4-year-old boy who has never touched a basketball and apparently has discovered he doesn’t really like it. There is nothing wrong with that!”
This is a boy who will make friends with little kids on the playground or at the zoo. This is a boy who enjoys going to hiking adventures and splashing in swimming pools.
This is a boy who should not feel pressured to be a superstar during his first attempt at sports.
Over the course of the session, I slowly backed away during the drills. I became a parent who could sit on the sidelines and cheer. By the last day, my son did the entire 45-minute practice without me by his side. He ran and played and laughed with kids.
He never did dunk, much to my husband’s dismay, but there is still plenty of time for that. After all, the boy is only 4, and I’m going to let him be 4.