To Play or Not to Play….

To play, or not to play… sports… that is the question. Something that is such a given for most children, turns out to be a real dilemma for kids with arthritis. There’s the whole “movement is the best medicine” idea… and it’s true, that if Caitlin just sits and does not get moving, even on bad flare days, she’s on a downward slide to non-mobility. It’s a move it or lose it thing with joints. BUT. Moving too much, or the wrong way can lead to even greater pain, even more limited mobility, and even greater long term damage. It’s quite the conundrum. Being part of a team is such a valuable experience, hopefully one that offers growth, strengthening of self esteem, awareness of others, working together with a common goal. Naturally, that was something I wanted for her.

When Caitlin first became symptomatic, she was enrolled in her first ballet class. At 3, she was still about pink tutus and could have cared less about soccer cleats. Unfortunately, she couldn’t continue with dance – those early years were so devastatingly bad and consistent, she could not keep up. By the time we had some control of Arthur, she was an older child and had no interest in dance. Too bad, because some forms of dance are low impact and would have been great for her…. But moms don’t get to pick what lights up their kids.

By the time she was in kindergarten, Caitlin’s heart was set on soccer. Ouch. We talked it over with the doctor, and I could tell from his eyes that it was a no-go. It was left to me to be the final answer, and I had to be the bad guy. Not that it’s the same for all kids – many kids with arthritis play soccer, football, basketball… even run track. But given the early damage, and the long flares…. That kind of impact running up and down the field would have been a bad idea.

The second option turned out to be softball. Hmmm….. Not as much running. Good movement of arms… good strengthening of wrists in throwing and batting. The doc gave a green light and Caitlin became part of the Purple Sox. That first season, there was blessedly no competition. Nobody kept score. Nobody stuck out – because every kid was at the same level – it was a miracle if they could stay focused on the game for more than a few seconds. The best moments were the girls learning cheers for each other and getting snacks after the games. It was about camaraderie. We spent a couple of the games sitting on the bench, with Caitlin’s grapefruit sized knees unable to carry her to the field…. But nobody pointed or made fun, or even asked questions.

Every spring since that year, Caitlin has asked me to sign her up for softball once again. And so we have kept time with the Sunshine Stars, The Kiwi Krushers, The Blue Magic, The Blue Diamonds… and this year the Lemonheads. Some years, we have played a division down, just because Caitlin is so small. Every year the kids get more skilled; become stronger hitters and faster runners. They know the rules, catch the balls, and groan (though quietly) when certain people go up to bat. Now scores are kept and teams are ranked. And even though we all claim that this is just about the fun, just about the experience – I feel the level of competition rising like a bad tide coming in to wash us away.

Every spring, I hold my breath and wonder if this will be the year to finally push my daughter under.

I worry that she will be singled out as the weak link, and the burden will outweigh the benefit of the game. I never want to dissuade her from playing – I want to build her up so that she feels capable of conquering any challenge. But would I want to play if I were her?

A couple of weeks ago, the Lemonheads suffered a major loss. I’m not sure what the score was, but the umpire called a “mercy” because we were so far behind. After the game, the coaches struggled to find positive things to say – because it was obvious the girls had lost because they gave up, and gave up early. As we walked to the car, Caitlin burst into tears. I tried to console her by saying that it was only one game; the whole team had been a part of the loss… “NO!!!” she screamed at me. “You don’t understand! I’ve played outfield for every single game and every single practice. YOU said if I tried hard and showed the coach, he’s let me play a base. How can I show him if he never gives me a chance?!!” Ouch. I honestly had not noticed that she had only been outfield. But she had a point. And the momma bear in me starting hackling up – wanting to go to the coach and make some demands. But, this will not be the last time Caitlin gets pushed out to pasture because people doubt her abilities. So, instead I told her that she had two choices. “Either cry and be defeated… and nothing will change as you suffer through the end of the season. OR… practice hard, even extra days outside of team practice and ask the coach to watch you try out. You say you want it – but I watch you walk slowly out to position. And when Dad asked you to practice you say no. So, which is it?” “Just stop please! Your stupid pep-talk isn’t making me feel any better!” Ahhhh… my little tween. I said no more and waited, believing that this was probably the last year of softball I had been predicting.

The next game, Caitlin was a different player. She got her first hit (she’s often walked because her strike zone is so small). She made two plays from center field. And then, without a word from mom, Coach changed the line-up and moved her to second base where she made another play. It was her best game of the season and she told me she finally feels like part of the team. I learned once again that I can be her toughest critic, and in trying to defend her from the world, I often am the guiltiest of underestimating what is possible. It’s cliché – but even in a competitive environment, her heart and attitude can over shine her inability to run fast. That’s what people see the most – her spirit defines her.

So…. To play it is. This year and as many years as she wants to. One game at a time.

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