It Is How You Play the Game

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The freshman volleyball team clearly was new to the game. The match was a last-minute schedule change. Someone overhead one parent remark that the girls on this squad had never played volleyball until this season. By ninth grade, most girls have competed at least three years, starting in sixth grade.

The team came over from Shreveport, an hour’s drive away by car, a bit longer on a school bus. Only a few parents drove over for the 5 p.m. match. The squad contained only six players, the minimum necessary to field a team.  The bench was empty. The team they were playing — on which our daughter plays — suits out 15 at home and a dozen when on the road. Our girls are flat-out loud. They screech through a litany of cheers when they score, employ all manner of complex hand rituals on the bench to encourage those on the court, and dance with typical teen-age girl exuberance at the smallest successes. In a nearly empty coliseum, the noise echoes off the walls. Even our team at home had only a dozen parents there to watch. Most were likely still at work, or just getting off.

The Shreveport team was badly overmatched. That was clear from the outset. The girls tried hard but haven’t developed the skills to compete. The score mounted quickly, 9-1, 12-3, 15-4. Most the points for the other team came off our team’s errors. Our team quickly reached the 25 points required in the first game of the two-out-of-three match.

A family from Shreveport sat in front of us, the father morosely holding his face in his hands. His shoulders winced with each loud cheer as our team scored. I wanted to tell him it was nothing personal, that teen-age girls just like to make up silly cheers to chant when they score. We began to quietly root for the Shreveport team to score a few points here and there, and they did — and we clapped when they scored. It didn’t happen often, but maybe enough for them to remember a few high spots on the bus ride home.

The match was over in 21 minutes, less than a third of the time that it took to drive over here. I hope the coach took the girls out to eat somewhere fun before heading back to Louisiana. I hope she was kind to them, told them that they would get better with more experience, not to give up, that it simply takes practice and time.

A few days earlier, we had traveled to Rockwall, near Dallas, for the first district game — a two-and-a-half hour drive. Our team was soundly thrashed that day, the outcome never in doubt. The match lasted 35 minutes. The entire trip, counting our meal out, lasted nearly eight hours.

We were worried after that match ended about how our daughter would take the loss. But she came bouncing out, shrugging off the loss and impressed by the other team’s prowess.

“I’m starving,” she said. We hear that a lot. All parents of teen-age children hear that often. We headed for Mexican food.

Our daughter has now experienced both the losing and winning ends of lopsided games. When she first started playing three years ago, Abbie took losing way too hard. Just making a mistake dealt her a crushing blow. She still dwells too much on her shortcomings, in our view, wanting to be perfect at everything she tries. It is OK to fall short, we say. What matters is that you give it your best. I’m not sure she believes that. Someday she will.

She is learning a couple of valuable lessons, which should hold her in good stead down the road to adulthood. Whatever it is you attempt — school, work, athletics, playing the violin — anything at all, there are always going to be people who are smarter, faster, stronger or more talented than you.

And there are always going to be people over whom you hold an edge, whether it is in volleyball or vector physics. (OK, I don’t really even know what that is, but it makes for a nice alliteration.) The secret is to accept both one’s successes and shortcomings with grace and humility. I can’t say I have always done so, but I would be a better person if I had.

Abbie has a great heart, which goes a long way when I’m ready to strangle her for leaving her room in a cyclone or pulling some goofy teen stunt. One of the first things she said when she got in the car game was that she felt sorry for the Shreveport team — not a hint of gloating.

Now if they come back to beat Rockwall in the October rematch, well, I would have a hard time not gloating myself. Hey, I’m not perfect.

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