Growing up, sports and I had a complicated relationship. I’m not sure if it was because I was always a bit of a klutz or that I was happiest in the air conditioning listening to audiobooks for hours. The first sport I played was soccer. I don’t remember much besides it being hot and sticky. I was out of breath a lot and didn’t find it particularly rewarding. I played basketball at my church for a few years and even though it was inside, I would get frustrated with my coaches and teammates easily. Being around so many people and the loud noises always had me on edge. It wasn’t all misery. I got to spend time with my best friends, and my dad was my coach. I look back fondly on my dad coaching my team and the Dairy Queen trips after practices. The people I met and the relationships that were strengthened were worth it.
The sport that became a family endeavor and consumed much of our time throughout my childhood was swimming. It started with doing the summer swim league in our neighborhood. The water felt frigid during those early morning practices. I loved to bike down to the neighborhood pool to practice. Once I arrived, it was slightly less fun. The coaches learned quickly that I liked to ask questions. After a few practices, I was limited to three questions every practice to save all the adults’ sanity. Summer swim felt laid back from what I would experience later with year-round swimming.
The neighborhood moms volunteered to herd cats- I mean children- for the races. Kids would sit around playing and talking while waiting for their race. The concession stands sold food I was only allowed to eat on rare occasions. (My mom loved to rant about the lack of nutritious options.) Because I was homeschooling, I didn’t ride the bus with a lot of the girls who were on the team with me. They often had friendships and connections I didn’t, but a good time was had by all in the end.
What became the bane of my existence was the year-round swim team. The intentions were good and I did learn a lot of good skills through the sport. What I was always frustrated by was that no matter how hard I practiced, I could never keep up with my teammates. Now I know that my lack of coordination and motor skills played a big part. I wanted to be a good athlete. My brother and sister were so fast. I lagged out of breath. Sometimes it felt like I failed. The homeschool swim team I was on felt less intimidating. Our coach would take us to Carvel, the kids I practiced with were often on our field trips, and my mom was always close by.
After I started public school, I participated in the swim team at a new facility, with a new coach. This was daunting. I remember being eleven and a seven-year-old beating me down the pool during practice. My teammates were nice, I just knew I couldn’t keep up. I didn’t know my teammates. They all either went to private or public schools that weren’t near my school district. One teammate mentioned how her school hired a new cafeteria chef. I was fascinated that her meals were cooked by a trained chef and had lots of questions. Another teammate had a crush on a boy band member whose name currently escapes me. She was insisting she had a chance of being with her celebrity crush. I was confused and asked if they were going to end up together, how would they end up meeting? She answered with a long-winded story of how a friend of hers called into a radio station and got to talk to the dream boat. I wasn’t convinced.
All of this was entertaining and enjoyable, but I knew I wasn’t good at swimming. I wasn’t fast, and I was coordinated. My teammates were getting moved to the diamond team and I knew I wouldn’t be able to advance. After seventh grade, my parents let me quit. It was a relief to spend more time doing things I enjoyed and knew I was good at.
It took until high school and college to find ways of moving and staying active that I enjoyed and could be motivated to do without outside influence. I wish, in closing, I had some wisdom to impart regarding children with ASD and athletics. All I can say is that I do believe exercise that one enjoys is important to building a healthy life. I would encourage parents to let their kids try different activities if they want to. I would also say that a lot of the benefits that come with playing a sport such as learning teamwork, hard work, endurance, perseverance, and patience can be learned through a myriad of other activities. Sport isn’t the only vehicle for those lessons. I’m glad I swam all the years I did and I’m glad my parents let me quit when I had gained what I could. In the end, life is a series of learning experiences. The more broad-ranging experiences, often the better. Exploring these experiences is one of the best parts of life.
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