The Space Between
February 3, 2018 10:36 AM   Subscribe

"Coaches had touched me a million times, always spotting, holding, stretching, pulling, pushing, twisting. But none had ever touched me like this. I could feel the tips of her fingers digging deep into my cheeks. This woman who had caught me when I was falling, who had saved my life dozens of times, was now squeezing my face in her hand as though she wanted to crush it. I knocked away her hand and said: 'That's it! I quit!' Then I walked out." In "Quitting Gymnastics Taught Me that Failure Is Golden Too", Michelle Kaeser reminisces about her pursuit of athletic glory and reflects on the space between what she imagined she could accomplish and what she was actually able to.
posted by New Frontier (61 comments total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
 
I was a highly skilled pianist all during my school age years but when I got to college my piano teacher there basically removed anything that I found fun from studying piano and so I quit my serious study. I still played for community theater musicals and stuff for a few years after that, but over the decades I've let it slide nearly entirely.

I'm sorry to not have that skill anymore. But I'd say that doing anything that has "elite" levels of performance ends up with a giant number of people who've dropped out because of their own limitations or the actions of someone coaching/instructing them. By definition, only a very few become the elite.
posted by hippybear at 10:56 AM on February 3, 2018 [15 favorites]


Given all that is going on right now with Gymnastics, feels important to point out that this story has nothing to do with any kind of sexual abuse.
posted by Frayed Knot at 11:00 AM on February 3, 2018 [21 favorites]


The older I get, the less interested I am in competition. When I play games with my grandsons, I have literally zero interest in winning; occasionally I do, out of pure luck, and I enjoy it, but by and large I lose, because the grandsons play the game a lot and they're younger and quicker on the draw and they care, and I enjoy that even more, because it makes them happy. But I don't think I ever wanted to be the World's Best at something—for a few years I wanted to be a Great Mathematician, but that's not about you vs. your competitors, it's about you vs. math, and when I realized the math had gotten difficult I knew I wasn't going to be a Great Mathematician, so I switched to languages. It was a brief disappointment, but not the lasting regret described in the article; I wasn't cut out for it, and that was that. Few are, after all. And the kind of thing demanded of kids repels me:

The sport demands a blind obedience and obtains it because the athletes are too young and indoctrinated to challenge authority.


That's sick, and I'd rather not have sport at all than force kids to be put through that. There must be a better way. Anyway, good for Michelle Kaeser for quitting so dramatically!
posted by languagehat at 11:19 AM on February 3, 2018 [29 favorites]


A really good article about being on the inside of a demanding kid sport.

There is a societal focus on being the *BEST* which excludes almost everyone and which leaves those who are not #1 feeling like failures--while those who are#1 get to feel normal at the expense of everyone else. We lack the ability to define success in a less extreme way for ourselves. Speaking as someone who has actually redefined success and who is an over-50 age group world champion in my funky little niche sport, I am constantly surprised by people's exaggerated view of what that must be like. It feels kinda nice, but not that special after the day when it happens; in other words, normal.
posted by Peach at 11:20 AM on February 3, 2018 [3 favorites]


I don't think I ever wanted to be the World's Best at something

Funnily enough, your comment reminds me of The Good Place. If you haven't seen it, Tahani is a character whose primary flaw is that she spent her life trying to be the best at everything she did. Ultimately, it made everything meaningless, because she never did it for joy, or out of the goodness of her heart, or whatever - she always did it to try to outdo someone else.

In her case, this desire seems to be rooted in having an even more brilliant, interesting, and beautiful sister who she was constantly compared to. But I think these two characters were created to say something about competition among people in general.

Competition isn't always bad, but it can turn toxic - especially when not being the best means you're treated as a failure. As a society we have a real trouble valuing people just for being people. I mean, I look at the kind of advice kids get now about how to secure a good life for themselves: get into the right school; choose the right career; be better and outcompete; don't make any mistakes; if you can't do this you are a failure and society won't value you.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 11:28 AM on February 3, 2018 [15 favorites]


That was fun. There's always something important missing from these "if you want it bad enough..." narratives: necessity and sufficiency. You won't make it if you don't want it badly enough, but wanting it won't make a hippopotamus fly.

The advent of Strava was interesting. For the first time, cyclists have a quantitative way to measure the chasm between their own ability and that of "real" cyclists. My parents were nigh on negligent and I was incorrigible as child. I was ripped, but not from organized activity of any sort. If they had me doing some extra-curriculars, it was a contest to see who'd lose interest first, me or them.

So I get on Strava as an enthusiastic -- and pretty good, OK? -- cyclist and now I see that mediocrity is written into the very meat of my body. No amount of "wanting it" or training or parental pressure was going to make any difference. One of the first things Greg Lemond says in his little how-to-be-a-pro book (which I read as a kid -- I only ever had one picture of an idol on my wall, and it was of him), is "choose the right parents." I didn't and everything that follows from that is failure.

But that's also a total relief. I didn't develop any discipline or an iron will, but I also didn't waste my youth wanting something that I could never achieve or denying myself the variety of interesting experiences that I would have missed. Sure, traveling to regional races, or the Olympics or professional races in Europe would have been an experience, too, but it was never going to happen.
posted by klanawa at 11:31 AM on February 3, 2018 [8 favorites]


The other major pianist in my high school growing up was Jeremy Denk. Google him. He wanted it all more than I did.
posted by hippybear at 11:58 AM on February 3, 2018 [4 favorites]


The older I get, the less interested I am in competition.

Me too. I have spent a good chunk of my life playing games, and the older I get, the less I will do anything head-to-head. Beyond being confident in myself - feeling aware of both what I can do and what I'm bad at - I just don't see the point in beating my friends at things. I would rather be a person who can elevate them through my skills than try to place myself above them, even in silly places where it doesn't matter.

Competition isn't always bad, but it can turn toxic - especially when not being the best means you're treated as a failure. As a society we have a real trouble valuing people just for being people. I mean, I look at the kind of advice kids get now about how to secure a good life for themselves: get into the right school; choose the right career; be better and outcompete; don't make any mistakes; if you can't do this you are a failure and society won't value you.

Agreed.

A lot of people are uncomfortable with trophies for participation, but I actually think we'd be better off focusing more on that: rewarding sportsmanship and good faith instead of a strict emphasis on material results. As a kid, emphasis on winning was part of why I didn't even try at sports: I knew I wouldn't be the best, I would be treated poorly for it, and so it was better not to do them at all, which has led me to a more sedentary and unhealthy lifestyle in my adulthood too.
posted by mordax at 11:59 AM on February 3, 2018 [13 favorites]


The athletes crying about 2nd place are so sad.

I think preparing our kids for their likely mediocrity might be a more humane strategy than telling them they can achieve everything if they only try hard enough. Most people end up being about average at everything they do. (In a religious context, I would add, ‘...and God loves them just as well’; there must be a secular equivalent).
posted by The Toad at 12:01 PM on February 3, 2018 [3 favorites]


There is a secular equivalent: You are still alive and loved by people in your life.

I don't understand the drive toward competition. I spent years playing string bass or piano in music groups. Cooperating to create something beautiful is amazing. Striving to be above others who are also cooperating feels... bad to me. Just make beautiful things, everyone, individually or cooperatively. The world could be full of beautiful things!
posted by hippybear at 12:06 PM on February 3, 2018 [30 favorites]


Competition is fun if you put the focus on competition rather than on winning. Kids can handle competition if adults don’t insist on getting involved in the results. Kids seek out competition and are always trying to compete.
posted by Peach at 12:23 PM on February 3, 2018 [4 favorites]


How do you focus on competition without winning being a part of that? Like, a showcase of talent has people doing things and being appreciated for it. But a competition of talent has... a winner.

Even kids know that competition involves winners and losers.
posted by hippybear at 12:37 PM on February 3, 2018 [2 favorites]


The athletes crying about 2nd place are so sad.

They say the silver medalists go home the most disappointed. Gold, that's obviously thrilling, and bronze, woohoo you made it to the podium! but silver, well, you trained to be the best in the world and here's a reminder you didn't quite get there.
posted by Flannery Culp at 12:38 PM on February 3, 2018 [5 favorites]


I think preparing our kids for their likely mediocrity might be a more humane strategy than telling them they can achieve everything if they only try hard enough.

Framing not being the best as "mediocrity" is already starting off on the wrong foot. Not being the best just puts you in the vast majority, because there is only a very small percentage of people who can be truly excellent at anything. And there's nothing wrong with being driven to be the best - it is a natural prerequisite to getting there - but there is no way to inculcate someone, child or otherwise, from the feeling of failure when that goal is not met, because the drive is intensely personal. There is likewise nothing wrong with just enjoying doing something for its own sake, skill be damned, or being decidedly average. The important thing is that what you are doing derives joy - for you, or your audience, or both. Certainly transitioning from the "I'm gonna be a star" mindset to "I'm OK with what I've achieved" is really, really hard, but that's part of growing.

And saying "hey kid, you're not gonna make it" early on is a truly awful strategy. I had a choral teacher do that to me in middle school ("you'll never get into Julliard if you aren't already playing all of Bach's inventions) and it derailed my piano playing completely, to the point that I refused to apply to music schools that required a piano performance audition because I was certain I would fail. Now, I clearly lacked the drive and self-determination to muscle through that comment - but I was 13, and admittedly behind my peers because I had only been taking lessons for about a year. By the end of high school I was old hat at deflecting the dismissive statements of teaching staff. If that asshat teacher hadn't told me to give up, who knows what my trajectory would have been?

The best thing you can do is encourage people to follow their dreams and also equip them with the skills to manage their (likely) failure gracefully with a holistic view of themselves that encompasses far more than whatever it is they're trying to excel at.
posted by grumpybear69 at 12:38 PM on February 3, 2018 [14 favorites]


It's not failure, is the thing. It's the development of the ability to understand how to practice and learn something and to be really good at that thing through self-analysis and coaching. That is not a failure. That is something that most of the populace never bothers to learn. (Maybe at video games these days more now than at anything else except maybe touch typing and shorthand previously, for skills outside of sports or music.)

I mean, honestly, learning a thing... knowing how to learn a thing and how to fail and slow down and discover how it works and then to speed up and make it a thing that makes the observer go wow... Even if you're not #1. Even if you're #100, or even #1000... You're going to make people go wow. And learning how to do that, whether it's Photoshop or tumbling mats or a violin... that means you can learn how to do anything if you're willing to give it the attention.
posted by hippybear at 12:50 PM on February 3, 2018 [20 favorites]


The hostility of that coach reminds me of why I quit ballet.
posted by JanetLand at 12:54 PM on February 3, 2018 [3 favorites]


There's always something important missing from these "if you want it bad enough..." narratives: necessity and sufficiency. You won't make it if you don't want it badly enough, but wanting it won't make a hippopotamus fly.

The "you can get it if you really want it" hurt me tremendously when it came to acting and theater overall. Because it's not just about "wanting it" - it's about skill and talent, but it's also about luck, and having sufficient support from family and friends and loved ones, and financial health while you're trying to get there and a thousand other things that have nothing to do with "how bad I want it".

And the pain of wanting something but failing to get it was made worse by people implying that "oh, you simply didn't want it hard enough." I wanted it so hard it hurt. But the strikes against me - one of which was the fact that the degree of talent I had was not quite as much as I needed - were not my fault, and had nothing to do with how badly I wanted it.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:56 PM on February 3, 2018 [19 favorites]


I've been lucky in the sense that the sports my young daughter is really into are sports in which she realistically has no chance of reaching the highest levels of the sport:
Baseball (while it would be awesome to be the first female MLB pitcher, her real passion is catching) and basketball (in a family whose gene pool considers a 5'6" woman freakishly tall).

I'm hoping this will help her learn competitiveness and teamwork now, at an age where all the kids (boys and girls) are essentially the same skill level, but then allow her to naturally age out before the crazy expectations really set in.

We have stayed pretty far away from gymnastics, where the insanity seems to ramp up early, and soccer, where crazy soccer moms are not just a myth.

At the end of the day, we aim to walk that tight line between learning to give it your best and learning that your best doesn't define you.
posted by madajb at 1:00 PM on February 3, 2018 [3 favorites]


The best quote I ever heard about putting competition into proper perspective is: "Don't confuse the frosting for the food"
posted by storybored at 1:05 PM on February 3, 2018 [7 favorites]


Maybe to achieve the joy and focus of being at your personal best, you have to accept that there will be a day when you fail. Maybe we should include that in the narrative. Even those who make it to the top, however defined, get old or injured and have to retire, eventually. Maybe the focus needs to be on finding that personal height, and not whether your arc goes higher than someone else's.

I have never been fast; I learned late in life (when my son was diagnosed with the same thing) that what I thought of as my clumsiness was actually a mild disability that made my joints weaker and more prone to failing me under stress (rolling ankles, mostly, but other things too). But even so, I remember times when I pushed myself to run faster, go further, lift more, and the joy and determination I felt. That feeling should be available to everyone and not contingent on some external reward or rank. It shouldn't be a choice between nothing and World's Best.
posted by emjaybee at 1:14 PM on February 3, 2018 [5 favorites]


I was a gymnast 40 years ago, and I still regret that I wasn't good enough. Today, sitting here, wracked with arthritis and lupus pain made so much worse by all the broken bones, disconnected tendons and sprains I put myself through before I was even 12 years old, there's not a day that goes by when I don't walk down a long hallway and and feel my toes point, and want to raise my arms in prep for a run.

I have never loved anything like I loved the feeling of flying because of my own power.
posted by SecretAgentSockpuppet at 1:19 PM on February 3, 2018 [86 favorites]


The hostility of that coach gave me a literal visceral reaction - a churning in my gut, a desire to see that coach truly understand what they just did to a child, and to suffer lifelong guilt over it.

It doesn't have to be this way. It doesn't have to be hostile. It doesn't have to be competitive. Opt your children out of these kinds of activities; they're not worth the cost for what they bring to life.
posted by Fraxas at 1:20 PM on February 3, 2018 [4 favorites]


I have never loved anything like I loved the feeling of flying because of my own power.

This sentence brought unexpected tears to my eyes.
posted by hippybear at 1:21 PM on February 3, 2018 [24 favorites]


I was an opera singer. In my prime, I could sing both Queen of the Night arias from The Magic Flute, the Mad Scene from Lucia di Lammermor, and a host of other roles. Even after college and graduate school, I spent my twenties studying music, and that was pretty much all I did - studying music, translating texts, reading about music, learning roles, and vocalizing. I had a terrible job just to keep the lights on.

What I had: drive, ambition, ability to learn languages, a fine singing voice
What I lacked: money, connections, marketing savvy, and luck

In all of the years I studied (I started voice lessons when I was fourteen), no one ever sat me down and told me how unlikely it would be for me to become a professional singer, what the life was like, or let me know that I had other skills that I might enjoy using more. It never occurred to me that I had anything else to offer. I just knew I had this voice, so I needed to make the most of it.

When I finally realized it wasn't going to happen, I was crushed. I didn't even start feeling relieved for months, at least, maybe years. Now, I'm really glad that I never "made it." I have so many things now - a home, a community, the ability to use my skills and abilities in different ways - that I never would have been able to do, if I'd been traveling around from city to city, living on ramen, churning out another Gilda from Rigoletto.

I dust off my voice from time to time for the fun of it - I was singing arias and duets from Patience while I was tidying my apartment last week - and it's nice to still have the chops. But I don't miss that all-encompassing, intense pressure, or the incredible sense of failure when I didn't get cast one more time, or didn't place at a competition. Not at all.
posted by dancing_angel at 1:37 PM on February 3, 2018 [24 favorites]


By the time I was 7, I was training 16 hours a week. By the age of 9, it was 20.
. . .
...when she tossed my brother and me into gymnastics as toddlers, she didn’t know that it would come to dominate our family’s life.
Which is why, when she was on the verge of that 16 hours a week training, we took our daughter out of the Junior Olympic program and put her into what they called Prep-opt (now Excel). That might be comparable to the recreational gymnastics mentioned in the article with such scorn. Our daughter has had some very good years in Excel; she was dominant in her class a couple of years, and got to the State and Regional championships. At 15, she's doing giants on the bars, backflips on the beam, complex aerials on floor, and scary vaults. She's a freshman in High School, and is already second-best on that team. She's happy with herself.

I think the references to sport as religion are appropriate, The whole Olympics gymnastics program is a cult.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 1:46 PM on February 3, 2018 [12 favorites]


It's funny, she talks of seeking absolution, mediocrity forgiven. But that's not the feeling the article gives off --- peace, acceptance, humility.

I think she'd rather the shameful glory of the damned.
posted by Diablevert at 1:53 PM on February 3, 2018


The people who aren’t quite good enough for the Olympics are really really good. The whole thing becomes insane at some point.
posted by thelonius at 1:53 PM on February 3, 2018 [7 favorites]


I would rather be a person who can elevate them through my skills than try to place myself above them, even in silly places where it doesn't matter.

This, so much. While winning is fun, it feels truly glorious when my skilled effort and work empowers other people in some essential way. This whole thread so far is full of amazing comments, thank you all.

I don't understand the drive toward competition. I spent years playing string bass or piano in music groups. Cooperating to create something beautiful is amazing. Striving to be above others who are also cooperating feels... bad to me. Just make beautiful things, everyone, individually or cooperatively. The world could be full of beautiful things!

hippybear, this resonates (ha) with me so strongly. I was an active, dedicated young musician, too, but stayed with it and made it my work. I'm fortunate to teach at a lovely, medium-sized state university on a gorgeous campus, but even in this cool place full of aspirational people, it took me a long time to realize that the fundamentally collaborative worldview that you described so well, is not one that is very common at all, that most people basically see the world in a competitive framing and suffer from zero-sum thinking as a result. This is pervasive and I now notice the diminishment it causes all around me, all the time.

I think this is an essential part of why I often feel out-of-step with the culture I'm in, from and of (as in, alienated but by no specific cause): people often mistrust collaborative approaches and motives--truly collaborative, not just sharing work tasks, or working toward shared rewards, but stuff like working with others toward a goal that benefits a much larger whole, or making a beautiful thing for the sake of it, and so on.

An extended experience at work last year helped make much of this clear for me, one that also deeply reinforced my belief in the fundamental, transformational power of genuinely collaborative work. We have many aphorisms and sayings to remind ourselves of this, to keep us from being lured by the thrill of winning, the spectacle of achievement, that they fall into cliché and lose their impact, but should be repeated as sacred: a rising tide lifts all boats; the whole is greater than the sum of its parts; a chain is only as strong as its weakest link; we are always better together than alone. Really, they're just there to remind us to get over ourselves, that we will find deeper and more lasting satisfaction in life by lifting others--and ourselves--up. Competition is very useful when we're fighting a disease, or challenging self and/or others to be better, but is just toxic when it becomes reflexive, normal practice in life.

Life is a collaborative effort, and music-making taught me that. When you're making music in a group, the only thing that's true is the sounding music and its effect, and the only way to make that truth happen, to make it real, is to successfully work together, with all of the attentive listening, compromise and humility that entails. This teaches a significant skill set. Most people don't make music anymore because a great conversion started just under 100 years ago, with the advent of phonographs and radios changing most of us into music consumers instead of makers, and apparently there weren't that many other places where we learned this stuff, especially because the communal cultural activities that replaced music-making are competitive instead of collaborative.
posted by LooseFilter at 2:32 PM on February 3, 2018 [46 favorites]


Frayed Knot: Given all that is going on right now with Gymnastics, feels important to point out that this story has nothing to do with any kind of sexual abuse.

But it was full of non-sexual abuse. I'm glad my parents didn't have those kind of dreams for me.
posted by clawsoon at 2:37 PM on February 3, 2018 [1 favorite]


LooseFilter: thank you. *wiping tears* Your words are so well-spoken. I think you're one of my spirit animals now.
posted by hippybear at 2:45 PM on February 3, 2018 [3 favorites]


Are these coaches regular people who think that the ends justify the means, or are they sociopaths?
posted by clawsoon at 2:53 PM on February 3, 2018


i think, fundamentally, competition is about beating the person in front of you. whether in a friendly way that still establishes your own dominance, or whether you actually try to break and hurt them as much as possible.

(the more physical contact there is in a sport, the more people restrain themselves. vs. say chess, where it seems like people can really be motivated by outright cruelty.)

i am generally very 🙄 about evo-psych but it sure seems like competition and dominance come pretty directly from our primate heritage. part of the madness may be that we're not equipped to be in a hierarchy of a thousand or a million, judged on abstract measures we can't at a gut level understand, and forced to wonder whether we're winning or losing to people we don't even know.

evo-psych people have also speculated that depression might be adaptive, that it might be a useful response to get you out of danger when you've been horribly beaten in a dominance contest.
posted by vogon_poet at 2:55 PM on February 3, 2018 [4 favorites]


LooseFilter: flagged as super awesome fantastic comment
posted by yohko at 2:57 PM on February 3, 2018 [1 favorite]


The people who aren’t quite good enough for the Olympics are really really good. The whole thing becomes insane at some point.

About 10 years ago, David Foster Wallace wrote the essay "The String Theory," which details this absurdity. It's ostensibly a profile of a male tennis player then-ranked #79 in the world, but really illustrates how skilled an athlete must be to achieve that ranking by comparing the pro to Foster's own teenaged, nationally-ranked tennis playing; Wallace also shows that the player, Michael Joyce, will likely never make it to any notoriety as a professional player, by comparing him to the most elite male players then competing. His closing paragraphs express the devastation this causes painfully well:
Whether or not he ends up in the top ten and a name anybody will know, Michael Joyce will remain a paradox. The restrictions on his life have been, in my opinion, grotesque; and in certain ways Joyce himself is a grotesque. But the radical compression of his attention and sense of himself have allowed him to become a transcendent practitioner of an art--something few of us get to be. They've allowed him to visit and test parts of his psychic reserves most of us do not even know for sure we have (courage, playing with violent nausea, not choking, et cetera).

Joyce is, in other words, a complete man, though in a grotesquely limited way. But he wants more. He wants to be the best, to have his name known, to hold professional trophies over his head as he patiently turns in all four directions for the media. He wants this and will pay to have it--to pursue it, let it define him--and will pay up with the regretless cheer of a man for whom issues of choice became irrelevant a long time ago. Already, for Joyce, at twenty-two, it's too late for anything else; he's invested too much, is in too deep. I think he's both lucky and unlucky. He will say he is happy and mean it. Wish him well.

He will say he is happy and mean it. Damn.
posted by LooseFilter at 3:01 PM on February 3, 2018 [12 favorites]


I have never loved anything like I loved the feeling of flying because of my own power.
Amen sister. I was pulled out of gymnastics due to back to back injuries and my parents decided that at 12, I shouldn’t be competing and pushing my body like that. A dislocated shoulder and fractured kneecap weren’t worth it, especially since I had started so late at age 8.

I immediately picked up skateboarding and horseback riding to get back the feeling of flying and both came close, but nothing replaces the moment you take flight and know there is nothing but your own body and the air. Skating came close, but I never spent the time to get as good at skating as I was in gymnastics. I still miss flying.
posted by teleri025 at 3:31 PM on February 3, 2018 [5 favorites]


There’s a ton I want to come back and say when I’m not using my phone but for right now:

Kids seek out competition and are always trying to compete.

How do you focus on competition without winning being a part of that?


I’m sitting watch my kids and some others playing in a hotel pool right now. We’ve been here over an hour and there have been a bunch of different games going on. Marco Polo, who can jump farthest, who can make the biggest splash, lots of stuff. It’s all competition, but it’s joyful competition; everyone is having a ton of fun and moving naturally from one activity to the next in the way kids do, without anyone being crowned the winner.

The kids are alright.
posted by nickmark at 4:34 PM on February 3, 2018 [10 favorites]


The kids are alright.
posted by hippybear at 4:50 PM on February 3, 2018 [2 favorites]


Given the amount of chess I've played, my rating is pitiful.

But every year I know more about the game than I did the year before, and my wins are getting more beautiful. Every year I'm also seeing more and more beauty in the games of high-rated players than I did before.

I'm really very grateful to all those players who continue to tie themselves into anguished mental knots so that I don't have to.

Also, Simone Biles is astonishing and I'm glad I live in a world that has her in it.
posted by flabdablet at 6:30 PM on February 3, 2018 [4 favorites]


I was a mediocre springboard diver, short and stocky and I couldn't point my toes. I saw some bizarre accidents and am thankful I never got hurt. I quit in the middle of the season after one close call during an inward one and a half. Best decision I ever made in high school.
posted by Napoleonic Terrier at 7:12 PM on February 3, 2018



In the beginning God didn't make just one or two people; he made a bunch of us. Because he wanted us to have a lot of fun and he said you can't really have fun unless there's a whole gang of you.

So he put us all in this sort of playground park place called Eden and told us to enjoy. At first we did have fun just like he expected. We played all the time. We rolled down the hill, waded in the streams, climbed the trees, swung on the vines, ran in the meadows, frolicked in the woods, hid in the forest, and acted silly. We laughed a lot.

Then one day this snake told us that we weren't having real fun because we weren't keeping score. Back then, we didn't know what score was. When he explained it, we still couldn't see the fun. But he said that we should give an apple to the person who was best at playing and we'd never know who was best unless we kept score. We could all see the fun of that. We were all sure we were best.

It was different after that. We yelled a lot. We had to make up new scoring rules for most of the games we played. Other games, like frolicking, we stopped playing because they were too hard to score. By the time God found out about our new fun, we were spending about forty-five minutes a day in actual playing and the rest of the time working out the score. God was wroth about that -- very, very wroth. He said we couldn't use his garden anymore because we weren't having any fun. We said we were having lots of fun and we were. He shouldn't have got upset just because it wasn't exactly the kind of fun he had in mind.

He wouldn't listen. He kicked us out and said we couldn't come back until we stopped keeping score. To rub it in (to get our attention, he said), he told us we were all going to die anyway and our scores wouldn't mean anything.

He was wrong. My cumulative all-game score is now 16,548 and that means a lot to me. If I can raise it to 20,000 before I die I'll know I've accomplished something. Even if I can't, my life has a great deal of meaning because I've taught my children to score high and they'll all be able to reach 20,000 or even 30,000, I know.

Really, it was life in Eden that didn't mean anything. Fun is great in its place, but without scoring there's no reason for it. God has a very superficial view of life and I'm glad my children are being raised away from his influence. We were lucky to get out. We're all very grateful to the snake.

-- Anne Herbert (1950 - 2015)
posted by Herodios at 7:19 PM on February 3, 2018 [21 favorites]


My elbows bend funny but they make great freestyle swimming strokes. I'd been swimming since I was three and competing against myself and the river's flow since I was six. It was my first race in a major swimming comp in the state capital and I was the last swimmer for my team in the 100m relay. When I finally got back to my seat in the stands, I asked my Dad how I'd done.
"You'll make a good long distance swimmer one day, sweetie."
posted by Thella at 7:21 PM on February 3, 2018 [3 favorites]


I found that David Foster Wallace essay about the tennis player extremely fascinating. The article is over 20 years old at this point though, so I decided to look up what that Michael Joyce guy is doing now. Turns out he peaked at #64, never having cracked in to the top players echelon. But now he's a tennis coach, including coaching Maria Sharapova to #1.

So maybe if you reach the top 100 and all the slog that entails, even if you don't reach the top 10, you can live a pretty good life beginning the cycle anew, and extracting money from the insane parents who make big life choices for their kids before the kids are old enough to make proper choices on their own. This probably wasn't even a conscious decision on Joyce's part; the only thing in life the man knows is tennis.

For every Andre Agassi, or Simone Biles, or Michael Phelps there are thousands of Michelle Kaesers out there, who are physically and emotionally broken by push to get to the top. This is the price society pays so we can have our gods.
posted by topogopo at 9:16 PM on February 3, 2018 [2 favorites]


I'm not in support of broken people who are striving to #1 when what they do makes the crowd go "wow" from their skill already. I might be in the minority by saying that but jeebus. Most of them can do things with their specific discipline that I can only imagine doing and might begin to do with a decade of practice.

Let's stop breaking talented people in the name of competition and instead bring them together to collaborate on taking all of humanity to a new level.
posted by hippybear at 9:39 PM on February 3, 2018 [2 favorites]


The breaking and the wow are the fruit of the same tree. To bring a new thing into the world is to do a thing no one else has ever done, more glory yet if it's a thing no one else can do.

Of course people fail. Everybody fails. Even the ones who succeed fail in the end; most champions will live to watch their records surpassed. To learn to bear failure is the task we are all given. Most of us learn early. Perhaps it is more pitiable, to learn late. But if you learn late it is because you got to bask longer. Not a bad trade.
posted by Diablevert at 10:19 PM on February 3, 2018 [1 favorite]


Honestly people can be just having fun showing off their skill and doing amazing thing and not have to be labeled a "loser" because they did it somehow worse than someone else. It's possible for those witnessing great skill to appreciate A love, B level, and even lower level displays of skill when they are things which are practiced and it doesn't require that you somehow "are better than" someone else, merely that you can Do The Thing.
posted by hippybear at 10:53 PM on February 3, 2018 [2 favorites]


I'm think sitting on dancing_angel's couch and listening to them singing while cleaning the appartment would be very relaxing.
posted by Harald74 at 11:01 PM on February 3, 2018 [2 favorites]


I really liked that essay, but ultimately, I completely disagree with it. I too spent part of high school training with every free moment for something, showed great promise, rocketed up onto the top team, won states, yadda yadda. Then suddenly my junior year, I realized that the amount of pressure I was putting on myself and the amount of time I was devoting to it was just fundamentally extremely unhealthy. And I just walked away, at the end of that semester.

To me, it felt like choosing myself, my life, to get enough sleep, to be happy -- over a toxic, addicting drive to do this thing extremely well. I still look back at that as the right choice, and several times throughout my life, I've repeated this (e.g., I dropped out of a grad school program), and it's always felt like finally doing the healthy thing.

I feel really bad for this person that her inner framework leads her to the conclusion that this equates to being A Failure. To me it equates to reclaiming your birthright to walk outside in the sunshine, get enough sleep, heed your body's need for rest and relaxation, and spend time with friends and family. You don't have to be the best to deserve happiness.
posted by salvia at 11:17 PM on February 3, 2018 [10 favorites]


For most of my time at my tiny school (500 or so boys age 5-18) I was the clever boy in the class, won academic prizes etc. Not actually rated much because sport was the important thing and I was bad at sport. However, I was the clever one. Then you get to University and you meet people who really are clever or at least much cleverer than you. Small fish leaves tiny pool and goes to bigger pool. I did fine in my then niche subject though I changed to it from the one I chose first which I really was not good at it turned out.

Now I teach a first year module and on day one I tell this story and my colleague, who teaches with me and was thrown out of her school and told she was completely useless, tells her story, because there we are both working together doing the same thing. I have no idea if this helps people adjust to the big pool, but I hope it does.
posted by rivets at 1:19 AM on February 4, 2018 [6 favorites]


> hippybear, this resonates (ha) with me so strongly. I was an active, dedicated young musician, too, but stayed with it and made it my work. I'm fortunate to teach at a lovely, medium-sized state university on a gorgeous campus, but even in this cool place full of aspirational people, it took me a long time to realize that the fundamentally collaborative worldview that you described so well, is not one that is very common at all, that most people basically see the world in a competitive framing and suffer from zero-sum thinking as a result. This is pervasive and I now notice the diminishment it causes all around me, all the time.

Back in the '70s I briefly taught English and linguistics at Tamkang College in Taiwan. It was a great experience in many ways, and I still remember the names of some of my students, but it proved to me that there was no point forcing myself to continue on in grad school and get the PhD, because apart from the hatred I felt for the process of writing the dissertation and the department and grad school life in general, it turned out I hated teaching and would never be any good at it, so what's the payoff for getting the PhD (even assuming I wound up landing a job in my specialty, historical linguistics, which at that time was a long shot anyway)? But that's not what this comment is about.

Tamkang is an excellent college (looking it up, I see it's now a university); when I was there, it was considered the #7 college in Taiwan. I know that because everybody there told me the figure, and they all considered themselves failures because they weren't at the #1 college, NTU (Taida), "the Harvard of Taiwan." No matter how fervently I assured them that that was nonsense, that I was living with a teacher at NTU who said the students weren't all that great and most of them weren't bothering to study because they'd made it to the top so why bother, that Tamkang students were just as good as students anywhere else and could achieve great things in life, they just nodded patiently and didn't believe a word I was saying. They knew they were inferior. Grr, it makes me mad all over again just typing this. Smash the patriarchy! (Because we all know that's what's at the bottom of this.)
posted by languagehat at 6:43 AM on February 4, 2018 [3 favorites]


Smash the patriarchy! (Because we all know that's what's at the bottom of this.)

This is a very good point. It might seem unrelated, but the idea that we need to sort people into a hierarchy of value and virtue by such simple metrics - while losing the value of community and cooperation - is one of the fundamental bad ideas that give authoritarian frameworks (of which the patriarchy is the most deeply entrenched) so much traction.

It's not failure, is the thing. It's the development of the ability to understand how to practice and learn something and to be really good at that thing through self-analysis and coaching. That is not a failure. That is something that most of the populace never bothers to learn. (Maybe at video games these days more now than at anything else except maybe touch typing and shorthand previously, for skills outside of sports or music.)

I think you may have hit on why videogames are replacing meaning for a lot of very lost people. What you have to say about skill development certainly rings true to me: I have spent most of my life in the pursuit of bettering myself mostly because it feels awesome. Learning new things, being able to do new things, is a delight in itself.

I have seen many people in my life shy away from that because they know their work will not be The Best, and so they lose that, and I wish they didn't.
posted by mordax at 9:57 AM on February 4, 2018 [3 favorites]


Are these coaches regular people who think that the ends justify the means, or are they sociopaths?

There is a component of sports (and other things) where you put a bunch of people through a really physically (and emotionally and psychologically) difficult experience. Not all will make it. In fact, few will. And those will achieve greater accomplishments.

Unfortunately I think way too many people believe that they are that component, or think that "tough love" is the way to go, and implement it in the wrong places - far too early in the process, really. And also unfortunately when you have coaches who put athletes through this sort of crucible it blends all too well with too many forms of abuse.
posted by entropone at 10:40 AM on February 4, 2018 [2 favorites]


There is a societal focus on being the *BEST* which excludes almost everyone and which leaves those who are not #1 feeling like failures--while those who are#1 get to feel normal at the expense of everyone else. We lack the ability to define success in a less extreme way for ourselves. Speaking as someone who has actually redefined success and who is an over-50 age group world champion in my funky little niche sport, I am constantly surprised by people's exaggerated view of what that must be like. It feels kinda nice, but not that special after the day when it happens; in other words, normal.

Angel: People who don't care will never understand the people who do.

Demon: Yes! And they don't care!
posted by Sebmojo at 1:46 PM on February 4, 2018 [1 favorite]


When my mother emigrated from Europe to the US in the late 70's she looked around for a soccer group for my five-year-old brother. She wanted him to play soccer, have some fun, be a kid learning a sport. She describes how surprised she was that all the soccer groups even for young kids were highly competitive, how much emphasis was put on winning, but what disturbed her the most was the way the kids who would or could not always be Number One were dismissed as "losers." Maybe not overtly, but the stigma was there. Moreover, she was treated dismissively for wanting him to make friends and have some fun. Soccer did not work out, even though he was naturally athletic. Similarly, when I enrolled in ballet at six, I was completely lost, flailing around and just generally confused. Some of this was because most kids had started at age 3, some of it was because the others took the class twice a week and she thought it would be enough to take me just once. By the time she realized perhaps two lessons a week might be a good idea, I was too far behind and too demoralized to want to continue.

She just couldn't get her head around how competitive and demanding sports for young kids can be.
posted by Armed Only With Hubris at 2:08 PM on February 4, 2018 [4 favorites]


hippybear, this is off topic but I can't help it: I've heard Jeremy Denk play and he's amazing, both as a pianist and as a person writing about music. I hope he was a decent person to go to high school with.
Also, as LooseFilter says,
When you're making music in a group, the only thing that's true is the sounding music and its effect, and the only way to make that truth happen, to make it real, is to successfully work together, with all of the attentive listening, compromise and humility that entails.
absolutely. I'm not even the best in my ordinary amateur orchestra. I could be better if I practiced more, and I should be, but the point would only be to do more with the music. The "attentive listening" is where it's at and a lot of what makes it joyful.

(For a while I worked at a school that put a huge emphasis on brass-band competitions, and it broke my heart. The whole point of music is that, unlike sports, EVERYBODY gets to win. You can do it WITHOUT deciding who wins and who loses. Why set up an artificial structure of success and failure, so that what matters is whether you got the gold or silver or no medal, got to go on to the next level of competition or not, instead of how well you played together?)
posted by huimangm at 7:16 PM on February 4, 2018 [1 favorite]


The daughter I talked about above also plays cello. The region we live in has Junior and Senior District Orchestras for middle and high school kids. They have to audition for seats in the orchestra, and it is competitive. Part of the selection process is assigning ranks -- First Chair in violins, Second Chair, etc. There's also an All-State Orchestra, on similar lines. Our daughter made the Junior and Senior orchestras (in different years), and really enjoyed playing with them, but the auditions were stressful. She auditioned for the All-State, but wasn't prepared, and was not chosen.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:01 AM on February 5, 2018


My daughter is very good at gymnastics, but still only in kid gymnastics. She is constantly asked to join the team (she's 6) but we always decline. I played plenty of sports growing up and I won't say I got nothing out of it but comparatively I didn't get much. It's actually kind of tough as a parent - are we derailing her dreams for our own selfish concerns (specifically not to have to go to endless weekend gymnastics competitions and to pay 3X for the privilege/body damage she may or may not experience)? But she's 6 so we get her some ice cream and its forgotten until the next time they ask.
posted by The_Vegetables at 8:51 AM on February 5, 2018


I think Stephen King actually had a good yardstick for this kind of thing. He was talking about one of his kids wanting to play the saxophone, because he was impressed by Clarence Clemons - but when they got him a sax and lessons, he would practice for that half hour every day that he was supposed to, but never picked up the sax outside practice and lessons.

King said that that was why, when his son asked to quit sax a few months later, they let him - because King had already realized that his son never played around with the sax outside practice time. If his son had ever picked up the sax and goofed around with it outside the practice sessions, played around for the fun of it to see if he could figure stuff out himself, he would have known that his son actually enjoyed it and his "can I quit" would have just been a moment of weakness. But the fact that he only ever played it during practice meant that he found the actual practice of the saxophone to be a chore, and the whole idea of "can I play sax" was born of nothing more than "Clarence Clemons is cool" and was never strong to begin with.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:58 AM on February 5, 2018 [3 favorites]


Hit "post" too soon. I think sometimes your kid can guide you when it comes to whether the things they do are passions as opposed to just being stuff to do.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:59 AM on February 5, 2018 [1 favorite]


I'm still boggled at 16-20 hours a week at that age. I mean, that's enormous. People think I train a lot for cycling, but I rarely hit 9 or 10. I mean, it'd be more if I were trying to race, but still probably not 20.
posted by uberchet at 2:22 PM on February 7, 2018


hippybear, this is off topic but I can't help it: I've heard Jeremy Denk play and he's amazing, both as a pianist and as a person writing about music. I hope he was a decent person to go to high school with.

huimangm He and I shared a lot of classes and we were both in orchestra (him viola, me string bass, had been since 6th grade), and orchestra bumped up against lunch and we (and a couple of others) played a lot of spades while keeping our own running score on our reused brown paper bags. We weren't hanging tight or anything, but we were very present in each other's lives and were quite friendly.

And yes, he's amazing with what he's doing these days.
posted by hippybear at 8:48 PM on February 7, 2018 [1 favorite]


I am coming back way late to this conversation, it's been a hella few weeks at sea, but I wanted to say thank you to everyone who shared their stories, their dreams, their memories, and their regrets. It's threads like this that remind me why I love Metafilter so much, and why it's become one of the only places on the web I make time for every day. Even when I don't comment, I am buoyed by the life and love in this community.
posted by SecretAgentSockpuppet at 5:35 PM on February 19, 2018 [1 favorite]


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