Evolution is not the same thing as progress. Charles Darwin knew as much. Events happen, rules change, mutations occur. The modern era has delivered the Tigerwoodus Amongus, a compelling species that now can be found in gyms, on grass, anywhere kids sports are played. It is a force to be reckoned with, both inspiring parents and prompting them to orchestrate the play of children at early ages so that they don't perish from the sports habitat prematurely. But sometimes it's better just to give them the space and tools and let nature take its course.
My oldest son Cole enjoys his travel soccer team. But he likes skateboarding even more. He and his neighborhood friends spend many hours in our driveway, or, in the winter, our garage bay, perfecting complicated tricks that my eye has trouble following. He flips and twists the board in all sorts of directions, sometimes landing with his feet on top of it, sometimes not. He gets frustrated, but only for a moment; and he never gets discouraged. He keeps working at it and working at it and working at it, jumping and sweating and bruising — and learning. Ollies. Kickflips. Varial kickflips. 180 heelflips. Fakie bigspins. Axle stalls. He keeps adding to his repertoire, and when he does, he wants to tell me all about it. Or have me videotape it. And then he hops on YouTube and clicks around for new ideas and inspiration. And heads outside to experiment some more. It's a highly creative process that I can imagine will bear rewards if, as he gets older, he can transfer this method to other environments—including today's knowledge-based workplace, where innovation and initiative drive the global economy. A couple of times, I've found myself wondering: How good might he be at soccer or one of the other sports he's been signed up for since he was young if he was this passionate about improving his technique? But maybe that's the point: There are no sign-ups. Skateboarding is all his own. It's an adult-free zone, except when he wants to make it otherwise. All we've done is buy him boards and shoes.
We're still looking for a sport for Anna, who is 9. The bullet train to high school that is travel soccer blew past her before she had a chance to spot it, and she doesn't seem much interested in team games anymore. But over the winter, she found her friends on the gentle slopes of a nearby hill, and took to skiing. And just the other day, she summoned Cole and I up to what we call the toy room, a play space above the garage filled with puzzles, costumes, games, and music CDs. At the bottom of the ball bin she had found a rainbow-colored streamer with a baton attached to the end, like the ones rhythmic gymnasts use. She cleared the floor, dialed up one of her favorite songs on the room's boom box, and lowered her head theatrically, awaiting the first note. As the melody kicked in, Anna swirled the baton just above the olive carpet, locating the soul of the song. The next three minutes was like watching Audrey Hepburn for the first time in Breakfast at Tiffany's: a revelation. Anna twirled, leaped, dove, and juked athletically, all the while painting the air with graceful strokes that required both improvisation and calculation. Cole and I looked at each other as if to say, where has she been hiding? It would be premature to say that Anna had found her rhythm, gymnastically. But it was a reminder that there is a sport out there for her, if she can be engaged on her own terms.
As for 2-year-old Kellen, still young enough that he calls himself Della because he hasn't nailed all the consonants, we found him hanging from the top of one of our garage doors one afternoon. My wife had clicked the automatic opener, Kellen grabbed the handle out of curiosity and then held on for dear life as it rose … and rose … and rose. Christine didn't notice until Anna summoned her from the kitchen with a terrified shriek at the sight of her baby brother dangling nine feet in the air. "Hold on Kellen!" Christine yelled, flying down the mud room stairs. And hold on he did. When she retrieved him, and set him down on the driveway, she asked what was running through his mind while way up high.
"Della strong!" he said, shiny with pride. A talent was IDed, I suppose.
Excerpted from Game On: The All-American Race to Make Champions of Our Children, by Tom Farrey (ESPN Books; $24.95).