Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Better Living Through Gluttony

According to some people in white lab coats, eating chocolate can reduce the risk of heart disease by as much as 33% or more. The research boffins are from Cambridge, so they must be right.

Another study by people who probably spent too much time indoors in college has found that drinking up to a bottle of wine a day reduces the risk of heart disease by as much as 50%.

Fantastic! All I need now is for the next study to confirm that consumption of filet mignon on a regular basis will take care of the remaining 20% of risk of heart disease, and my life will be complete.

I might eventually tip the scales at 300 pounds, but by golly, my heart will be disease-free.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Eventful Beginnings

After weeks of intense anticipation, the school year started vigorously.

Michael got the fourth-grade teacher he was hoping for. Several of his best friends are also the class. Equally important, most of the problem children of his grade are not in his class. As he describes it, the people in his class are "all friends." He had been looking forward to school starting, and the first day did not disappoint.

Ready For 4th Grade, Freshman Year

The focus this year has been on Kelly as she starts her journey through high school. The adventure began in early July when she began taking herself to school on her bike three times a week for open gym volleyball sessions. Two weekends ago, she attended two six-hour days of training camp. A week ago, we went to the campus for Cougar Day for the yearbook picture and to pick up her schedule, and came back in the evening for a physical for the athletics program. Thankfully, she got all the classes she signed up for, alleviating one worry that had nagged all summer. Last Friday, tryouts for the freshman volleyball team began, and continued each weeknight through last night, the first day of school.

Kelly's first day of school went well, with no problems being lost on campus or getting stuffed into garbage cans by upperclassman. She came home with geometry homework, an assignment to read and analyze the first chapter of “The Old Man and the Sea,” and to write a Spanish essay. She also had her fourth evening of volleyball tryouts. At the end of the evening, the coaches advised that they would post on the team website the names of the players asked to return for the final tryout session on Thursday – the first cut.

Unfortunately, she did not survive that first cut. Over the course of the summer, she improved her skills significantly. However, in a volleyball-mad town, at the high school that won the state championship last year, the competition for roster spots is fierce. Ultimately, there is not much she could do about being 5’1”, playing against girls who almost universally played for club teams. There was not a single player in the gym, Kelly included, who was anything less than a good volleyball player. In the end, there were simply too many who were better than she was.

When the list was finally posted and her name was not on it, Kelly received the news with a smile and a shrug of the shoulders, saying, "really? Darn." She admitted that as the tryouts went on, she found her desire to make the team growing. However, she treated the disappointing news with grace and good cheer. I think she knew, better than we did, the high level of competition she faced. She took the news well, without outrage or surprise. She accepted the finality of the decision far better than we did.

I struggle with the knowledge that her athletic career is over, in all likelihood, without ever having had the opportunity to compete for her high school. She developed such a strong connect with volleyball in such a short time, it is disorienting to have it all go away so suddenly, even as her skills continue to increase and her knowledge of the game grows. The recreational league is not available for kids in high school, and the club teams require a greater commitment of time than she, wisely, is willing to give (and the logistics of any club team would be impossible for us anyway). In the end, there were too many other girls better than she was. That is the nature of competition; sometimes, you don't win, not because you were cheated, but because you weren't the best. Wisdom dictates that you accept defeat gracefully and grow from it. Kelly, apparently, is extraordinarily wise.

There is a slight possibility that she will try out for the school soccer team, competing against legions of girls who have played for club teams for years, and she might give volleyball another go next summer. The chances of making the those teams, she knows, are slim, but she might do it anyway just to get it all out of her system.

For now, though, she will just have to fall back on schoolwork. That is not bad option. After going through three years of middle school without a grade lower than an A, the classroom is a place of pride and accomplishment for her. After the first day of high school that she just had, it is also hard to imagine that anything to come over the next four years will be able to throw her off her stride.

Monday, August 15, 2011

This Day In History

1965: The Beatles perform at Shea Stadium.
1969: Woodstock music festival begins.
1993: Two otherwise sensible people get married at the tender ages of 22 and 23, doing what the modern world said that we need not or should not do.

Eighteen years later, the marriage endures happily, with much less screaming, hearing loss, mud or drug use (non-prescription, anyway) than the other two events.

Friday, August 05, 2011

Spring Sports In Review: Volleyball

Kelly's career in recreational league volleyball came to an end in early June. Her team ended up playing very well over the course of the season, losing only one match (unfortunately, it happened on a weekend when grandparents were visiting). The coaches were enthusiastic, but knew nothing about volleyball. They were lucky to have several good athletes on the team, but the gameplay was rarely high art. Nevertheless, the girls dispatched nearly every appointment on their way into the playoff tournament.

Unfortunately, they lost in the first round of the playoffs, and under the odd structure of the tournament, they could not play themselves back into the championship game. They lost to the team that they shared their practice gym with and scrimmaged frequently. Until the playoff game, our girls had never lost to them. For the playoff game, though, the coach's daughters who played club volleyball, who seldom appeared at that team's practices or regular-season games, showed up ready to play and dominate. Our girls eventually won their next playoff game before losing their last game.

On the whole, Kelly had a great season. As an eighth-grader, many of the girls were automatically deferential to her; the fact that she was among the best players on the team made them even more willing to fit their games to hers. She encouraged players to work together for sets and spikes, even though the team did not practice that at all (I attended all of the practices, and there was not a single setting drill all season). She also led the way in setting positions on the court so that players with complementary games could be next to each other (I may have had some influence of that).

One moment halfway through the season helped chart a new course for her in volleyball. After a special practice with several students and graduates of the local high school as coaches, Kelly and I "peppered" the ball back and forth as we usually did before and after practices. One of the student coaches noticed and uttered the most complimentary words to Kelly she could have said: "do you play for a club team?" Kelly didn't, of course, but was deeply flattered that she played well enough that someone thought she did. The coach then asked her where she'd be going to high school. We then got into a brief discussion about the structure of the high school's volleyball program, the freshman team, and how to make the team. The coach was enthusiastic about Kelly's play and her chances to make a roster at the high school, and encouraged her to take part in the summer "open gym" program. Both of us went home from that practice very excited and encouraged.

Kelly has followed through. Since the beginning of July, she has been attending open gym volleyball sessions at the high school three days a week, which also include an hour of conditioning work. In a major step of independence, she has used her bike to get there and back. That has led her to visit the library several times, and even go out of her way to stop at the ice cream store to buy herself a treat once. She has had the opportunity to play with very skilled volleyball players, nearly all of whom have far more experience than she does. I have not seen any of the practices, but by her description it sounds as if she is holding her own. She is critical of herself when she makes mistakes, but I know she is already a much better player than she was two months ago. Just a couple of weeks into the open gym sessions, we played a little pepper at a local park, and she was already dramatically more capable in all phases of the game.

Kelly has had very few auditions or tryouts in her life. Making the freshman team is an extremely high priority for her, which is why she has gone to the lengths she has two attend the open gym sessions. A weekend minicamp begins in a week, and then tryouts. I can feel the tension rising in her. We just have to trust that she will do her best during the tryouts, and that by her participation in the summer workouts the coaches will know how dedicated she is.

Even if she doesn't make a team, the work she put in the summer will bear fruit. The independence she has developed from riding her bike across town three times a week has been invaluable, and the necessary step out of the home as she prepares to become a high schooler.

Still, she really, really wants to make the team. Truthfully, we do too.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Spring Sports In Review: Baseball

With summer half over, now seems as good a time as any to take a look back at the busy spring sports scene in our household. First up, baseball.

Coaching the team, even as an assistant coach, ended up being one of the most challenging things I have ever done. I want to say it was also one of the most rewarding, but I'm not sure I can go that far. I lost an awful lot of sleep thinking about game situations, practice methodologies, lineup strategies and the unhinged psychologies of both some of the kids and the parents. We had our challenges, as did all the teams, but I would like to believe the boys learned something about baseball and themselves over the course of the season.

Overall, our season was characterized by consistent inconsistency, punctuated by memorable triumphs. We finished with a 4-2 record against non-league opponents from Orinda, including a tense 1-0 victory in the last game of a mid-season tournament. In that game, in the top of the first extra inning in the scoreless game, an Orinda player drilled the ball deep into right field with a runner on base. Right field, of course, is the traditional home of every team's weakest player, and we were no different. Just as we saw a long weekend of baseball games about to come to a dispirited end, our right fielder stuck his glove out and made an excellent catch of a very well hit ball, ending the threat. Unfortunately, the bottom of our order was coming up. Happily, Michael, who had gotten his first hit of the season the day before, led off with a ringing single to left field. He managed to get to third on ground outs, and scored on an infield single off the bat of another of our weakest hitters. It was a memorable and thrilling win, with the players enthusiastically yelling and hugging each other.

Another high point of the season was knocking off the best team in the division, the team that went on to win the championship. They had lost their first game only the week before after starting the season with 10 straight wins. It was a close game throughout, with both teams playing well. We managed to hold a lead going into the last inning, but their big bats would not be denied. They went up by two runs in the top of the sixth, with their ace on the mound poised to shut us down. Once again, we found ourselves at the bottom of our batting order, needing two runs to extend the game and not knowing where we would find them. Fortunately, their ace pitcher was in his third inning of work. He started having trouble finding the strike zone, then had to be pulled because he had reached his pitch limit. The next pitchers couldn't find the strike zone either, allowing our two weakest hitters (who had only one hit between them by that point two thirds of the way through the season) to get on base. That got us to the top of our lineup, and they came through. A double tied the game, and a single wanted in walkoff fashion.

Another highlight of the season was winning our first playoff game against the number two team in the league. That game proved to us what we knew all along: when all of our players were focused, we could beat anybody. Our final highlight of the season came in the last inning of our last game. Our weakest player had not gotten a hit all season. He, along with only a few other players, came out to our optional practices over Memorial Day weekend, working hard on his game. We were down by a bunch of runs, needing to get something out of the bottom of our lineup yet again. We managed to get some runners on base (Michael was on third, as it happened). Thrillingly, our batter dropped down a perfect bunt, something he worked on diligently in our extra practices, earning his first hit and a critical run batted in. Even in the midst of a difficult game when some of the kids had started to tune out, seeing them go bananas for their teammate’s first hit helped me appreciate them again.

What we were unprepared for was how fragile the psychology of some of these kids was. Some days, some of them just could not get it together mentally, leaving us with gaping holes in our lineup, our pitching mound and on defense. When our best overall player was fully engaged, he was unhittable as a pitcher, unstoppable at the plate and on the base class, and flawless in the field. He proved the point at a late-season all-star tournament, where he was the undisputed star of the team, batting around .900 for the weekend. Yet there were some days when his head was not in the game and his performance fell off substantially.

In the end, we played about .500 ball overall (albeit our in-league record was not as strong). We learned that the mental makeup of a player is far more important at that age than we would have guessed, and not just in terms of discipline. Desire and intensity turned out to be extremely important, and surprisingly lacking or inconsistent with some of the players. What wore me out by the end of the season was a sense that, with many of the boys, I felt that as coaches we were constantly pulling them along toward a goal that we constantly had to point out to them, rather than riding alongside with them, guiding and molding their enthusiasm in pursuit of that goal that they grasped and sought on their own. There were some issues with a couple of parents as well which dimmed our joy to some degree, but for the most part our parents were enthusiastic and thankful for our efforts.

I never had to worry about Michael's enthusiasm or focus. He was the model nine-year-old player. He worked hard, always wanted to improve, struggled at the beginning of the season but finally figured some things out toward the end. He did not collect his first hit until the mid-season tournament, but by the end of the season was our team’s median player for hits – five players had more, five had fewer. He had a number of opportunities to pitch, where he performed relatively well, particularly considering his age and size. On the whole, it was a good year of development for him. By the end of the season, we started having him practice at shortstop, anticipating that he will be expected to play that key position at some point next season.

It looks unlikely that I will coach again next year, mainly because my co-coach’s son is not likely to play and he probably will not coach as a result. I will be quite satisfied to return to the sidelines, offering support when needed but willing to leave the sleepless nights to others.

Before the season began, when Michael first found out I would be his coach, he said he was so happy, it didn't matter how our team would do: "we are going to have fun!" In the end, he was exactly right. It did not matter that our team did not go undefeated, did not win the league championship, and lost (slightly) more games than we won. We had our triumphs along the way, we won some big games in memorable ways, and we learned a lot about the sport we love. In the end, as I reminded myself many times throughout the season, we had the opportunity to go out and play baseball together three or four times a week. What is not to love about that?