For as long as I can remember, my son Nathan has loved competition. We bought him a set of Matchbox cars when he was five years old and he immediately lined up the cars and raced them two by two, setting the one that went farthest in the winner’s circle and tossing the loser back in the shoebox. There were rounds and rounds of this until a single car was crowned champion.
Later, he had a set of mini NFL football helmets. These he lined these up in a long row on the back of the couch. Using tiny football player figures, he acted out the games on a felt field and the winning team’s helmet moved on in his tournament. Slowly, the losers piled up until the Super Bowl pitted the top two teams in a battle of supremacy.
Then came the sets of mini helmets for college football. Teams from the Big Ten, ACC, and Pac 10 faced off in hundreds of imaginary games. Not only did he use these for football, but they also represented teams in his nerf basketball tournaments. Eventually, he used a giant whiteboard where he could write in the team names of his pretend competitions.
My wife Michelle and I loved listening in, and we sometimes stood near a doorway, craning our necks to hear his whispering play calls, “He blasts through the line, sprints down the sideline, and dives in for the touchdown! AHHHHHHHHHH!” It went on for hours.
Nathan’s passion for competition was not relegated to indoor games.
He was, and still is, a dedicated soccer player. He’s played competitively since he was six years old, cherishing every moment with his teammates. Though he enjoys practices, he thrives on league games and tournaments. When all of the brackets he created in our basement come alive on the real-life soccer field, he can hardly contain himself. After two wins and a loss, he calculates all the ways his team could make it to the final. The possibilities drive him as much as the sport itself.
And, during basketball season, the whiteboard is scribbled with NCAA team names. Last fall he completed his freshman year on the JV soccer team. When the varsity seniors lost in the playoffs, he was beside himself. “Dad, they were crying on the bus. It was so sad,” he said. “That was their last game together—ever.” It was good for him to recognize that being vulnerable after competition is healthy. That even when you’re a senior in high school, it’s okay to get emotional about sports. I think this validated his own feelings about his passion for competition.
Nathan’s competitive nature has brought an unexpected, but welcome gift: it’s deepened our relationship.
We’ve been going to sporting events ever since he could walk and those basketball, soccer and football games have provided opportunities for him to open up and share his feelings with me. I cherish sharing those spaces with my son and watching him light up when he’s in his element. Suddenly, the kid who keeps his feelings to himself is talking a mile a minute or burrowing his head into my shoulder because he cannot bear to watch the final shot. Sports cracks open my son’s tough outer shell and allows him to be a bit more vulnerable.
Nathan is 15 now, and the helmets are tucked away in his closet, but we still hear him shooting baskets in the basement. Recently, he’s taken on trick shot challenges. Last week, he turned four kitchen pots upside down and bounced a ping-pong ball off of each one, hoping the ball would land in a small plastic cup. We heard the rhythm and song of plastic against steel… over and over again. There were occasional gasps of frustration signaling close calls. And then, after maybe 45 minutes of trying, he let out a scream of success.
We all raced down to see the video he had made and his enthusiastic reaction was pure gold.
I miss hearing his high-pitched toddler voice calling plays as plastic football figures careened down a felt football field. And I miss seeing him run into the kitchen holding the winning Matchbox car above his head, shouting, “Dad, the green one won again!” But even now, as an almost 16-year-old, Nathan is imagining, creating, and challenging himself. The spirit of that toddler who spent hours pretending and conjuring his own world of sports and competition lives on.
Competition, which so often calls for stoicism, has somehow helped my son learn to express himself more openly. We’ve connected in meaningful ways over our shared love of sports and I feel like we know each other better as a result. I’ve only got three more years before he graduates from high school and leaves home, but I know we will always find common ground in sports. And that feels like the biggest win of all.