Erika J. Cannon

Isabel's Losing Season(s)

     Isabel is a three-season athlete. Those are six words I never thought I'd write. As a matter of fact, autocorrect had to fix athlete because I don't know how to spell it. My people are not athletic. I was not raised in a team-focused family. My parents tried to get me to play community soccer when I was in elementary school, but abandoned that notion when I ran away from the ball instead of toward it. I was content to star in the current youth theatre production and play 2nd or 3rd chair viola in the orchestra. I had no need to run, jump, sweat, or get out of breath.

     As an adult, I did come to enjoy group exercise; I really miss step aerobics. That's so 1990s, I know, but I loved step. That's where you step up and down off of box for 45 minutes. If you had a good teacher, there could be interesting and complex choreography that took your mind off the numbness in your legs; otherwise, a good soundtrack would do the trick. I even resorted to teaching aerobics after my midlife debacle, when I lost my job shortly after my divorce and had to piece things together to pay the mortgage on my new house. So I did eventually learn how to sweat and maintain a healthy heart rate for 60 minutes.

     But my people never engaged in a sport or activity that involved catching, hitting, or passing a ball to another person. That's just weird.

     My only child Isabel had been after me in middle school to play volleyball. But she had inherited my genes, the ones that reject physical activity at a young age. I couldn't get that girl to walk around the block, and she complained endlessly about physical education class. To avoid high school PE, she took the online course the summer before 9th grade and made a C, for crying out loud. There's no way she's going to persevere an entire season of a team sport, I thought.

     Truth be told, I got an F one quarter in PE class in high school, which we were also required to take. At the time, PE class involved dressing out (putting on blue shorts and yellow t-shirt, school colors) and wandering into the gym to find Mrs. Regan, who was older than dirt and most often smoking in her office. I'm not kidding. Ahhh...those were the days. We did have to participate in the square-dancing unit, but if basketball was on tap, as long as we sat on the bleachers and dressed out, we would pass the class. Until second quarter, when we had to learn CPR. First semester, I learned CPR. But second semester, when we had to do it again, I flat out refused. I had just done that. And it was gross. Back then they gave you a little alcohol swab in between resuscitation efforts and you were expected to lock lips and blow hard enough so you could see Annie's chest rise. My report card came home with an F for that quarter and my mom, flabbergasted, said, how did you flunk PE?

     "There was no way I was going to suck face with that dummy again," I announced.

     Though I detected disapproval, I also sensed solidarity, because there was no domestic consequence for my refusal and the ensuing F.

     So I'm really not all that surprised that Isabel got a C in online phys ed, which frankly was a bunch of reports, and not so much phys.

     When we moved to Tennessee for my husband Michael to go to seminary and Isabel enrolled at St. Andrews-Sewanee School, a school where everyone is required to participate in a “physical activity,” she jumped at team sports. As a nod to the varying levels of physicality, the school counts theatre as a physical activity, and offers three productions a year for those who absolutely are not sports inclined. Unlike me, Isabel chose team sports.

     Volleyball was first on tap, the sport she had begged to participate in. We communicated with the coach, and he assured her she would play either on Varsity or JV depending on her skill. She had learned the rules of volleyball in middle school PE class (I guess she had a better PE teacher than I did in 1986), and she landed a spot on the JV team, expected for a first-year effort. She did well on volleyball, and became good at it. She came to enjoy training, games, and even sweating. In fact, if she didn’t sweat, she wasn’t working hard enough. It was quite a transformation to watch.

     In the middle of that first volleyball season, the basketball coach asked her to play on the basketball team, the winter sport, because she's taller than average. I was just flabbergasted that she was being recruited for a team; it took a little convincing to get Isabel to agree, but in the end, she joined the basketball team.

     Because every student who wants to play is placed on a team at St. Andrews (SAS), the level of expertise and experience is not always that of other teams, where players try out, and the less-athletic kids don't make the cut, making SAS teams a mish-mash of ability, expertise, fitness and athleticism. And a lot of kids - like Isabel - are playing for the first time. Which means that most seasons are not winning seasons. In fact, they are most often painful losing seasons.

     Not knowing anything about team sports before Isabel started playing them, I've been amazed at what kids learn in team sports. It has nothing to do with sports.

     Sure, they learn how to dribble the ball, what double-dribbling is and that you can't do it, and how to pass the ball and do a lay-up. They even learn complex plays and routes, and strategies to shake an opponent. That's stuff I think anyone can learn from a book or a YouTube video.

     Basketball season is endless, or so it feels. It starts in early November, and continues until mid-February. There are three games a week, one often on the weekend. And then there's daily practice. It's brutal. And that's just from my vantage point. I attended all these games, planned dinner around them, and bought all the necessary accoutrements that team sports require. A lot of moms do this, I know. My friend Inez has three kids who each played three sports all the time. I could not imagine their level of exhaustion. But their kids have always played team sports (one just entered the NFL draft), and they played for a large public school with a long history of winning.

     Watching your child play a game three times a week and lose (by so many points that the referees don't stop the clock when they normally would to hasten the finish of the game and reduce the humiliation) every time, is a different kind of exhaustion.

     Basketball is a really fast game. I had difficulty following the ball and the movement of 6 girls in white shirts as they competed against 6 girls in black shirts, or green, or blue. A whistle blows and Michael knows immediately what has happened. My head hadn't swiveled to the other end of the court yet to even follow the ball. Michael, who is a fan of and has played most sports involving any kind of ball, sees things happening on both sides of the court. (Kind of like my ability to see around the corner in the grocery store, I guess; Michael couldn't find the toilet paper if you drew him a map.)

     I struggled to even keep up with what was happening from my spot at the top of bleachers (five rows high), where we sat to lean against the wall.

     I can't tell you what Isabel learned, but here's what I saw and what I learned from her losing basketball seasons:

     There were 12 girls who come from different states and even different countries, who worked together to accomplish a goal. Elsie's native language is Rwandan, Winnie's is Chinese, Sarah's is Grundy County, Kate's is foul, Tessa's is tennis, and Isabel's is come lately. They were a motley crew.

     But they are a crew that practiced together every day, and played every game together. Once I (the violist) suggested Isabel skip practice to do something with us. I can't remember what it was. It wasn't that important, but Isabel was expressing frustration with basketball. I thought it might give her a break from the challenge of it all, and return her with a fresh perspective.

     "Mom!!" she cried, horrified at my suggestion. "I can't skip practice! I'm on the team."

     I had no idea the team was so important. Michael shook his head at me, clearly disappointed.

     "Orchestra player," he called me, with obvious disdain. Well, for the record, I would not have skipped orchestra practice. I had no idea the two were so close in nature.

     A losing basketball season is long, and enduring it became my mantle, and Isabel's as well. I learned a little about the game, and how to spot the deficits in our team, beyond the obvious fact that we scored fewer points than the other team.

     I used to stop cheering the more we lost, but in our third losing season, the more we lost, the louder I cheered, calling out each girl's name when she did something well. Even when they fouled someone.

     Yes, I cheered for the fouls - the ones we committed. That meant our girls were stepping up their aggression, something our team needed to work on. A non-native player and recipient of my DNA, Isabel used to shy away from physical contact, and would in fact apologize for contact. I had no idea basketball was such a physical sport. I thought teams just dribbled up and down the court and shot the ball. Heavens, no. They are all over each other; the whole game is nothing but sweaty rubbing and sharp elbowing. In fact, I learned that the butt is a major body part used in offensive basketball moves.

     In the first year I carried animosity with me away from the game. I was really angry that they beat us. Like it was their fault that we lost. By our third season, I was kind to the other team when they bought snacks in our concession stand after shellacking our girls. It's just a game. It's important in the moment, but after it's over, we respect what happened and leave it on the court. And I'll gladly take your $2 for one Coca Cola.

     In her junior year, Isabel's team won a game. It was the first win for SAS in three years. Everyone burst into tears. There is no win as sweet as that.

     The one thing that amazes me at every game was their perseverance in the face of all that loss. That they come back, again and again. To work, to play, to hope.

     ...we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us...Romans 5:3-5


     They were living out, likely unknown even to themselves, the hope that we have in Christ. This is my favorite Bible verse, and probably the reason this team meant so much to me. Their hope was not only in themselves as normally self-centered teenagers, but it was also in something bigger than themselves: their team. I pray that they will look back at their losing seasons with fondness for their teammates and humor at their play with the character that enduring three losing seasons of basketball can instill.

     I used to think that being a sports mom would be onerous, going to all those games all the time, watching the same thing over and over. As we neared the end of Isabel's third losing season, I was overcome with sadness because I knew I would miss it, but I was thankful she gave me the surprising chance to watch her become an athlete. I was not disappointed.

Erika Cannon has a degree in Newspaper Journalism and is a student in the MFA creative writing program at Sewanee's School of Letters. She writes theological reflections as a result of completing the four-year Education for Ministry course, and is also working on a novel about generations of men in the mid-20th Century South who are struggling to be who they are juxtaposed against who they are expected to be. She lives in Tampa, Fl., with Michael, who is an associate priest. They have four adult children.