Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Pitches and Stitches

Let me preface this blog entry with the confession that I am not an athlete.  I am a knitter...read: geek.  I am also an emergency medicine physician, which means that I have the attention span of a gnat.  I have never sat through 9 innings of a baseball game and if the audience were comprised of people like me, they would have to have a 1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc-inning stretch in addition to the 7th inning tradition.  My husband is just like me, and for better or worse, that is why we wed. Out of our union was, unfathomably, born an athlete...an athlete who now, at age 10, loves baseball. In contrast to his inborn physical acumen, he was also born with something which his father and I CAN trace back to our gene pool - a peacefulness in situations of great stress.  We are thankful for this as it prevents him from being the obstreperous bullish personality type which often results from unbridled competitiveness in sporty pre-adolescent boys.

I have had to rapidly reflect on the origins of his gifts because it has come upon our family so suddenly.  My son's decision to play baseball this year came as something of a shock, and it came as a still greater shock that his coach suggested that he try pitching.  As my knowledge of baseball is limited at best (I thought Big Papi was the team mascot for the first 2 years of living in Boston), the only help I could offer him was by searching instructional pitching videos on You Tube.  Needless to say, I am not a parent who obsessively pushed my son into pitching, or (knowing of at least two high school pitchers who have suffered nervous break-downs as a result of the pressure) even encouraged it.  Fearing for his joint integrity, I reluctantly accepted that he would have to give pitching a try, if only to scratch that pre-adolescent itch to prove oneself in sports.

During his first game, my son was allowed to pitch after the 2nd pitcher emotionally crumpled on the field. The bases were loaded.  N took the field, with no prior pitching experience and walked his first batter thereby allowing one run.  Kids five years older than him would have been unable to finish under these conditions.  Instead, steely with resolve, I watched my son throw 9 perfect subsequent pitches, thereby closing the inning with only the one run.  Their second game was tied up at the "end", but as there was still enough light in the dusky sky to play (and egged on by the boys who were all so desperate to play), the coaches agreed to a tie-breaking inning.  Again, the coach put N in to pitch.  The first batter hit the ball, which N caught and threw him out at 1st.  Batters 2 and 3 were struck out summarily.  The remaining games of the season were played similarly and my son was voted onto the Minor League All-Star Team. 

NPR did a show this week on a new book entitled, "Bounce: Mozart, Federer, Picasso, Beckham, and the Science of Success" by Matthew Syed .  In it, the author uses neuroscience to describe the science behind "choking" under pressure.  In order to become great, he argues, a person must clock in an astronomical number of hours of practice.  The practice trains the muscles and the mind and ultimately creates pathways of automaticity.  Under pressure, the body releases epinephrine...a neurotransmitter which causes the "fight-or-flight" response.  It also, he argues, re-routes certain tasks away from their automated pathways back to analytical/intentional pathways...thereby effectively "erasing" all the hours of practice and rendering the performer a beginner again.

Over the past couple of days, as [cough] fascinating as I find baseball, what I learned most from our experience is that our son is not a choker.   Now, regarding this "choke" phenomenon as not merely an unfortunate confluence of a case of the nerves with fate, I looked at my son's apparent calm in the eye of the storm differently...as something (like athletic prowess) he was simply born with.  And while my husband and I are still perplexed about the origins of his athleticism, I identify with his apparent ease with stress and chaos.  It is in an environment of chaos that I have always felt most at home...large parties, noisy households, the streets in India, and the Emergency Department.  When my environment is spinning around me, that is when I feel most centered, most focused, an most at peace.  Place me in a quiet office cubicle and I'll be climbing the walls in seconds, desperate to find a radio or something to provide enough background noise to allow my mind to settle.  So, while I may not be able to contribute much in the way of coaching, I have found a point of contact...a way to connect to my son as he goes through this American rite-of-passage.

One minor league season does not a life-time of achievement make...and this may be the end of my son's hobby just as easily as it may be the beginning.  While I rejoice in my son's success this season, I am not invested in any particular outcome...I am not envisioning him taking the mound for the Red Sox...or even for his High School team.  Still, as I passed Mother's Day sitting on the edge of the Diamond watching him play another game, I realized that I need not understand or enjoy the game, not do I need to be invested in the outcome...but rather, my role is to 1) understand and appreciate HIS love of the game and 2) be there.  For the first, I am happy to have a good neuroscience book...and for the second I am thankful for my knitting to make it through all 6 innings.

p.s.- Maybe if I join a Stitch n' Pitch, watching will be more enjoyable than a hangnail...read this great "weird news" article about the connections between knitting and baseball by clicking HERE !

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