Xykademiqz Goes to Athletic Department Kick-Off

My eldest is starting high school in the fall and I can already tell it will be tough. Not for him — for me.

A stereotypical high school athlete is very competitive and usually participates in more than one sport. Eldest has some very stereotypically athletic friends, but is not one himself. However, he has swum for many years and all his strokes are very good. But, he does not like to compete and he had never wanted to partake in swim meets before. But now he wants to get on the swim team, so we went to the athletic department kick-off.

Oh. My. God. A new and terrifying world opened up, one that made me feel like I should go back into my cave and never get out.

We first gathered on the football stadium [not to be confused with the baseball field (ballpark, is it?) or the field where the track and field folks practice] to be introduced to So. Many. Coaches… For so many sports! It’s a huge athletic department, near as I can say, but what do I know; maybe it’s really a teeny-tiny smaller-than-average barely-worth-mentioning department. Then we were promptly informed that they are — clap if you saw this one coming —  underfunded!!! And we need to raise… $100k. (Am I the only one who thinks this number is just outrageous?) Which is going to be done by making every athlete peddle coupons.

Now, I hate hate HATE it how seemingly everything in the US has to be funded by people walking door to door, asking for money. And now you can’t be on a team without shaking your neighbors for some dough or, as I am sure many end up doing, just giving the money yourself (it’s a lot, each kid is supposed to bring in $300). But-but-but… It’s a team effort! We are looking for the best team! Best at forcing useless coupons on the people we know! Whichever team collects the most gets some sort of “prize”! At a banquet which I am sure will be paid from these funds!!!

Then we go inside the school and go to different classrooms, according to sport.

I have to say here that the interactions with the locals en masse, such as when going to my kids’ school-mandated orientation or celebration events, make me acutely, profoundly anxious. In part, I am sure it’s because I never went through the school system here, so every aspect is new, different, and disorienting. I am supposed to be a grownup, yet I feel like I am a really really dumb fish out of water. I think I should just send my husband to these events instead, because I get so very uncomfortable, but I don’t want to transfer my anxiety to my kid, who is blissfully oblivious and generally unruffled.

Also, I am white, but, as I keep finding over and over and over again, I am not  really white, as in the right kind of American-born-and-bred white. But I certainly look as white as they come, so I keep getting approached by local moms, who start chatting with me, quickly get disappointed when they hear I have an accent (alternative theory is that I bore them to death in 10 seconds, which, if true, would be a superpower of sorts), decide I am not really worth their time and immediately start looking around for someone else to talk to. And this happens several times on every such occasion. I should just frown more, so people would avoid me.

You know how I feel the impostor syndrome at work, as a woman in a male-dominated discipline? I assure you that’s nothing compared to the feeling of not belonging that makes me want to flee whenever I have to interact with other parents at my kids’ schools.  (Or with teachers! Teachers scare me and I always feel like a child who’s in trouble.) I have no idea how it must be for other international folks; I know there are many immigrant families from South and East Asia in the neighborhood, very few at the athletic department kickoff, though. I wonder what percentage of immigrant families send their kids to high-school sports. Maybe they are all terrified shitless like me.

So we get to the classroom for boys’ swimming. It doesn’t start till the spring, and the coach gives us the dates (and the stupid coupons), talks a little more, then asks for questions, and I stupidly ask if there is going to be any practice in the fall, which was a really really really bad idea and a really really stupid question.  I need to keep my mouth shut, always. Apparently, my kid is supposed to already be swimming and competing with a club and, since he doesn’t, and they asked us where he swam and used to swim, my question and their follow-up ones embarrassed him in front of everyone. We were told to go join a competitive swim club in the fall; of course, now he has to try for that one, too.

One mom who was late to this revelation came to me and introduced herself as the mom of the team captain, and asked me what meets my kid  had competed in. When I said he didn’t but that he was good, she gave me a nice condescending smile.

As I know now but didn’t then, the swim team is very good and very intense and very competitive; in season, they do 8 practices per week. Apparently everyone knows that and us coming all uninformed was really silly. I am a little worried about the intensity of the team and how it’s going to sit with my laid-back kid, but I am perhaps even more alarmed at how much all the parents seem to be really invested in all this.

That’s another aspect of the US education that I cannot come to terms with — how much parental involvement (time and money and chauffeuring) is expected. And how intense the parents get about all the activities that their kids do.

I don’t understand the reasoning: most of  these kids will not be doing whatever they are doing sportswise past high school. A handful might do it in college, a very rare one might turn pro; among the rest, a minority will continue to do it casually. But it still holds that most kids’ abilities don’t warrant that much fuss about their competitive athletic pursuits. These are all s0lidly middle-class families, the kids will go to college, why not spend more energy and money on academics or languages or something that they can actually benefit from past the age of 18? How about enable more kids to participate in sports for fun instead? I tried to get a way for my eldest to swim noncompetitively and it’s impossible: you can go swim laps at the YMCA once you turn 18, but as a teen you either compete as part of a club or nothing.

What is it with sports in the US, honestly? Sure, sports attract audiences, money, endorsements etc., but the scale of production at the freakin’ high-school level?

I remain shaken by the glimpse into the world of high-school athletics.


  1. Tell your kid to swim in some setting other than competitive meets, if he isn’t a super-competitive sports kid. American high school athletics is a weird world that requires a certain personality type. It is apparent that neither you nor your kid are into that. So don’t do it.

    I really don’t get why my in-laws will spend their entire weekend shuttling kids between sporting events. I get that fitness is important, but these parents spend the whole damn weekend driving the SUV to an event, sitting and watching the game, then driving the SUV to another event. The kids get exercise but the parents sure don’t.

  2. Oops. Missed the part about not being able to swim at the YMCA. I went to high school in the US so my reading comprehension is no good. 🙂

    Seriously, no swimming laps for teens at the Y? WTF? I thought the YMCA was a place where a young man had no need to feel down and could do whatever he feels like.

    FYI, if your son managed to catch up and do well at swimming and get an athletic scholarship, under US law he would be exempt from criminal investigations for anything done while in college. Most college athletes use that as an excuse to violate laws on drugs, alcohol, and sexual conduct, but if an athlete were clever he could probably do some lucrative financial fraud and get the college to cover it up.

  3. I’m also not American, but my husband is. I just showed him this, because it baffled me just as much as it did you ( we do not yet have kids). His answer was basically “just don’t let your kid do it”. Apparently, this is off-season and the intensity hasn’t even started yet. If he makes it to a meet and, for some reason, doesn’t give 110% that day, other parents will become enraged (with him and you, for letting it happen). The point is not leisure, the point is to win. This, to me, would remove all fun associated with a sport… So I would advise getting to know the culture a bit better and making sure your son really wants this added stress…

  4. Great post. I could totally relate to the feelings expressed. In fact, one of the reasons I didn’t blog much about my kids high school experience because I couldn’t find ways of articulating my bewilderment at some of this stuff. So I’ll just save your post for future reference and language 🙂 – Dr. S

  5. Ex semi-competitive high-school swimmer here. Don’t let the parents and culture get to you. I swam on my high school swim team, but I did it for fun. I was never the best at anything, and only wanted to get better for myself. My priority was always academics. Sure the best kids on the team swam year round on super competitive teams, but it didn’t keep me from having my fun in the pool. I was never really liked meets (so much time for so little swimming), but I considered it my service in exchange for access to the coach. He should give a shot and if stops being fun for your son, then quit. I am sure you will find some like-minded people associated with the team who have a much more healthy mind-set about high school sports 😉 Also, I still swim for fitness to this day, and now do some aquatics coaching for fun, so it’s not all a wasted effort.

  6. I am an immigrant from China. Most Chinese parents don’t push/encourage their kids to do competitive sports in high school or colleague. Our kids do soccer, tennis, swimming, basketball, baseball, etc mainly to have fun and build a strong body and mind. We want our children to focus on academics (like math, reading, chess, spelling bee, computer, programming, economics, etc). Most kids will not make a living through competitive sports. We are just practical, I guess. Also subconsciously we believe intelligence is more important than physique (i’m not saying this is correct). As to trying to hang out or have conversations with American parents, we just don’t force ourselves into it. We hang out with Chinese parents – fortunately there are lots of Chinese almost everywhere 🙂

  7. I can only imagine how much worse it’s gotten since I was in high school, which was bad, esp when it came to football. The whole town cared. It was crazy crazy. And you are totally right, what a waste of effort. Learning a new language or science Olympics would be so much wiser… I am so sorry the other moms are so rude to you. My guess is that you intimidate the hell out of them. “Fitting in” means playing dumb, which I think is likely not a strength of yours, unlike many of us raised in the US.

  8. I think this must vary pretty widely by school. Most athletics at my high school were laid back compared to what you described. Many of the kids on the swim team had not done competitive swimming before high school and didn’t do it other than doing the swim season, in some cases because they did other sports in the winter or fall.

    While it’s true that competitive sports aren’t likely to directly help your kid’s academic trajectory, they can be valuable for helping to build social networks. Twice I’ve moved to new cities where I didn’t know anyone, and playing on sports teams was very helpful for meeting people and making friends.

    That’s not a reason to treat high school sports as deadly serious, of course. I agree that this school’s athletic department seems off the rails, but not all schools are like that. (Not that this helps you right now.)

  9. It sounds the swim team at your son’s school might be super competitive, but I don’t think that is necessarily the norm. At my smallish high school it was perfectly normal to join the swim team with no competitive swimming experience. That’s what my sister and I did. We were never very good, but we became much stronger swimmers. I look back mostly fondly on my swim team days and I’m glad I did it. I had friends on the team, which made it fun, and we were in great shape during the season. Some of the other sports can be pretty miserable if you don’t have natural abilities, though, so I guess there’s a lot of variability.

  10. In the US, school is very much part of the community – both in terms of local control (e.g. school boards) and social interaction.

    My strongest suggestion is to be open with people – it *hurts a lot* to feel stupid, especially if you are used to being very smart and competent. If you feel defensive, people respond to that. What if you say ‘i’m from — it’s great to be here, but some things are confusing so I feel a little like a fish out of water’? Americans are mostly pretty friendly, but they don’t always appreciate how different the US can be sometimes. Especially, like you said, if you don’t seem to be from somewhere ‘exotic’.

    Don’t worry about the coupon thing – most folks don’t mind being asked and are usually happy to help out if they can – pick on folks who don’t have their own kids/coupons to schlep – really, just be part of the neighborhood and it’ll be fine. The sales practice isn’t bad for kids either – have them go ask a couple of neighbors. (When we lived in the US, we ended up with a couple of coupon books a year – if I recall girls’ soccer was next door and swim team was a few doors away – nice kids, no worries).

    The way I see it is taxes are much lower in the US, but some of that comes back from donations and time begin involved though community. It doesn’t do much good to go hating on it, it’s just the way there.

  11. Attitudes about athletics vary enormously from town to town and from time to time.

    When I was in high school in the midwest (45 years ago), my high school had a super-strong swimming team (first in state every year, a couple of Olympic bronze medalists), but not the attitude you describe. I was friends with several of the swimmers, because they were in all the top honors classes with me. They took their swimming seriously, but they also were top students who worked hard on their academic courses.

    I was about as unathletic as an 85-pound (39kg) high-school student can be, but one of my friends (the captain of the cross-country team) convinced me to join the cross-country team in my senior year, even though when I started I couldn’t run a mile. By the end of the year I could run 15km, though I was always the slowest on the team. Not all athletics is about winning (though don’t say that in Texas!).

  12. My observation is that athletics gets more competitive, the bigger the school (unless it’s a very good school from a smaller division). I’m very anxious because my younger son is showing interest in a couple of sports. I want him to be able to join the teams, if that’s what he wants, but I don’t want him to be under pressure all the time. My dad won state championships in two sports when he was in high school. He ended up losing knee function when one of his coaches told him to keep going when injured. I really don’t want my kid to ever get that mindset. Now that I’m doing running myself for fun, I realize it’s really about bettering myself and I don’t care what anyone thinks, and I’ve been very vocal about that with the kids.

    As far as your accent, that may be some of it. I am going to posit an alternative explanation: you’re too smart and it’s hard to hide. I have had a horrible time getting along with other kids’ parents until the older boy went to a gifted program for a couple of years. Turns out his friends’ moms were all very highly educated, and I honestly enjoyed when the kids would get together and I could chat with the moms. I get along with some of the parents from one of younger son’s activities, but again those are parents who tend to be more highly educated.

  13. DH and I are in agreement that no kid of ours will participate in football or hockey under any circumstances. Also, whatever sport they are engaged in, they will discontinue practice I see that they can get seriously injured. My sister and I played volleyball when we were in middle and high school, I did it in college a bit as well (it’s different than here). I have some injuries from weight training (minor back injury and some permanent shoulder issues), while my sister has had serious back and knees injuries. So the first sign of anybody pushing any of my kids past the point of bodily injury and I am pulling them out.
    Swimming itself is pretty low-impact. I am not sure how they train outside of the pool, we’ll see how they do with strength training. I am very much NOT in favor of serious weight-lifting for developing teenagers.

    We’ll see how Eldest does. I don’t want to discourage him a priori, he’ll think we don’t believe in him. Perhaps he realizes he does enjoy competition, the adrenalin etc., or that he doesn’t totally hate it. And he will get better, have to practice intensively, and commit to something, which are all good things. Morever, when I played volleyball, I really loved being part of a team; those are some of my best teenage memories (we weren’t a very good team, though, but it was great fun); so if there’s real camaraderie among the team, there’s nothing quite like it, and I would like him to experience it. But if I catch a whiff of him being bullied, belittled, frustrated, injured, or his grades start to slip, I am pulling the plug.

  14. Parental involvement has increased with each passing year it seems. I think that is why many of us did not grow up with that situation. So it’s not just an American thing, it’s a 21st century thing as well. Too bad about not fitting in. Your son is lucky that he is unaffected, I remember feeling very pained about my immigrant parents not fitting in.

    One suggestion if the swim team doesn’t work out: I was a slacker in high school in terms of extra-curriculars, besides arty things like painting sets and doing make-up for the drama productions. But I also loved swimming, so I took a life saving course at the high school, which I recommend if your son hasn’t done so already. It required regular practice (you have to be able to swim a mile without pausing for the test which is not easy, at least for a young woman with small lungs and a pack-a-day habit, lol) and you go over the various drills for saving people a million times – I could save someone today if I had to – and life guarding is a useful skill to have during and after high school for summer jobs etc. It’s just a useful life skill in general and increases confidence.

    I also taught swimming to special needs kids when I was in high school and volunteered for the swimming part of the Special Olympics a couple of times which was fun, and nowadays those experiences are useful for the CV of course.

  15. We haven’t hit this stage yet, but from talking to friends here who have… the intensity of sports varies hugely even school to school. If you happen to be at a super intense place, it can be tough. Is there a junior varsity (often just called “JV”) swim team? JV teams don’t come with the prestige of being on the varsity team, but they can be a way to enter the scene more gradually.

    I would have been totally lost and clueless at that meeting, too. I stopped doing school sports in junior high. I was an orchestra geek instead!

  16. Part of the problem is the hyper-early-professionalisation of sports here (US) now. I was a jock when I was a kid (although I was also a pre-college dues-paying member of the Richard III Society…so I was probably beyond nerd into full-on freak), I kinda still am and I’ve got a kid who seems a bit like me. But, it is really different from when I was young. I had to fight to get to play…being female and all. There were no extra coaching experiences unless you were rich and played tennis. Anyhow, I’ll probably have to deal with this eventually, he plays music, does well in school, is on the school paper and desperately begged since he was 3 to be a goaltender in ice hockey.


    This past winter I let him do so in a recreational league. Was extremely fortunate to find coaches who are all about (as much as possible) letting all the kids play and enjoy themselves and not creating a crazy atmosphere. Discovered that he’s good at the position and can take the pressure (goalies usually play an entire game, even among the kids, pucks fly like crazy).

    I have already told him that I will not in ANY WAY support his going to a Division I school no matter what the major he wants and even if it is the best place for said major and he gets in. I won’t prevent him from going, but he would have to find the money elsewhere…like, go ask your father. The environment is horrible. And I say that as a 48 year old jock who still plays ice hockey, sprints, and works out.

    University is for academics.

    Please don’t feel too much culture shock around this: there’s some born-and-bread americans who feel like you do.

  17. This is why I didn’t have kids.

    Not just the athletics, but the obsessing over everything in one’s child’s world where it would mostly be better for the children if the parents butted out and it would make the parents much more interesting people to those of us who lived a child’s life once upon a time and now don’t give a toss.

  18. LOL
    It breaks my heart to hear that parents everywhere are collectively failing at the high-priority task of providing scintillating conversation to random childless people.

  19. 🙂 No doubt. Sorry, I didn’t mean it to sound like it did. I do love my nieces, nephews, and the children of my friends, and I am genuinely interested in their lives and hearing about them, whether it’s made scintillating or not by their parents. It’s more that my friends who are very involved in the shuttling around between meets and other activities are rarely available to do anything else, and their lives (and, yes, conversation) become very limited. If that’s a choice then I wish them the best, but I can’t help wonder whether it’s a treadmill they just can’t leave.

  20. I hear you. Some people definitely show a level of of involvement in their kids lives that really appears unnecessary and doesn’t seem healthy for either party; their kids would likely appreciate some breathing room and it would do the parents good, as well.

    And, in earnest, I think parents in general are aware (and self-conscious) that they have become boring conversationalists. Last year I went to visit a friend from graduate school, who is married and without kids. They have a great house, a boat, and had invited two other couples without kids to their place when I visited. I spent most of the evening quietly listening: they were all very entertaining, I didn’t have any recent travel adventures to share that were on par with theirs, and I knew they wouldn’t want to hear how I spend my days (it indeed sounds boring, unless you are living it). That’s just how it is, I suppose. Hopefully when the kids are grown, the kidded and the kidless find a way back to mutually satisfying conversation.

  21. As one more former competitive swimmer, I’d suggest looking into the clubs in your area to see if you can find one that matches the approach you want. Not all the clubs may be so hyper competitive. A lot depends on the coaches attitude. If the coach is all about competition and being the best rather than team work and doing your best, that may not be the club for you. Many clubs run year round so you could skip the high school team entirely. The clubs do cost money, but at least they don’t expect you to bother your neighbors for it.

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