There’s a game I play with my children that we never tire of, in which I share details – outlandish, unimaginable – of how things were in the olden days, when I was their age. Most of their favourites are safety related: no bike helmets, no car seats, no grownup in attendance when we walked to the shops. A few of them are monetary (the halfpenny sweet; 10p from the tooth fairy). Occasionally, it’s a food thing – milk floats; the horror of being denied a second dinner if we didn’t like the first – and of course, there’s a whole chapter on tech and rotary phones. There’s also a category of experience I don’t share with my children because, like smoking, they would simply find it too shocking. One of these is PE.
Suburban schools in the US still lean heavily into competitive sports, but that is not the case in New York. At my children’s elementary school, it is hard to imagine an event like sports day taking place, in which unsporty children are made to compete and come last in front of the entire school. (There is an annual fun run, organised for fundraising purposes, at which kids trip over their own feet while running in different directions and, like something from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, nobody actually wins). They might play dodgeball in the gym, but the kids themselves don’t pick teams, avoiding the spectacle of the same one being picked last every week. The “ugh” sound, from the team that ended up with them by default, is a memory from childhood that never quite fades.
Still, I like competitive sports. For girls, particularly, it makes sense to encourage strength and physical proficiency as a buffer against all the ways in which, as they age, they’ll be encouraged to despise their own bodies. I spent a lot of my teens competing at swimming and tennis, and along with the confidence that came from winning, learning that you don’t die when you lose was a useful thing, too.
It has been a strange experience, therefore, watching my six-year-olds at tennis camp this week, where the sensitivities of the school system aren’t observed. They have run actual races, been allowed to compete one on one, and had balls inadvertently thrown at their heads. The first time my daughter lost, she stood on the court looking baffled. “I felt silly,” she said, after running to me on the sidelines, and suppressing the urge to say, “get back out there and crush her”, I went through all the reassurances parents give in these situations: losing is learning, just try your hardest (or I won’t love you – not really!) and the only aim is to have fun. She trotted back happily enough, and I felt the surge of an old chauvinism; you don’t get this from singing in a choir.
All of this comes at a time when professional athletes are pushing back against the tremendous pressures of competing at the top level. Simone Biles’s sensible call to avoid potential injury by dropping out of an Olympics final, and Naomi Osaka’s withdrawal from the French Open, signify a reckoning by young athletes with their governing bodies that stands in contrast to older generations of female athletes, caught up in campaigns simply to compete on the same terms as the men. Billie Jean King, whose memoir All In was recently published, told the New Yorker this month that while it might be tough to compete in the era of social media, female tennis players had it worse when she entered the game, before a women’s professional circuit even existed. No one was putting Billie Jean King on the cover of Vogue in 1960, and no one was paying her much, either. “The reason Osaka made $55m last year, is because of what we did 50, 60 years ago,” said King, who made the point that, while it was great that the Women’s Tennis Association was trying to help players with mental health problems, “pressure is a privilege if you want to be a professional athlete. That’s a choice. You do not have to be a professional athlete.”
For kids at school in New York, any pressure is too much pressure, with the exception of those entering the music world. A friend whose child successfully auditioned for the city’s Special Music School, a hothouse for violin and piano prodigies where everyone’s a math genius, too, pulled him out after eight weeks and put him in mainstream school, because “they yell at them”, she said, utterly scandalised. “It was like Russia or something.” The gentler way is probably preferable, in sports as in life, at least for those not destined to be professional athletes. But there’s still room for competition.
At the end of camp every day, the kids put their hands in the middle and, led by their college-age counsellors, jump in the air and shout “we love tennis!” They barely hit a ball, but playing with stakes made them proud of themselves all the way home.