Sports Meant So Much to Me. Why Wouldn’t My Son Play?

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I remember this: Raffi in the community garden. He is maybe 2 years old. I have brought along a soccer ball. He likes running back and forth in the garden, attacking people’s vegetables. Why not kick the ball while he’s at it? He is willing to do it. At first, he is always willing to do it. But he is not good at it. He misses the ball more often than he hits it. In order to keep him interested, I make a goal out of my legs. When, after numerous attempts, he finally scores, I pick him up and spin him around to celebrate. After that he doesn’t want to kick the ball anymore; he just wants to get picked up and spun around.

We attend a party at a friend’s house in New Jersey. There are a lot of kids. Raffi is maybe a year old, part walking, part crawling. There is another boy there about his age, skinnier, less beautiful, and yet the way he crawls, the way he picks up toys, I can immediately see that he has total control of his body. That is what it looks like, then. Raffi will continue to get tangled up with his feet until well past his 4th birthday.

But it is hockey that I most want him to learn, and that is a sport for which you don’t have to be an expert walker. Bobby Orr was bowlegged. I buy Raffi skates off Craigslist the summer he turns 2 and take him skating at a rink in Queens a little while later. He clings to me the entire time we’re on the ice and cries when I try to put him down. We skate around a few times and then go home. The next time we try, he spends a little more time with his skates touching the ice, but tears soon follow, and again we go home.

The first time he doesn’t cry when skating is that winter at my father’s house in Massachusetts. My father has a small pond next to his house that freezes after a few nights of cold. We put our skates on inside and then walk down to the pond through the woods. Emily, Raffi’s mother, shoots a video on her phone. Raffi is barely able to stand on his skates, but he is so surprised at this whole turn of events, us on a pond, in the woods, in the winter twilight, that he just takes it in. My dad’s giant dog comes out onto the ice with us. I hold Raffi under the armpits and slowly skate him around. He doesn’t mind.

I say he doesn’t mind because as I write this it’s hard to get Raffi, who is now 5, to do anything. He doesn’t want to go outside, he doesn’t want to learn how to use his in-line skates, he definitely doesn’t want to go ice skating. He wants to play with his Transformers and watch “Wild Kratts” on TV. Noble pursuits, to be sure, but there is more to life. Did I do something wrong, I wonder, or was it always going to be this way?

Emily and I had a big fight once about sports. I can’t remember what started it, but that’s not the point — our fights are ambient, the product of a certain level of humidity. The humidity rises for a while, and then it rains.

In this fight it emerged that Emily did not see the point of sports. She thought they inculcated violence and were implicated in rape culture. She wanted Raffi to stay away from them. Nor did she think he had shown any aptitude for sports. In her opinion, he much preferred music and drawing.

I disagreed. There were things that only sports could give you, and it was too early to tell what he liked. Certainly he was never going to like sports if he was bad at them. He needed a base-line level of competence — knowing how to skate, how to kick a soccer ball, how to throw a baseball. After that he could decide what he wanted to do. As for rape culture, as for male violence, sports could help sublimate those things. That was practically the whole point of sports! And then I said something that I wish I had not said, but it was what I felt: “Boys play sports! That’s what boys do!”

Having gotten me to say something stupid, Emily declared victory and left the room.

What had I actually meant to say? Perhaps I had meant to say: I, a boy, had played sports, and they had meant so much to me. I played them when I was little — hockey, soccer, baseball, tennis, as long as it was a sport, as long as I was running around. I played them as a teenager, now more seriously — football and hockey. I finally stopped playing sports halfway through college but then returned to them, specifically to hockey, in grad school, when I was miserable and at loose ends after the collapse of my first serious relationship; and it was hockey that I played when I moved to New York after grad school; and hockey again when I moved to Moscow to live with my grandmother, after the publication of my first book. Hockey was a refuge and a solace. I loved the feeling of stepping onto a freshly cut sheet of ice, settling into my skates, getting a puck on my stick and shifting it back and forth, back and forth, then flinging it against the boards. I loved walking out of a new locker room and finding out who could really play — I learned, over the years, that I could never accurately guess. And, not least of all by any means, I loved the fact that I was one of the people who could play: not beautifully, for sure, and less and less effectively as time went on, but still. I had played my whole life.

Of all the things that I felt I could give my son, the one I most wanted to give him was sports.

When I was a kid, sports were something my father and I had in common. My father has never been a big talker. Like so many of the Soviet Jewish men of his generation who came to America in the ’70s and ’80s, he was trained in problem-solving and math. He is mostly silent, thoughtful, active. But he drove me to all my games, hundreds of games over the years, and on the way home he would sometimes make a comment. Once, in youth hockey, he suggested I shoot the puck more. And once when I was preparing for a tennis tournament, and my coach seemed worried that I wouldn’t be able to handle losing, my father said, on the ride home, “He doesn’t know that you’ve been both the best player on your teams and the worst.” Meaning: “You know how to handle adversity.” It was the highest compliment he ever paid to my character.

Most of the friends I have made in life I made through sports. Most of my most powerful memories have been sports memories. My first encounter with what I now recognize to be philosophy was through sports, in the figure of my high school football coach, a retired biology teacher named Aredis Kojoyian who played college football for George Washington University in the late ’40s and early ’50s. During practice, Coach Kojoyian would sing the praises of the forearm shiver, legally the most effective way for a player on offense to knock someone over. This was philosophy of a kind. But after games, when he was called upon to explain what happened (usually, that we lost), Kojoyian could be profound. “In any endeavor you undertake in life,” he would begin, and then he would explain the value of hard work, dedication and solidarity. If you wanted to accomplish something, you had to work at it — and still you might fail. “The better team does not always win,” Kojoyian said once, after we played our hearts out for him and lost to a more talented group of players. “The better man does not always win.” But you must persevere, he said. You must get up to fight again.

For a while, under the influence of Kojoyian, I came to believe that sports, and football especially, had special character-building properties. Physical labor, teamwork, discipline — the martial virtues without the martial vices. Of course, my experience of actual sports teams indicated that this was nonsense. Some of my teammates were wonderful people; some were jerks. I have played sports with plenty of loudmouths and bullies. Barack Obama was a high school athlete, but so was Donald Trump.

Still there was something in sports that I had not found anywhere else. The summer that Raffi was born, I was trying to finish a draft of my second novel, worrying about money and trying to manage my literary career, such as it was. But I was also on two excellent beer-league hockey teams. Each team was headed for the playoffs. The email messages celebrating our victories flew back and forth. I wanted Raffi to have this too — this life outside his life, this group of friends dedicated to a common cause. In short, of all the things that I felt I could give my son, the one I most wanted to give him was sports.

The first thing you need to learn when learning how to skate is how to get up after you fall. The natural way to get up is to place your hand on the ground and lean on it for support. On the ice that doesn’t work — your hand will slip and you will just fall again. Instead you need to get to your knees, lift one of them up, plant your skate directly under it and push off that knee with both hands. Now you’re standing up and will be for a little longer, until you fall.

The next thing to learn is that you skate on your edges, shifting from the inside to the outside and back depending on what you need to do. You can begin to learn this by lifting up your skates and putting them back down again while standing still. At the rink in Queens or on my father’s pond and even a couple of times on the tiny koi pond in our community garden, which froze nicely when it was cold out, Raffi and I stood across from each other and raised our hands like lions and stomped back and forth from foot to foot, roaring at each other. That was our edge work. Once in a while he fell and, in textbook fashion, got up again.

But beyond that it got too complicated. Beyond that you had to start moving. Ideally you would angle your feet out a tiny bit and push off the inside edge, first from one skate, then the other. This is easier said than done. I would try to explain it, and Raffi would grow frustrated. I would try to show him, by doing it, but he didn’t like that either. Inevitably he would end up in tears — from anger at his slow progress or because he’d fallen and hurt himself or maybe just because he was cold. Sometimes, especially at the rink in Queens, he would lie down on the ice and start eating snow. “That’s disgusting,” I would say, because people are always spitting and blowing their noses onto the ice, but that would only make him want to do it more. At that point I would feel that I had reached the end of my pedagogical potential when it came to Raffi and ice hockey.

How did others do it? My own father was an amateur boxer in Moscow and stayed in shape well into middle age, but he never pressured me to play sports or sent me to the yard to improve my game. He must have signed me up for all the teams and he drove me to all the games, but later, when I was in college and spending 30 hours a week on the football team lifting weights and practicing and watching film — all for a sport that I was too small and too slow and too untalented to play at the college level — my father was the one who persuaded me to stop. I told him that I was thinking about quitting, that I was finding it difficult to play football and keep up with my classes, but also that I had a notion, a hypertrophied version of Coach Kojoyian’s old notion, about how the virtues of manly combat were central to one’s education. My father rejected this. “You know,” he said, “after the war, a lot of the men who came back, who had been very physically brave in the fight against the Germans, proved to be total moral cowards in the face of political pressure” — from Stalinism. My father, who had punched out anti-Semites on the streets of Moscow, thought that moral courage, which could not be cultivated on a football field, was much more important than physical courage, which arguably could. A few weeks later, I went into the coach’s office and quit.

Of course, there are other kinds of fathers and more talented sons.

In the world of hockey, by far the most famous father is Walter Gretzky, who died earlier this month at age 82. As a youth in Ontario, Walter was a promising hockey player, but he was too small and skinny to make the leap to the pros. After high school he went to work for Bell Canada, setting up phone lines. He married young. In 1961, when he was 22, he and his wife Phyllis had their first child, Wayne.

The story of Wayne Gretzky’s youthful exploits has been told many times. Walter put him on skates when he was 2. Wayne seemed to love it. On Saturday nights, the family would go over to Walter’s parents’ farm and watch “Hockey Night in Canada.” Between periods, little Wayne liked to grab a small stick and practice shooting on his grandmother. The winter Wayne turned 4, Walter built a rink for him in the backyard. At 6, Wayne tried out for the youngest local hockey team — for 10-year-olds. Wayne made the team. In that first season, as a 6-year-old, he scored just one goal. Four years later, as a 10-year-old, he scored 378. Eventually he would break every scoring record imaginable.

In Canada, Walter, or “Wally,” is almost as much a celebrity as Wayne. After all, you couldn’t up and become Wayne Gretzky. But you could become Walter Gretzky — that is, a man who encourages the talent of your progeny, who tends to it, who does enough to push it along without destroying it. And the question becomes: Just how much did Walter push Wayne?

Here, the narratives become contradictory. Wayne, in his autobiography, says that he was hockey-mad from a young age, that he wouldn’t stop skating and that ultimately Walter had no choice but to build a rink in the backyard. But Walter, in his autobiography, admits that he bought their house, not long after Wayne was born, specifically because it had a flat yard that he could someday build a rink on. There was a push and pull, clearly — a driven father, a preternaturally gifted child — and it’s impossible at this distance to know which of them predominated.

The saddest hockey father story I know is that of the former N.H.L. player Patrick O’Sullivan. O’Sullivan’s father, John, had been a minor-league hockey player who desperately wanted his son to make the N.H.L. To make that happen, O’Sullivan got his son on the ice early and often. He forced him to practice his stickhandling in the basement. He made him run alongside the car in his pads. And he regularly beat him up and yelled at him. “From the moment I got my first pair of hockey skates at 5 years old,” O’Sullivan would later write, “I got the living shit kicked out of me every single day. Every day after hockey, no matter how many goals I scored, he would hit me.”

This went on for a decade, through various teams in different cities, including in the U.S. national-developmental program in Ann Arbor, Mich. To the younger O’Sullivan, the mystery was always why so few people tried to intervene in what was so clearly an abusive relationship. Later on, after he stopped playing, O’Sullivan went and talked to some of his former coaches. The answer, over all, was that hockey coaches did not know how to spot abuse or how to address that abuse when they did spot it. A few made the point to O’Sullivan that hockey parents were so crazy, it was hard to tell who was just a little bit intense and who was stepping over the line.

The other part of the answer was that O’Sullivan was a great player. He led the U.S. under-18 team to a gold medal in Slovakia in 2002 and was the leading scorer on his Canadian juniors team for four straight years. No one got involved because whatever his father was doing, it seemed to be working. Patrick O’Sullivan could play.

The abuse finally ended when Patrick, at 16, physically fought back. He lost the fight but managed to get to a phone and call the police. Then he filed a restraining order and moved in with a teammate whose father was a police officer.

The abuse ended, but the trauma remained. When it came time for the N.H.L. draft, O’Sullivan, a first-round talent, dropped late into the second round, in part, he believed, because teams worried about his “baggage.” In the end, O’Sullivan had a decent career in the N.H.L., playing more than 300 games and scoring 58 goals, but he bounced around from team to team and never really found a playing home.

The beloved father Walter Gretzky did not create the monstrous father John O’Sullivan, but there is still a straight line from one to the other. Children are their own people, yes, but they are also so much at our mercy — at the mercy of our moods, our insecurities, even our dreams.

When Raffi turned 3½, we signed him up for a skating class at the rink in Queens. It was a terrific class. The teacher was a tall, blond former college player; she was patient and imposing and beautiful, and Raffi loved her. Every time she gave him a compliment, he beamed. She had the kids hold a ball and skate with it; she had them skate along squiggly lines that she drew with a marker; she had them chase a soccer ball around the ice.

His exuberance, his physicality, his desire to crash into things — that was hockey. Now he just had to learn how to skate.

I loved the class, and I loved the rink. I loved the musty, sweaty smell; the cold air; the lousy coffee you could get from a machine for 75 cents. I loved too the feel of being there with Raffi. It was a world reversed. There were so many places we went where I had to tell him not to do things: not rip out flowers in the community garden, not poke at dog poop on the sidewalk, not crash into other kids in music class. When we were in our apartment, there was hardly anything he could do. At the rink, it was different. The ice sheet was surrounded on all sides by black rubber mats; the bleachers were created for rowdy hockey fans. Raffi could shout if he was excited, run back and forth along the perimeter of the rink if he was energetic, climb up and down on the bleachers. No one cared. More than that: They liked it. His exuberance, his physicality, his desire to crash into things — that was hockey. Now he just had to learn how to skate.

But there was a scheduling issue. Raffi was in day care five days a week, and on Saturday mornings he went to Russian school, and now on Sunday mornings we had hockey. In theory, two non-day-care activities did not seem unreasonable. But in practice, it was a little much. Raffi was just 3, and that summer Emily gave birth to his baby brother, Ilya, whom he had to get to know. Emily gently suggested we drop one of his weekend commitments. After some soul-searching, I decided it had to be hockey.

In retrospect — I don’t know. Raffi claimed to find Russian school boring, and he cried the first two times I dropped him off — but it was three whole hours! On a Saturday morning! It was pretty much the only time I had that year to write. And Raffi made some nice friends.

But his progress in hockey stagnated. We still went skating, just he and I, but not nearly as often. Then Raffi shot up in height and went through a phase when he would get tangled up with his feet even more than usual. You would be walking next to him, and he would suddenly just fall to the ground. Emily would look at me, like, I told you so. He has a future in the arts, her look would say. Stop trying to turn him into a mighty athlete.

In every other thing related to our kids, I deferred to Emily. Not that I didn’t argue, present my case, cite various studies I’d looked up on my phone — but in the end, she knew them better and saw further than I did. But in this one thing, I felt as if I were on my own.

I talked to other dads. My college roommate George, a lawyer, urged patience. He said his son had no interest in watching or playing sports until the day he turned 6. Now, at 7, he was willing to watch any sport that was on TV and was constantly dragging George out of the house to throw a ball back and forth. My hockey friend Mike, a historian, said his son was resistant to skating until the day he took him up to the small outdoor rink, in Montreal, where he himself used to skate as a kid, and put him in full pads: helmet, elbow pads, hockey pants, shin pads. Armored up, indestructible and on an open rink with no time limits or pressure, his son finally got the hang of it and has been skating ever since.

My high school friend Loren, a consultant, told a more dramatic tale. He wanted his son to play soccer. At 4, the earliest opportunity, he signed him up for a team. But it turned out that his son did not want to play. He would refuse to go in when the coach said it was his turn, and if he was cajoled or pressured into going in anyway, he would sit down in his own goal and stay there until the coach finally pulled him out. Loren, incredibly, kept taking him to the games. After all, they had paid their fee. By the end of the season, his son was still refusing to play. What is more, he had infected many of his teammates with his philosophy of noncompliance — they were also now sitting in their own net and not playing.

Loren told me this not long after that terrible season ended. I was awed by his perseverance. We would surely have pulled Raffi out after a couple of games, just out of sheer embarrassment. And yet a few years later, I saw Loren again. His son was now 8. He had taken a year off and then had two fun seasons, playing along with everyone else, and had now made the travel team. The team played or practiced three times a week and then one day or even two days on the weekends. Loren’s new problem was that there wasn’t time left over for his son to do anything else.

Patience, persistence, a willingness to spend $200 on pads that might never be used again — these were not my strengths as a father. But then I watched Raffi playing with his friends, or with Ilya, and I saw a boy who wanted to move, to run around, to climb up on things and jump off them. This, to me, was the behavior of a person who wanted to learn how to play sports. And yet at the same time he did not want to “learn” anything. Of his gym class in pre-K, he complained that it had too many rules. Among his after-school activities, he said he preferred sculpture to soccer, presumably because there were fewer instructions. I couldn’t figure out how to break through it. Thinking that Raffi might enjoy skating without all the rigmarole of getting to the rink, I bought him some in-line skates. He tried them once, immediately fell down and did not want to try them again. For months they sat unused in our closet, taking up precious space.

When I see a parent walking down the street with an older child, I want to be where they are. But I also see a terrible struggle.

There is no tragedy like the tragedy of the bedroom, Tolstoy told Gorky when they were both living near Yalta at the turn of the last century.

For Tolstoy, the tragedy of the bedroom was the tragedy of marriage, including his own marriage to Sophia Behrs. It was his inability to remain faithful to her even as they had 13 children. It was his renunciation of lust as sinful even as he continued to experience it and give into it. It was his failure to be everything for this one person even as he was so much to so many others.

Gorky appears not to have been very impressed by this statement: He thought Tolstoy feared and hated women. But I was impressed by it. For years I thought it was the most profound thing Tolstoy had ever said, that anyone had ever said. All the materials of literature — Tolstoy lists “earthquakes, epidemics, the horrors of disease, and all the agonies of the soul” — paled in comparison to the problems that could afflict two people left alone with each other in the same house, in the same bed, forever. They could cease to love each other; or they could misunderstand each other; or they could keep hitting their knees on the edge of the bed, because it was poorly designed. And all of it out of view of the world, in silence, with no one to talk to about it.

I now think there is a greater tragedy. When Raffi was a tiny vulnerable infant and I used to see in our neighborhood a fat, healthy 10-month-old who looked as if he could eat little Raffi, I would feel only jealousy, a desire to be where that parent was, at a less vulnerable place than the place we were. And I feel something similar now when I see a parent walking down the street with an older child, say a 10-year-old. I want to be where they are. But I also see more. I see two people who have passed through a terrible struggle. Especially when I see the child holding a soccer ball or a baseball bat, I see the struggle for independence (for both of them), the struggle for connection, the parent’s wish to teach something, the child’s wish to learn it but also to break away. I think now that there is no tragedy like the tragedy of parenthood. There is no other thing you do in life only in order for the person you do it for to leave you. When he leaves you, when he does something because he wants to do it and not because you want him to — that is success. You have done it right when you make yourself irrelevant. Parents who fail to do that have failed. I feel myself failing in exactly this way every day.

What if Raffi likes something else, was destined to do something else? But if I don’t try to teach him, how will he ever learn? When I see a parent walking down the street with an older child, I want to be where they are. But I also see more. I see two people who have passed through a terrible struggle.

When the Covid lockdown began last year, Emily and I made the decision that we would take Raffi and Ilya to the park every day. We were all miserable and scared, and the only time that spring we felt somewhat OK about things was when the boys were running around on some grass.

There wasn’t all that much to do in the park, though that was OK. If there was a rock, Raffi would climb it; if there were bugs, Raffi would play with them. If there was a puddle, Ilya would jump in it. If there were other kids, the boys would try to push them around, though I found that “no touching” (because of the virus) was a pretty good and enforceable rule.

On most days I took a soccer ball with us. I just shoved it into the bottom of Ilya’s stroller. Once we arrived, I would take it out. Raffi would mostly ignore it. But we were spending so much time in the park, and there was so little else to do, that eventually he would deign to kick it a couple of times. Slowly, very slowly, he got better at it. I told him — gently, I hoped — to place his nonkicking foot right next to the ball, rather than way behind it, and I told him, again more as a suggestion than a command, that he should kick the ball with his shoelaces rather than his toe. I had kind of given up, at this point, to be honest. But I saw him getting better. And I saw him very consciously, and not without difficulty, trying to do what I had suggested. It didn’t happen overnight, but eventually, because there was so much time and so little else to do, Raffi got the hang of it. If a soccer ball is sitting on the ground and not moving too fast, Raffi can now give it a nice whack.

As for hockey, all the rinks stayed closed for many months. But again out of sheer boredom and nothing-else-to-do-ness, Raffi at some point started putting on his in-line skates and gliding through the apartment. He got pretty good at it. He has even claimed a couple of times recently that he likes skating. There may be hope for us and hockey still.

And also, in the end, maybe not. Not long ago on the playground, Raffi and I had an interesting experience. It was an unfamiliar playground, and we didn’t know anyone there, but Raffi immediately started talking to a slight, shy boy his age. He had long brown hair, like Raffi, and, peeking out from above his mask, big brown eyes. I was standing nearby, and I heard the boy tell Raffi that all his friends had left the playground and the kids who remained weren’t being nice to him. They were three beefy blond kids, and they were roughhousing with one another. Raffi told the boy that he would stand up to the bullies, and true to his word he went over to the other boys and puffed himself up and roared at them. But the boys were not impressed and chased Raffi away. He kept going over there, however, and eventually they just included him in their pushing and running game. The other boy sulked off, by himself, rejected again.

And almost despite myself, despite all my dreams of Raffi’s sports future, I thought: Don’t do it! Stay with the sad artsy boy. He is your true friend! You will have far more in common with him. Don’t waste your time with these other boys!

But there wasn’t much I could do. Raffi was not in the business of asking me who to play with, and I went and sat down on a bench on the other end of the playground. I thought back to my own childhood. I had always played sports, as I’ve said, had always been the roughhousing kid, but at a certain point, around the start of high school, playing sports came to occupy more and more of my time. It determined what else I could do and whom I hung out with. And it created a thin layer of distrust between myself and some of the kids who shared my interests in literature and writing. I always felt as if they were my people, and I was separated from them.

Back at the playground, about five minutes after I sat down, Raffi came to me in tears. One of the blond boys had pushed him down really hard and Raffi’s breath had been knocked from him and his back scratched up. It took an uncommon amount of time for him to stop crying, and he even curled up in my lap for a few minutes, something he almost never does anymore, and certainly not in public. “I’m not going to play with those kids again,” he told me, toward the end of his crying jag, and instead we went over to the swings, and I pushed him for a while, as high as he could go. His mood improved. And then suddenly he said: “I want to leave. I want to leave right now!” I didn’t know what had gotten into him, but I, too, was ready to leave, so I took him off the swing and followed him to the exit.

His artsy friend, the one he had rejected, was leaving — Raffi wanted to walk out with him; that’s why he was in a hurry to go. When we caught up with him and his dad, Raffi told them all about how we always bike home from the playground together and how his mom doesn’t ever get mad at him, unlike his dad, and so on. Then he very cutely said bye to the kid, and we went home. He had made a friend, the right friend, and he had done it much faster than I would have done. I was proud of him. On the ride home, he regaled me with trivia about the Transformers universe and asked me to rank the comparative size and strength of various animals. We had a good time.

Keith Gessen teaches journalism at Columbia and is the author of the novel “A Terrible Country.” He last wrote about the group of experts steering U.S. policy toward Russia.

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