Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Basketball Camp Taught me Something About My Son

Last week, Matthew spent his mornings in a half-day basketball camp run by a group called Athletes in Action.  He had a marvelous time and has been teaching Geoff and me all about basketball drills.  And suddenly, the cemented-in basketball net that's been part of our driveway since we moved into this house has become a favoured thing to play with.   Given how non-athletic my upbringing was, and given how non-interested Matthew was just a year ago in anything sport-like, Geoff and I are totally delighted that Matthew is finding so much pleasure in these things.

When we arrived on the first morning of basketball camp, I could sense almost immediately that the week would be different, better, for Matthew, than the previous week spent in adventure camp.   Later in the day I thought about why I knew it would be a better fit. Here's what I figured out.

First, there were a few similarities between the two camps' makeup:
  • There were lots of kids in attendance at both (45+ at the adventure camp and about 20-25 at the basketball camp); large groups are a bit intimidating for Matthew generally, especially considering that he knew no one at either camp.
  • The coaches in both camps were of approximately the same age (early twenties-ish) and all of them seemed friendly and full of energy for the kids they were working with.
  • There was a high level of activity present in both camps - tons of games, lots of gym activities, etc.
Though I knew that basketball camp would be easier in one sense (because it was a half day camp instead of a full day camp), I thought that Matthew would have a similar experience in both weeks.  But from those first few moments at basketball camp, I hunched that the difference in atmosphere would impact Matthew differently.

Later in the day, I took a few minutes to figure out why I had known it would be a better fit.  And it didn't take long for the ton of bricks to hit me - it had to do with something I've observed many times about Matthew, but which somehow crystallized in that moment.  Let me describe what happened in those first few moments of basketball camp.  When Matthew and I walked in the door that first morning, two of the coaches were staffing the registration table.  When they saw Matthew, they got up and approached us.  As they were walking towards us, one of the guys asked Matthew what his name was.  He then introduced himself to Matt.  By this time, we'd met up with the two coaches in the centre of the room.  They were at least 6'5" tall - giants who I imagined might be intimidating to a not-even-four-feet-high kid.  They nodded to me, but their eyes were on Matthew, and they were smiling at him.  Then they crouched down on their haunches so that they were eye level with Matthew, and one of the guys said this:  "Matthew, we've been waiting for you to arrive.  We're really glad you're here this week and I think we're going to have a lot of fun together."

With that sentence, and a few more pleasantries exchanged between them, Matthew began hopping up and down with excitement...something he doesn't do when he's feeling intimidated or hesitant, I can assure you.  They had drawn him in, connected with him at a personal level.  My worries evaporated, and I knew by the body language Matthew was exhibiting that he was not only going to be ok, but that he was excited to be there.

I stuck around for the first twenty minutes or so, and would have stayed longer had Matthew wanted or needed me to.  At around the twenty-minute mark, Matthew gestured over at me from where he was standing on the far side of the gym, and pointed first to me and then to the door.  Surprised, I echoed his gesture and shrugged my shoulders - 'are you sure you want me to leave now?' I was asking him silently.  He nodded and smiled, then blew me a kiss and a hug before waving good-bye.  I left!

When I came back at noon to pick him up, the other kids gradually started leaving with their parents until only a handful were left.  Matthew hadn't seen me standing in the doorway yet and I was content to watch.  One of the coaches who'd greeted him that morning was standing at a basketball net with Matthew, and just throwing a ball with him.  When Matthew would shoot, the coach would cheer and pretend he was a crowd (you know that noise!) and then he'd dribble the ball around Matthew and bounce it towards him to take another shot.  The morning was over, but still the coach hung around to just be with the kid who remained.  I noticed that the other coaches were milling about, too, just hanging with the kids who were remaining.  It blew me away.

For the remainder of the week, I stayed no longer than about five minutes at the beginning of the morning, and Matthew would have been fine had I left the moment I dropped him off.  He had a terrific week.

It all began for Matthew with the greeting on that first morning.  That was the difference.  And when I thought about the adventure camp the week before, I realized that it was this factor that I had been missing all week for him, and why I subconsciously knew that something wasn't working quite as well as I'd hoped.  Matthew is a child who needs one-on-one relationship to become engaged in something.  He needs eye contact and he needs some kind of emotional connection before he feels secure.  Maybe it's one of the things that somehow helped me to think that homeschooling would be the best option for him, I don't know.  Even my sister, who's known Matthew well for most of his young life, noticed a big difference in her relationship with Matthew immediately following the day a number of months ago when she deliberately crouched down to look him in the eye one morning and engaged him in some conversation or another.  It's not the content of the conversation that matters - it's the expression of personal interest that really seems to get to Matthew.  That whole first week at adventure day camp, what I had been missing was his group leader to interact with him on the same level as his basketball coach had intuitively understood.

I don't think kids are unique in this...what kid wouldn't like to be engaged like that to feel special, even just for a moment?  But when you have a highly sensitive child who lives in a world of subtlety and nuance, who notices things, these little moments are of paramount importance.   Matthew is a boy who needs to feel respected (and who will point out to me quite quickly if he senses that someone doesn't, or if someone seems fake to him) and who needs, as I mentioned a moment ago, a personal connecting point.  Once you have him, you're his friend, and you'll know it.  But it's not an automatic with him.

One of my dearest friends was in town last week, on business, and we had a chance to steal her away for an evening to have her over to the house for dinner.  All day, Matthew kept asking when Shelley would be here - over and over, with a rising level of excitement each time the question was asked.  The moment could not come fast enough.  When she was finally here, Matthew expressed his adoration of her in his own special way - by being himself with her!  He talked with her, wanted to be on his best behaviour for her (evidenced by him leaving the kitchen table and going to the bathroom to have a "bum gas  explosion" instead of letting us all experience it along with him!), asked her a bunch of questions...just wanted to be engaged with her.  He's not like that with everyone.  But when I thought last week about why he was different with her than he often is with other people, it boiled down to the same reason.  When she was here visiting a year ago, and when Matthew and I drove out to Calgary last year to visit her, in fact every time they've been together, Shelley has taken the time to simply be at his level - no rushing, lots of eyeball-to-eyeball contact at the same height as him, talking to him respectfully, and soliciting his opinion about things.  And the result was the same as at basketball camp: engagement and commitment.

I am sometimes awed by the little things I figure out about my son.  He is such a complex creation and so full of nuance.  I love understanding him better; it was so worth taking a little time to figure out exactly what was working for him.


  1. Great Story Ruth. He's a great kid, and he's probably forgotten me already, so maybe I can get a way with a 2nd 1st meeting, and put all that into practise :)

  2. Good for you Ruth! You know your son better than anyone, and are continually delighting in him. I loved reading about the basketball camp and the efforts by the coaches. I hope Matthew finds coaches and other mentors like that in all of his camps and teams and sports and activities. He's lucky to have experienced that connection.