Sports & Motherhood: Lessons From the Unglamorous Sidelines

“You’re fast and driven…but, you are too short and tiny!”

These words devastated me and my 4’5” feeble-middle-school-body. They were spoken by my favorite handball coach. Handball is a delightful combination of soccer and basketball, with a pinch of baseball techniques. A brilliant European idea of playing two sports at once, dribbling the ball all to the way into a soccer goal.

I tried hard to rise above the average in our middle school try-outs. I was well aware of my nonathletic physique, but my naive determination knew no handicaps: I was determined to not be my own excuse for not making it on the team. I was drawn to this sport and was not going to let myself get in my way. I followed faithfully the training regiments leading up to the big try-out day. I felt ready, confident, and well prepared.

The try-outs ended and the coach selected the team. The girls were strong, tall, robust, and extremely talented. They looked like real athletes. They were awesome. And then there was me: fast but short, energetic but feeble. A speck of dust on the school’s red floors gym. I had hands too small to hold a ball single handedly, and legs too short to see past my fit opponents. I fear my frail body posed a school liability issue, though no one came out to say so. Either that, or there was a concern I’d be seriously injured. Nonetheless, my favorite coach decided I was great…as a backup for the team. Actually, I was more of a backup for other backups. I was selected to be a sideline player.

But before you start to feel bad for me, let me tell you what this middle school experience taught me. It prepared me well for many painful life seasons yet to come. Often, in our pursuit of big game day moments in life, we downplay the dull mundane and romanticize the big day milestones. It’s easy to miss out on the hidden treasures in the training days—even while on the sidelines. We forget that great games on competition days are born of thousands of daily gym moments of sweat, perseverance, hardships, stretches, failures, and soaring pains.

Here is what being a bench sitter taught me:

Being a sideline backup player taught me that big game days don’t excuse daily practices.

Once on the team, (even as a backup) I trained just as hard alongside my teammates, whether I got to play in competitions or not. The coach trained the entire team as if the wins depended on each individual player. Game day spotlighted the best players, but the training weeks highlighted the entire team. The game was not about me and yet I was expected to give my very best.

We trained to play not to be liked. Fans, cheers, cameras, songs were (hopefully) well deserved accolades as a result of a game very well played. But none of that belonged in the messy morning practices. In fact, to the frenetic world, our training days must have seemed too banal and plain. No glamor, no accolades. Just a bunch of female players getting dusty and sweaty, running and jumping with a ball, determined to get fit and become exceptional. And yet, what the passerby could not see was that these “boring” practices were indispensable to our team’s game day success. We couldn’t have faced our fearful opponents if we hadn’t sweated big time during the previous weeks. Strong bodies and great characters were being forged in the daily practices, in an ordinary gym, in dirty shorts, with skinned knees, and exhausted physiques of all shapes and abilities.

Being on the sideline trained me to recognize that I will not always be front and center, and that I am not the best thing that ever happened to this world, (or to my team, for that matter).

Though I was an exceptional student in classroom, I was mostly an unfit athlete. I mourned over this new discovery during many nights at home. I was keenly aware of my body’s limitations and drawbacks: though healthy, I was not physically made to be the star of this team, or this sport. Ever. My body worked against my dream of claiming the title of the best Romanian handball player. But while our limitations prevent us in some things, they advance us in others—like growing our character.

Thus, I learned the discipline of showing up at the gym anyway, knowing too well I was not the best player, nor that I was guaranteed a spotlight on games days. Was it tough? You bet. Giving up might have been an easier way out. After all, who wants to be a lesser than most? But, since we rarely are able to choose our life circumstances, we can, most always, choose how we engage with life situations that seem less advantageous or more challenging than normal. When things don’t go our way, or we are faced with personal limitations and a difficult life circumstance, picking up the ball and persevering in throwing it anyway may be the wisest choice after all.

Being on the sidelines humbled me to see the bigger picture.

I have noticed that success and fitness can easily tempt even the humblest of athletes into an unhealthy self-centeredness. But it may also be so with less than talented athletes, who can easily begin to identify with their lack of talent on the field in waves of self-pity. I might have been dispensable on game day, but our individuality on the team drove the communality of the cause and purpose. I was training for something bigger than myself, benefiting the team as a whole. Instead of self-entitled questions like “What is in my best interest?” I’ve learned to ask a more essential, corporal question: “What is the best strategy for the team’s success?”

Growing up, I often found myself playing my old middle-school-role of a sideline player in the field of life. My height and body frame have long matured, and yet, there are plenty of reasons and circumstances keeping me sweating in the gym of life, rather than gleaning accolades on glamorous playing fields. Take motherhood, for instance. Perhaps like me, you find yourself in the season of a busy mother who, at times, happens to feel like living on the sidelines more often than not. A mom’s life is full of the casual and mundane, often experienced among piles of dirty diapers, bubbling monosyllabic toddler-esque sounds, Cheetos and sippycups, and mountainous piles of toys, laundry, and choirs. You may dream of big game moments, or mourn the ones you are sure that you might have missed already.

If mothering every day seems like a sweaty practice and an exhausting workout, well, it’s because motherhood truly is more like practices, and less like a game-day trophy presentations. The mothering-muscles women are required to use daily are nothing short of a hard-core try-out and enduring practice in the arena of raising children. The results are never instantaneous. I remind myself that the greatest lessons of character building are learned in-between the big milestone moments, in shorts and messy hair, with cheerios and sippycups in hand. I may not be the best mother that ever walked the earth, but I am my children’s only and uniquely gifted mother for them.

Some may think that my middle school bench sitting was a waste of my time and a dint in my forming character. But I am convinced that the Lord kept me in the gym and on the bench not to belittle me, but to prepare me and strengthen me for more significant life games to come. While my growing body deemed me an unfit athlete in the eyes of a handball coach, it was my heart and character that my heavenly Lord was after all along. His training love for me proved wiser, more beneficial, and far more uplifting than any catchy cheers of the crowds or infamous clicks of the cameras.

Let me encourage you to continue to mother even when you feel like you are living as a sideline mom. Let the field of your home be your gym for practice. Celebrate when milestones and big game days bring in family wins and victories. But embrace with equal awareness and awe what seems as a dull mundane or a heavy practice day. Wake up today expecting to sweat, fight, train, push hard, persevere trusting that God is working a bigger story in the heart of your entire family. Change another diaper. Wake up one more hour in the night. Listen to one more bubbling noise. Kiss one more booboo. Grab one more cheerio and pick up one more toy. The fierce eternal character being forged persistently in our mundane family-practices will be worth far more glorious trophies— especially when Jesus Christ is our sovereign, loving, and excellent coach.

An older version of my post appeared in 2017 on Prince on Preaching Blog.