The 2012 Summer Olympics in London has shot its last fireworks, and things are quieter around the world—except in the hearts of weekend warriors who will be riding this high for days and trying to do their Olympic best out in the amateur playing fields. But there is one small problem. We are never as good as we think we are.
My tennis coach once explained it like this: We believe we imitate in our sporting lives what we see professional athletes do. That’s why my coach always videotaped his students’ serves—to show us the unvarnished truth, our real form in action. What? My scorching serve doesn’t resemble Serena Williams’s?
He maintained that we think we are playing like the athletes we see on television: our serve looks like Serena’s, our dunk is a near twin to LeBron’s, and our legs can pump like Usain Bolt’s. Or so we think. Then my coach runs the video and I see I have no follow through on my serve or hardly any bend in my knees. What the heck? No wonder that 90-year-old lob queen across the court can smash my serve for a winner.
I have a similar skewed vision of my baseball prowess. A friend, who advises professional athletes on performance, tells me thought creates perception. Based on my years playing softball when I was a child, I think I am a good batter. I remember being fairly effective up at the plate. But then a few years ago, while on vacation at the beach, we took the kids to the batting cages. I whiffed 40 balls. FORTY. Didn’t come near a one. I was shocked.
I became the family joke: the athlete who wasn’t.
Every vacation thereafter, wherever we went, my little monsters searched out batting cages. Just to repeat my humiliation. And sure enough, I kept swinging with no success. A blind alien who had never heard of the game of baseball could have done better.
This year, I was determined it would be different. I would show them that I had once been a force to be reckoned with at home plate. I found batting cages near my house, and I practiced. With the help of my new friend, the slow-pitch softball machine, I could hit again. I got my groove back. I was ready for my vacation.
As we pulled up to the small mini-golf/batting cage park in northern Minnesota, I was buzzing. My head was in the game. This time it would be different.
“Where’s the slow pitch button?” I asked as I stepped into the cage.
“There isn’t one,” Rubbertoes said.
“What?” I screamed as the first pitch whizzed by me at, I’m sure, 200 mph and thunked against the back fence.
I started swinging, to no avail. Everyone tried to be helpful: “You’re swinging under it.” “Keep your eye on the ball.” “Pretend it’s my head.” That last one was from Rubbertoes, and I was giving it serious thought.
Then my youngest daughter, the one who knows everything about fashion, shouted: “Swing boob level.”
Focusing on knockers, I actually knocked it. Yes, I smashed two balls in a row, coming at me at 300 mph by then.
I had done it. No bagels this vacation. It was a small victory but one I could build on. I walked away from the batting cage with a new goal: research future batting cages in the vicinity of all vacations to make sure they have slow-pitch machines.
If you can’t be the athlete you think you are, find a way to cheat.
If you liked this blog post, you might enjoy my fiction: Book of Mercy and Maud’s House. In Maud’s House, the local sheriff is a baseball fanatic who builds birdhouses resembling historic residences. As far as I know, Sheriff Odie Dorfmann never made a spectacle of himself in the batting cages.