Heading out for a ride: behind the wheel, you need the right mind set

The Department of Motor Vehicles said she was good to go. But after passing the written and road tests and getting her driver’s license, Emily Wensberg, 18, still wasn’t sure about driving. “I was a very nervous driver,” the Boston University freshman says. “Even after I got my license, I was very unconfident.”

driving

Wensberg did what relatively few people do: She enrolled in yet another driving course. That daylong skills session in New Hampshire, called Street Survival, started with a presentation about the psychology and physics of driving. Instructors then had her practice driving in straight lines, circles, and figure eights around traffic cones, braking hard at times, while they talked her through the car’s reactions.

The instructors confirmed what Wensberg had suspected: Driving is not an automatic process. “It’s easy to feel overconfident when you’re driving,” she says. “I think it’s a big responsibility. You’re suddenly in control of this huge vehicle.”

Through the course, Wensberg found out what professional drivers know: To handle the roads, you need a firm grip on how both your vehicle and your brain work.

It’s Not You Until It’s You

In 2007, the World Health Organization (WHO) cited traffic crashes as the leading cause of death in people ages 10 to 24. “Road traffic crashes are not ‘accidents,'” Margaret Chan, WHO director-general, said in a statement. “We need to challenge the notion that they are unavoidable.”

Need proof? Last summer in Canandaigua, N.Y., Bailey Goodman, 17, fatally drove into an oncoming vehicle. She and friends were in a caravan, on the way to a cottage to celebrate high school graduation. No alcohol was involved. But her phone sent out text messages around the time of the crash.

Four of Bailey’s friends died with her. Crashes can injure or kill others–passengers, people in other vehicles, or pedestrians. Teen drivers kill other people five times as often as elderly drivers do, according to a five-year study conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

You may hear crash stories and feel empathy. Then you distance yourself from them, as if bad luck were catching. You might rationalize that you’re too good of a driver to get in an accident, according to Phil Berardelli, author of Safe Young Drivers: A Guide for Parents and Teens.

Berardelli teaches driving skills to fill in where driver’s ed leaves off. When he addresses groups, he cites a 53-month period in which U.S. troop deaths in Iraq numbered 2,600; during the same time span, more than 26,000 people ages 15 to 19 died in vehicle crashes “every bit as suddenly and violently.” Shocking? Sure. But part of Berardelli’s strategy is to get parents to think about what comes naturally to teens–and how that might work against them.

An Owner’s Manual for the Brain

driving2

Year after year, vehicle crashes take more teen lives than AIDS, drugs, guns, and suicide combined. “It’s an enduring national health crisis,” says Berardelli. And it’s preventable.

Now, researchers are turning to the natural progression of the brain for answers. For more than 15 years, Dr. Jay Giedd, a principal investigator at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), has been scanning brain activity in young people. What he and his colleagues have learned about how the brain morphs during adolescence helps explain the risks teens encounter behind the wheel.

According to the scientists at NIMH, young drivers have a lot going on “upstairs.” New connections are forming between neurons, the nerve cells in the brain. Useless connections are being weeded out.

Researchers can actually color code those changes. White matter, made up of fatty myelin sheaths that insulate neurons, increases. Gray matter–neurons without myelin–starts to thin. The “white” thickens through age 40. The result? High school students have fewer but more rapid connections than, say, their parents.

As people become adults, different parts of the brain finish growing at different times. The last section reaches maturity at age 25 or so, posing a danger for new drivers: The frontal lobes that act like brakes for thrill seeking and risk taking aren’t ready at age 16. The younger the driver, the more likely he or she might drive after drinking “just once”–or head down the road without buckling up.

Meanwhile, the amygdala, a small mass of gray matter associated with emotional reactions, is in overdrive, helping teens read situations. Emotions kick into gear more often, which affects driving. Young drivers might speed up when nervous or gun the car when angry.

To complicate matters, the pineal gland, at the base of the brain, is slow to release the sleep-inducing chemical melatonin in teens. Therefore, it’s natural for new drivers to stay up late and, as a consequence, drive when they haven’t had enough sleep. That’s bad news: A sleep-deprived driver is as impaired as someone with a .08 percent blood alcohol content–the legal limit in every state. In July and August, an average of more than 100 16- and 17-year-olds die in drowsy-driving accidents, according to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

(Continue…)

Facts & arguments: team players — strong and compliant

ALTHOUGH I’m glad to be spending some winter-time out of the country this year in sunny Florida, I still miss the news from home. On the great Richter scale of the U.S. news industry, Canada shows up as infrequent, hardly-worth-noting seismic blips. Canadians here constantly search the air to the north for tiny, faint smoke signals that will somehow apprise them of what’s happening back home. Either that or we pay $3.25 (U.S.) for a day-old Globe and Mail, or we glue ourselves to static-y short-waves, various Web sites, or Real Audio for bursts of CBC.

The blips we’ve picked up recently in the U.S. media included Lloyd Axworthy sweating in a necktie on the beach at Varadero–as well he deserved for his unholy truck with the Cuban demons, according to the Florida punditocracy. The lawyer’s withholding of evidence in the grotesque Bernardo-Homolka murders made the news. The unionization of a Windsor Wal-Mart got some air time.

By and large, the only thing Canada is good for is as an unending source of bone-chilling weather–those cold fronts shrieking down from across the border to terrorize the U.S. At least such reports were the main news items until the hockey harassment stories started to surface. Reports have more than seeped to the south, and because sports generally have such a choke-hold on the American consciousness, the commentators and analysts are weighing in with solemn pronouncements that take on such issues as the supposed Canadian “insecurity” about their dwindling dominance in hockey.

hockeyThere has been so much news and analysis here about the abuses of young Canadians in junior hockey, most recently allegations surrounding the revered Maple Leaf Gardens, that I started to think about the sorry subject. And I think that the abuse of young boys in hockey leagues and arenas–abasement that has too often been overlooked or covered up–has nothing to do with national identity. Nor is it, sadly, very surprising.

It may have a lot more to do with the culture of team sport generally and its resolutely macho values. Hockey (as well as football and basketball) encourages young players to be aggressive and combative, yet it also demands that they subordinate their own feelings or priorities to the good of the team. The coach or trainer is at the top of the pyramid in this scenario, and his orders are supreme. To deviate, even to protect oneself from an abuser, is to challenge authority, to compromise the team–and risk ostracism.

Thus, the sport provides a steady supply of strong, finely tuned young boys intensely encouraged from their earliest years to be compliant. Is it a wonder, then, that the sport attracts a small, but highly destructive, element of predators?

We’ve ceased to be shocked at the revelations of child sexual abuse by men of the cloth. Mount Cashel has been razed. Native residential schools are seen to have been, all too often, places of enduring shame. Kingston was rocked by the perfidy of a respected choirmaster. But perhaps some of the factors that led to abuse in these settings, supposedly designed to protect children, are the same as those that lead to abuse in sports, supposedly intended to empower children.

For one thing, most of the environments in which the abuse occurs–be they churches or arenas–are rigorously, even exclusively, masculine in their approach. Male children are left in the hands of adult males, in a culture that often is scornful or actively hostile toward women–or toward values that are seen to be “feminine.”

Another factor is the rigidly hierarchical nature of the enterprise. The priest assumes unchallengeable power over his charges, the same supremacy that the coach has over his young team.

Finally, there is the similar emphasis on loyalty, on toughing it out, and of not revealing secrets that could somehow discredit the group, whether it’s a group of choirboys, altar boys, or hockey players.

The lurid revelations about predators of children in Canadian hockey are disturbing, of course, even at this distance. But they should probably cause us to cast a probing eye at the culture of team sport generally. There’s nothing peculiarly Canadian about the story. But there may be lots that’s particular to the ways we deny, conceal–or glamorize–some of the thuggery and buggery that is too often a part of our obsession with team sports.

Nell Waldman usually lives in Toronto.

Junior hockey players travel isolated, tough road. The sport’s culture is macho, but far from home, young players can be vulnerable

Junior hockey players travel isolated, tough road. The sport’s culture is macho, but far from home, young players can be vulnerable.

The Globe and Mail

OR a teen-aged hockey team, the taste of defeat is cold pizza on a darkened bus.

hockey teamEarlier Saturday, the Ottawa 67s, Canada’s top-ranked junior hockey team, spent five hours travelling from Ottawa to Barrie, with a pit stop in Belleville for spaghetti and meatballs. Now, after losing 6-3 to the Barrie Colts, they munched pizza as their bus headed south down a snow-swept highway.

At two minutes past midnight, they stopped on the ice-slicked ramp of Kitchener’s Memorial Auditorium to unload 30 huge bags of equipment and twice that number of hockey sticks. Finally, at 12:35, their bus pulled in to the local TraveLodge. “Wake-up calls at 8:30,” coach Brian Kilrea said.

Nobody groaned. Their job was two-thirds done. On Friday, the players, mostly 16 to 19 years old, played in Ottawa. Saturday was Barrie. Sunday was Kitchener. This morning, they are supposed to be back in Ottawa in class.

“I find it difficult to get up for school. I’m tired all the time,” said Nick Boynton, 17, a farmer’s son from Nobleton, Ont.

Hockey is the quintessential Canadian sport, and playing in National Hockey League is the dream of many youths like Nick.

That is why he and his 22 teammates have left home to endure numbing weekend road trips and a drop of 10 or 15 percentage points in their high-school grades. It is also why, despite their hulking size, they are so vulnerable.

This month, the sordid world of pedophilia collided with Canada’s most wholesome symbol when a junior hockey coach was sentenced in Calgary to 3years in prison for sexually abusing two young players, including a 14-year-old.

“I can see why it happened,” said Nick, who is 6 foot 2 and weighs 200 pounds. “The coach holds all the cards if the kid will do anything to make it to the NHL.”

When his nursery-school teacher once asked him to draw a picture of what he wanted to be when he grew up, he crayoned a stick figure of a hockey player. “There’s nothing else I’d rather really do,” said Nick, who first strapped on skates as a toddler to whiz across the frozen pond of his dad’s cattle farm.

Of a dozen hockey players interviewed during their weekend road trip, some, including Nick, said they would tell their parents if a coach molested them.

Others expressed uncertainty. “You get scared. You might pretty much do anything to keep your dream alive,” said Steve Dumonski, 19, of Dorion, Ont. (pop. 500), near Thunder Bay.

“Especially if you come from small towns and close-knit families, you don’t know what the real world’s all about, how people really are.” He added, after a moment’s thought, that he would probably tell his mother.

Still other teens said they would use their fists.

“If a coach did that to me, I would have killed him, taken my stick to him,” said Steve Lowe, 19. When he was 10 and played PeeWee hockey in Hamilton, he added, one of his coaches was convicted of molesting a teammate. “The kid went insane. The coach got three months.”

The coach convicted this month was often alone with his players. The Ottawa 67s, in contrast, travel with many adults, including a team doctor, a video photographer and two assistant coaches.

For the past seven years, Marc Pinault, a 62-year-old Ottawa police sergeant, has also befriended the youths and talks to them about the pitfalls of drugs, speeding and alcohol abuse.

“People bring their kids to a town to play hockey from 300 or 400 miles away. They’re entrusting their kids to your organization,” said Mr. Kilrea.

Newer, younger coaches will be under scrutiny from now on, he predicted.

“For me, the only question people are going to have is: When is that old guy going to retire?”

Linda Zultek, who came to Barrie from Oakville to see her son, Matt, play left wing, said she has had conversations about sexual abuse every few years with him. “It’s a sensitive subject because it’s such a macho sport,” she said. “He’s got a good head on his shoulders, but you just never know.”

Elaine Bell, the mother of David Bell, who plays defence, said that molestation had never crossed her mind before this month’s case.

“It’s scary as a parent. He’s a country boy. We’re from Wiarton,” she added, mentioning the name of an Ontario town with just 2,000 people. “We’re kind of naive when it comes to some of these things. And you don’t know what goes on. They’re so close-mouthed about what goes on in the dressing room.”

Like the military or the priesthood, junior hockey has its own culture. Rookies have to do the heavy lifting, sit in the middle of the bus and let the veterans get off first. And although Mr. Kilrea has now put a stop to it, last year and the year before teammates stripped first-year players, tied their clothes in knots and made them sit for hours, naked, in the toilet compartment of the bus, the team’s second home.

On the bus, players bring their own pillows and blankets. They pass the hours watching videos such as Top Gunnd Young Guns II. The players’ huge size, the cramped bus seats and the physical intimacy engendered by daily communal showers mean they think nothing of falling asleep, entwined with one another.

Sprawled on the last seat of the bus, reserved for veteran players, David Bell patted teammate Alyn McCauley’s thigh.

“If I walked up to a buddy at school and put my hand on his thigh like this . . .” he said, breaking off, laughing and shaking his head, as Mr. McCauley, 19, punched him. “But here, if you’re not comfortable about that, you’d never get any sleep.”

In this macho atmosphere, players say it is nearly impossible for a gay teammate to come out of the closet. “There’s rumours of guys being gay, but you’d get made fun of,” David Bell said.

And how could he tell if anyone was gay? “Well, one guy tied his skates with his legs crossed,” he said.

Junior hockey is the bridge between amateur teams and the big time. There is no shortage of wide-eyed, talented youths drawn by their love of the sport and a shot at a professional career. But increasingly, junior hockey is also becoming a big business, one in which the youths aren’t just vulnerable sexually, but are also, in a sense, badly paid employees.

From ticket-sales and advertising revenues, team owners cover the basic costs of room and board for volunteer families who billet the boys. They also pay for school books and, for those who have finished high school, college tuition.

Mr. Kilrea said that schedules are designed with the school week in mind, with players missing only eight days during the 1996-97 six-month season. He said he doesn’t tolerate failing grades. Still, many players find it hard to keep up with classes. Several team members who have finished high school have postponed college indefinitely.

Troy Stonier, 19, attended only two months of Carleton University, before dropping out last November. “Sometimes a road trip started on a Wednesday. If you miss one class in university, you’re way behind,” said Mr. Stonier, winner of the team’s academic achievement award for the past two years.

In return for a seven-day work week, which includes weekday practices and two or three games on weekends, the players are paid just $40, or $35.65 after taxes. They are also eligible for unemployment insurance in the summer, although many find jobs picking tobacco or coaching children’s hockey.

“I think we should get at least $100 [a week],” said Mr. McCauley, a member of Canada’s National Junior Team, which recently won a gold medal in the world championships. Unlike most of his teammates, Mr. McCauley will probably find a slot on a NHL team, where a low salary is $250,000 and players often make $1-million or more a year.

Many youths already have agents who work for a percentage of future earnings. About 95 per cent of junior hockey players won’t make the NHL. Instead, they will likely find jobs on lesser leagues, with salaries of $40,000 to $50,000 a year.

As a big business, the bottom line in junior hockey looms large. “The only way we can make money is by a lengthy stay in the playoffs [to sell more tickets],” Mr. Kilrea said. “That’s why the playoffs are so important.”

To that end, the teen-agers are traded at will, usually with no notice. At a time when adolescents crave security, teens like Steve Lowe have played for five teams in the past three years, moving from his home in Kitchener to Sault Ste. Marie, London, Belleville, North Bay and now Ottawa.

That often creates havoc with their schooling. Steve Dumonski, for instance, arrived only last Friday. The previous day, he had been a member of the Detroit Whalers. There had been no time for farewells when the coach called Mr. Dumonski into his office and told him he had been traded to Ottawa.

“I just went home and packed my stuff and flew to Ottawa,” Mr. Dumonski said.Two hours later, he was on the ice, playing for the Ottawa 67s. His old team, he added, will take care of notifying his college and retrieving his books. He has no plans to re-enroll in an Ottawa university.

“I didn’t cry, but I had a weird feeling,” he said. “But you have to look at sport as a business. There’s so much money involved. They don’t look at you as a person. You’re just another number. If they invested in you, and you’re not working, they trade you.”

Conscious of scouts who constantly monitor the teams for prospective NHL material, the youths are increasingly playing the game with the violence of professional sports. Bone-crunching body checks, including one that left a teammate with a broken back a couple of years ago, are normal. So are fistfights that the referees allow to go on and on.

“If they keep stopping it, it gets boring,” said Maryanne Rockx, a fan who is also a hockey reporter for the Fulcrum, the University of Ottawa newspaper. “It’s entertainment. They have to keep the fans happy.”

Spending time in the “sin bin,” as the penalty box is nonchalantly dubbed, carries zero stigma. “That’s the game. It’s a game of intimidation,” said Mr. Dumonski, who has broken his collarbone, a finger, and his knuckles, the latter while breaking another player’s nose.

In the past two years, Nick Boynton, for instance, has suffered 10 stitches, a slit nostril and a knocked-out tooth and has broken his nose four times.

To the uninitiated, the Ottawa 67s seem very violent. In fact the team has one of the lowest penalty rates in its league. Still, Mr. Kilrea, a no-nonsense, gravel-voiced coach whose nickname is Killer, sometimes rewards players for violence.

Once after Ben Gustavson, 18, came back, bruised and bleeding from breaking another player’s nose in what Mr. Kilrea described as a “settling of accounts,” the coach affectionately told him, “Ben, the highest compliment I can give you is, that as long as I’ll be here, you’ll be in Ottawa. I’ll never trade you.”

Last night, Ottawa beat the Kitchener Rangers 5-4. That enabled Mr. Kilrea to match the record for the most wins of any junior-hockey coach in Canada. The taste of victory was the same as the taste of defeat: cold pizza in a darkened bus on a snow-swept highway home.

THE IMPORTANCE OF WARM-UP AND COOLDOWN ACTIVITIES

walking-indoorExercise regularly is very good for your health. In addition, a perfect warm-up also gives a lot of benefits for individuals. Unfortunately, most people have forgotten that part then go straight ahead to the exercises. People ought to have the warm-up in order not to get injuries during the practicing process.

A typical warm-up is very easy to perform. In addition, you don’t have to pay too much time or effort. Researches have shown that spending just 10 minutes will result in:

  • Enhance the performance of various activities
  • Reduce the risk of taking injuries, especially get away from muscle stiffness.
  • Decrease the sense of tiring that you may experience during that period of time

REASON WHY PEOPLEE NEED TO WARM-UP

When people understand why the warm-up process is important, they will definitely include it in their workout process. When individuals tend to practice a variety of exercises, all the parts in body will perform in a fastest way. For instant, you are more likely to breath faster which cause the heart rate to increase. The neuromuscular and metabolic rates also function faster in order to give the best results.

These things above are ready for you to take other challenging activities such as running, cycling or dancing. Therefore, spend a small amount of time for a warm-up, this allows the body to get used to the changes during the time. Then you can start doing other exercises with high-intensity.

HOW TO WARM-UP CORRECTLY

So how to do a proper warm-up? In fact, a proper warm-up is as simple as you work out slowly in a long period of time. For example, if you intend to run outside, you will need to spend 10 minutes for jogging at an average speed. Keep in mind that, warm-up will benefit you when doing before these activities with high-intensity. Otherwise, it will make you more tired if you are tiring or hurting at that time.

Moreover, people should add some flexibility into their warm-up process. For instant, spend time stretching the back and legs before running around the neighborhood. And more steps to make the warm-up more diverse during your practicing process.

Actually, when you have the warm-up process; you will also need a cooldown step before finishing the exercising time. This activity is very important in order for you to achieve the long-term success in the future.

COOLDOWN ACTIVITY

A cooldown activity is similar to the warm-up. For instant, people can go for a slow walk or stretch with low-intensity. Also like the warm-up, most people often forget about the cooldown, especially they are tend to skip this part. You may get a lot of troubles if you forget this part

doing-exercise Have you ever feel lightheaded or dizzy after practicing exercises for a long time, this symptom results from not having the cooldown activities. In fact, when individuals do exercises, blood will be speedily circulated around the body. Therefore, when you stop immediately after doing exercises, blood will flow into your upper body which cause you to faint.

On the other hand, spending time cycling on a machine also helps reducing injuries instead of cycling around your neighborhood. For people who are looking to buy a machine and don’t want to risk on it, just consider a great quality models such as the Keiser m3 plus or Sole Fitness SB700… Go to http://exercisebikesexpert.com/ to find out more about top 10 best spin bike reviews  on the market.

Doing exercises regularly is very good. However, it is better when you know how to work out in a right way. Just include the warm-up and cooldown activities during the practicing process so that individuals can get a better result.

Perils of a naive hockey dad: the voyage from cricket pitch to center ice

I’d been brought up on a steady diet of football (soccer), rugby (rugger) and cricket (no other name for it, but it’s the sport where the duration of a single inning can exceed that of a Superbowl Sunday).

But when our three sons began to play ice hockey, I made a concerted effort to become a typical hockey dad — driving them to games and learning how to lace skates on for a six-year-old. In the early days we set out for the arena long before dawn on Saturday morning — actually it was closer oto the middle of the night — with a carload of sleepy-eyed six- and seven-year-olds.

As we had the luxury of two starting goalies, it was decided that this former cricket player should manage the goalkeeping, making sure the two goalies had equal ice time. But I was strictly instructed to avoid changing them over while play was in progress — having the net unattended during play, even for a brief period, was apparently a no-no. So I’d wait until there were breaks in the action and then hurriedly execute the substitutions,anxiously hoping someone would appear between the sticks before the puck was dropped for resumption of play. I wonder if Walter Gretzky ever dealt with such a challenge?

After a while, officials who’d noticed me around asked if I’d like to become officially involved in the minor hockey program. My protests that I’d never worn a pair of skates (I still haven’t) and I’d never even seen a professional hockey game (I now have) were brushed aside. The message I got was, “You have three kids involved in the program so you don’t really have a choice.”

With some trepidation I started out at the local community club level. It was concluded (correctly) that I wasn’t suitable coaching material, and I was assigned to scheduling the use of the club’s outdoor ice — a chore even a professional engineer could surely be trusted not to mess up too much. But now I had to attend meetings where discussions took place about complex hockey matters far beyond my comprehension.

After a while I foolishly let myself be persuaded to represent our club on the board of our regional minor hockey association. And without knowing how it actually came about, I eventually found myself president of that august body (if you don’t watch out carefully these incredibly frightening responsibilities can just sneak up on you). In my new capacity, I found myself representing our regional association on the board of the City of Winnipeg Minor Hockey Association. There my naive comments sometimes caused raised eyebrows.

At one stage, a boys team under my purview was discovered to have a girl goalie. When I raised it with the person in charge of teams and players — at that time, my oldest daughter — she told me to quit fussing. When higher hockey authorities heard about it, we were firmly instructed to remove the offending female from the team — if only because the comprehensive insurance for the boys team wouldn’t protect her or our association if anything went wrong. This was a concern since she was on a team of rebellious fourteen-year-olds.

When it became known that our non-boy had been peremptorily bumped, questions were asked in the House of Commons in Ottawa. I had to appear before the TV cameras to justify the decision. It was all a bit unfair because I hadn’t known about the biased gender regulations. But by this time, I really was beginning to wish I’d never left the cricket pitch. I later found myself managing a juvenile hockey team. Now seventeen-year-old juvenile hockey players are not necessarily your average law-abiding citizens.

Apart from struggling to keep them out of gaol (that’s jail, not a misspelling of goal), and discouraging them from smuggling six-packs into the locker room for after-game refreshment, my main job was to collect the sweaty jerseys after the game, have them laundered, and hand them out at the next game.

I stuck it out until our youngest son outgrew the minor hockey system. But now I’m wondering if I shouldn’t be offering my services to the Canadian Football League’s local team. I’m at least qualified to offer a history course for those U.S. imports who might be interested in learning how the Canadian 12-man game evolved from the 15-man rugby game I used to play.

Just your average soccer mom

When my son is on the field, we all, however briefly, escape the “special needs” label.

The gift-shop owner is annoyed. From behind her counter she frowns at my 6-year-old son, who is calmly surveying the broken glass at his feet. Along with a puddle of glittery fluid and some tiny figurines, the shards are all that are left of the snow globe–shiny! irresistible!–he had snatched from its shelf a moment earlier.

“That’s my new carpeting,” the shop owner says accusingly.

“He couldn’t help it,” I blurt. “He’s autistic.” The word–the betrayal–is barely out when I feel a clutching sensation in my chest. It worsens as the shopkeeper tells me I need pay only the wholesale price for the breakage, since, as she puts it, “You have enough to deal with.”

Outside, I squeeze my son’s hand and wish I could apologize to him. He wouldn’t understand, but my daughter, who is shopping with us, does. “It’s the lady’s fault,” she says, with a third-grader’s fierce certainty. “If she hadn’t stood there talking to her friend for ten minutes instead of waiting on us, he wouldn’t have broken anything.”

She’s right. My son got fidgety, and I overreacted, violating my own rule against naming his disability for strangers. I had sold him out for the price of a snow globe.

PLAYING THE DISABILITY CARD

My son is now 9, but the gift-shop incident still flares in my memory, especially when the issue of labeling him–the need to play what you might call the disability card–arises. This fall, I registered him for soccer and explicitly identified him as a “special needs” child. I had to, if I wanted him to participate in a mainstream league. “Mainstream,” of course, is common parlance for “normal.” It signifies the routine round of school and homework, sleepovers and music lessons. And soccer. For children like my son, going mainstream successfully–“passing,” as a fellow mom of an autistic child calls it–can be tantamount to leapfrogging up Everest.

In the six years since my son was diagnosed, I have concluded that labeling a child who has disabilities is a simultaneously necessary and lazy act. You must identify “deficits” (a terrible word) in order to treat them.

And yet, if supplying the name for my son’s behavior makes my life easier, even nobler–people nod sympathetically–it also diminishes his humanity. Once the A-word is applied, he devolves, before my eyes, from an extraordinarily attractive child, who loves music and silly puns and his big sister, into The Other.

Our soccer season kicks off when a friend tells me about a league that is welcoming to disabled kids. The first official I call, a parent volunteer, instructs me to check in with the special-needs coordinator. I weigh how much information to give this unknown person. In my son’s short life, I have spun out his story for at least a dozen specialists, not counting the school district’s diagnosticians. Isn’t that enough? But I take the plunge, sort of. I tell her he has PDD.

“I’ve never heard of that,” the coordinator says.

“Pervasive Developmental Disorder.” A silence. “Well, autism. Sometimes he’s not very focused, and”–I reach for a familiar symptom –“he’s kind of hyper.”

“That sounds all right,” she says briskly. “We’ll play him down a year. That’s what my child does. She has Down’s syndrome. She’s played for two years now, and she loves it.”

I ask if she accompanies her daughter onto the field, as a sort of personal helper, but she politely brushes me off.

“I cheer for all of them,” she says simply, refusing to expose her child to my scrutiny.

“Good for you,” I say enthusiastically. “It sounds great.”

On the first day of practice, my husband, my son, and I leave the house an hour early. We had raced to finish work and dispatch our daughter to gymnastics practice. Now we are crawling through 20 miles of rush-hour traffic.

“We could have tried the YMCA league,” my husband reminds me. “Ten minutes from the house.”

“It will be fine,” I say. I have decided that long-distance soccer has its benefits. We are unlikely to bump up against anyone who knows us. I will not encounter the parent who, watching my son and his classmates in a school activity, stage-whispered to his own boy, “THAT’S THE SPECIAL EDUCATION CLASS.” To everyone but the special-needs coordinator and our coach, who has been put in the picture, my son is a blank slate. Perhaps–the irrational thought flutters up–he will pass.

Interestingly, the tendency to equate “special” with “the other” also colors the attitudes of some autism experts. But maybe this is not surprising, given the professionals’ track record in treating the disorder. Well into the 1960s, most people, even the “experts,” heeded psychologist Bruno Bettelheim’s now-famous dictum that, by withholding affection from their children, “refrigerator mothers” caused autism. In the 1970s and early 1980s, psychologists advised parents to institutionalize their young autistic children and never look back.

At the turn of the millennium, the institutionalization rate has dropped drastically. Treatments are more effective, the number of research studies has multiplied, and celebrities with autistic kids have raised awareness of the disorder. And yet, nobody knows what causes autism or has come up with a consistent cure. The frustration factor–disavowal of the patient who cannot be helped–may explain why some professionals continue to distinguish between “human being” and “autistic.”

In my least favorite article, a young medical student writes gushily about encountering autism for the first time, in a 4-year-old child. When the little boy recoils from a doctor’s stethoscope, she takes it as proof that he is a species of space alien: “The little boy began to moan–no, not moan exactly. It was … a sound I have never heard come from a child.” She had also never heard that autism is a spectrum disorder (meaning it can range from mild to severe), that early intervention is crucial, and that many small children, normal as she, are afraid of the doctor. The Journal of the American Medical Association published her essay anyway.

As we slowly progress along the freeway, I turn toward the back seat. “So, are you ready to play soccer?”

soccer-and-kids

“I am all ready,” my son says. Unlike most of his activities, we haven’t talked this up too much. We haven’t had to. Last night, he tried on his shin pads. They fit, he loved them, and, delighted, he wanted to wear them to bed. I can’t remember whether it happened when I was driving him to speech therapy, or occupational therapy, or music therapy, or the special private school he currently attends, but one day, out of nowhere, he said, “I want to play soccer like my sister.”

So here we are.

FIELD OF DREAMS

The soccer field abuts a Houston Community College building that is closed for renovations. It features hard-packed dirt and sparse grass, the result of a scorching summer and rainless fall. Somehow, though, Houston’s mosquitoes have survived the drought–and are hungry.

We search the crowd of arriving kids and families for our coach, who is easy to spot in his red shirt. The name of a sports bar adorns the back. He greets us a bit brusquely, and I devise a new worry: Will our son respond to him? Obediently enough, our child lines up with a gaggle of other little boys for a kicking drill. The parents hang around, watching and slapping at their ankles. I find the most anxious-looking mom and introduce myself.

“I hope this is going to be okay,” she confesses to me. “Alex has never played soccer before.”

“My son never has either,” I say conspiratorially. We watch Alex race up to the ball and kick it in a long, high arc, like a miniature Pele.

“Attaway, Alex,” his mom calls. “Good job,” I echo dutifully, realizing that she and I are not in the same boat after all.

According to the rules of our league, all parents must exhibit positive, affirming behavior. You cannot scream advice to your child (as the Parent Manual points out, directives like “Kick it! Kick it!” are “obvious”); you cannot bawl out criticism.

Impeccable in theory, the Parent Manual has the practical effect of a gag order. Well into the season, we grown-ups sit timidly on the sidelines for fear of hollering the wrong thing. Yet none of the boys seem to miss the roar of parental voices, and the calm is certainly beneficial for my son, who always recoils from cacophony.

At this first practice, he manages to attempt the drills about half the time, but by the end of the session he is tired. He begins to ignore directions, to withdraw into himself.

The coach is patient but clearly a bit puzzled. I suspect the explanatory note he received from the special-needs coordinator was pretty vague. I also sense that his brusqueness, expressed in a growly voice that most of the boys heed immediately, is really a form of shyness.

Gamely, the coach ensures that our son tries out every skill. In his own instinctive way, he is as effective as any therapist we have visited. Half seriously, I consider asking him to record a series of edicts–“Time to get dressed!” “Brush your teeth now!” “Let’s start on your math homework!”–that we can pop into our son’s cassette player at home.

Back in the car, at the start of the long drive home, we ask our son if he had a good time. Does he like soccer?

“Yes,” he declares emphatically, as if, like those silly parents in the manual, we have just said something obvious.

Soccer games in general tend to run together for me, especially when played by young children. In my son’s league, keeping score is prohibited, so you can’t even sort their weekly outings into “won” and “lost.” Despite this rule, the boys on my son’s team are well aware that, on most Saturdays, they score more goals than their opponents. The name they bestowed on themselves–the Hotshots–has proved apropos.

My husband believes that success breeds tolerance; it helps the Hotshots ignore our son’s obliviousness to the team effort. I don’t think it matters. With 7-year-olds, there is little team effort. All the children try to control the ball, all of the time. Sometimes it rolls out of the tight scrum of frantically waving feet over to our child, who is hanging back from the action, and he gets in a tentative kick. Sometimes he aims for the right goal. Overall he does better at practices, which are more structured than competition. Slowly he learns to trap the ball, dribble it, kick it into the net. My husband and I agree that soccer has improved his gross motor skills, happily ignoring our resolution to avoid treating it as a therapeutic exercise.

Like the coach, the Hotshots don’t quite understand the nature of my son’s disability, but they come to accept him. During practice scrimmages they occasionally form a motionless semicircle, patiently giving him open access to the ball. At one game, a teammate insists that it is my son’s turn to be team captain (this honor consists of wearing a sticker that says “Team Captain”). So far as I can tell, no adult has suggested these gestures, at least not within earshot of my son, and I am grateful.

The parents’ reactions are similarly low-key. It could be the influence of the Parent Manual (“It Is True INCLUSION When ALL Kids Can Play TOGETHER”). Or maybe they have their own problems to deal with. The families on this team are less affluent than many in our neighborhood. They include immigrants, single parents, and stepparents, and everyone works full-time. When my son’s foot touches the ball, they cheer, in an acceptably restrained way. No one ever draws me aside–like the Good Samaritan in a music class he’d once taken–to suggest, gently, that his development seems delayed and have I consulted my pediatrician? For this reason alone, the soccer experiment has been a resounding success. And my son has loved playing the game, or rather, the idea of playing it, of wearing the uniform just like all the other kids.

When the clock runs out on the last game of the season, we fold up our lawn chairs and set off for the league party at one of those “family-oriented” pizza places where the cheap food is a Vegas-like stratagem for luring kids into playing the video games. When the Hotshots straggle in, four or five other teams have already arrived. Our coach emerges from the buffet line. My husband and I congratulate him on a great season, and he beams at us. “I don’t suppose you’re coaching in the spring?” I ask casually.

“No, I do T-ball in the spring.”

“That must be fun,” I say insincerely.

After the party ends, we load our children–with our son’s trophy and our daughter’s vending-machine prizes–into the car and turn onto the freeway access road. It’s the last time we’ll make this drive on a Saturday, I think, and I begin counting how many new hours have been added to the week. Five, at a minimum. Oh, luxury.

A voice from the back seat interrupts my calculations.

“When do I start playing soccer again?” my son asks.