Family

What Childhood Sports Failures Keep You Up at Night?

Here are ours.

A child takes a baseball to the face.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

Minor Leagues is Slate’s pop-up blog about kids’ sports.

One crucial function of the brain is the retention of traumatic events and the feelings associated with them. Theoretically the function is designed to prevent us from repeating our mistakes, but more often than not it just means a flashback in the middle of Whole Foods to that one time in first grade when you called your teacher “Mom.” Certain scenarios are ripe for producing those decadeslong cringes, but the arena of childhood sports might combine all the elements necessary for a permanent scar: audiences composed of peers and strangers, shows of dexterity, the agony of adolescence. We’ve asked Slatesters to recount the vividly humiliating sports failures—and accidental triumphs—that haunt them to this day.

For some reason I decided to join the junior high basketball team, despite being the second-shortest kid in class and having zero athletic ability. I promptly broke my arm in a preseason practice and never spent a minute in a game.

—Ruth Graham, contributor

My AYSO team was called the Octopunks, and I was the shortest kid in the cohort. I was the one holding up the plaque with our name on it in the team photo. In one game, I used my hands to catch a throw-in. A gracious adult somewhere on the sidelines yelled out, “Wrong sport!”

—Pierre Bienaimé, associate producer, The Gist

At a baseball camp in the summer of 1986 I let the winning run score in the bottom of the final inning when an easy ground ball rolled through my legs. I was so angry I flung my glove into the fence, where it landed signature-side up. Were a snappy documentary director shooting that moment, she would have zoomed in to reveal the autograph on the first baseman’s mitt I’d begged my mom to buy me that year: BILL BUCKNER.

—Dan Kois, editor and writer

When I was 12, I joined our church’s coed softball league and made it a full three weeks without a disaster. During that third week, I was taken by surprise when a fly ball came my way. I rushed to make what should have been an easy catch, thrusting my glove high into the air and keeping my eye on the ball. As if in slow motion, I saw the ball careen toward my glove, skim the tip of it, and smash me in the face. My one and only chance to be a sports hero ended with me rolling on the ground. I nursed a nasty black eye and imprint of the ball’s stitching on my cheek for several weeks that summer.

Faith Smith, Slate Live executive producer

The golf club my family belonged to when I was growing up had a summer league team made up of mostly high school kids. But because I hung around the course a lot as I was learning to play, I got put on a list to call if the other, better, kids couldn’t make it. The summer I was 11, I got the call that they needed a fill-in. They were desperate because if they couldn’t field a full team they’d lose the whole match. I was so excited getting to play in real competition with the older kids.

On a Saturday morning in the rain one of my parents dropped me at the course with my starter set and I proceeded to shoot 163. (For context, the average golfer shoots about 90.) And because it was competition I had to count every shot. My only vivid memory of the round is from the first tee when I almost whiffed, hitting the ball so far off the toe that it dribbled off the tee. And that same thing happened about four more times on that hole. My parents say that afterward there weren’t any tears but a lot of door slamming.

Chris Schieffer, senior product manager

When I played soccer in fourth grade, I played defense, which was fine, but there was very little glory. Mainly punting the ball up the field to no one in particular. Unexpectedly in the middle of one game, I found myself dribbling the ball toward our opponents’ goal! There was no one defending me—nothing between me and an easy score. Only after this seeming moment of triumph had fully blossomed did I look around and see that it was halftime and everyone else had left the field.

Cleo Levin, executive assistant

I wrestled JV in seventh and eighth grade. I was terrible. I was underweight for the lowest weight class, so often ended up wrestling guys who had sucked down to just make it to a weight I could only get to after eating a lot. I only won two matches over two seasons. In one, my opponent accidentally pinned himself trying to pin me.

Greg Lavallee, director of technology

I deeply loved basketball as a child. I just didn’t possess the speed, height, hand-eye coordination, or patience to practice to excel at the sport. Despite all of that, I still made the basketball team in eighth grade, because I went to a Montessori school where there were only eight kids in my graduating class and only five of us wanted to be on the team. Needless to say, we sucked. We often lost by 30 or more points. I remember once losing by 50.

But even in this ragtag crew of terrible basketball players, I stood out as the worst. For nearly the whole season, I was the only player who didn’t score a single point. But near the end of our team’s sad run, I poked the ball from the hands of the opposing player. As the ball rolled down the court, I seized my chance to grab it and perform the simple layup that I had been practicing for years. Oh, you should also know that I have a terrible sense of direction. It was the other team’s basket.

—Andrew Parsons, producer, Slow Burn

I was disqualified from a relay race in the second grade. I was supposed to be skipping. I was galloping. And I didn’t understand the difference between the two for years.

—Dawnthea Price, copy editor