Sometimes the reason why I like travel so much is because it undermines competition, and competition is a reason why I am hating on gymnastics lately.
Competition seems quintessentially American. Confrontational. At odds with who we are supposed to call teammates and friends. We love them and comfort them when they lose, but we secretly want them to, because in order to win, others must lose. This has stripped Soren of some of her sweetness and humanity over the last two years on the team, where she can’t quite wrap her mind around the fact that she gets so many bronzes because they give medals up to ten places out.
The podium is a long way away for Soren. Let’s face it, the child is not grace on wheels. She’s awkward. She moves like a little kid. She is a little kid. She has powerful little thunder thighs that will someday serve her well in volleyball, softball, or as a bottom in cheerleading. Do they call them bottoms? That seems difficult for mommy to say, as a former sexuality educator. But I digress.
Travel, on the other hand, brings us closer to one another, instead of pitting us against each other. It’s all about having experiences together. Everyone gets to share. Their homes, their foods, their holidays – their very souls. It’s in direct opposition to these kids in the gym, sharing the same mechanized and routinized song and dance, the same tricks, the same moves, each judged for precision, not for expressing anything about sport, life, or the athlete.
Not until she makes it to level 6 in a few years does she get to express her personal charm. I’ve even heard that those levels have very similar moves on each apparatus, similar sequences. One girl’s double back handspring on beam is the next girl’s back walkover-back handspring. Whoopdy doo. Basically, it’s not very expressive.
Individual differences may not be valued in competitive sport, but there’s proof that competition itself may not even spur little Bailey to greatness. In one study, researchers told kids to make silly collages. Some were told they were competing for a prize. The others were not. When the collages were judged by professionals in the art industry, the non-competitors’ works were more creative. They were artistically better.
Anyone who watches the Olympics knows this to be true: when the pressure’s on, we don’t see the best tricks. Everybody plays it safe. They don’t try something zany, that’s not in the code of points. They don’t try something where they may fail, and fall on their butts. They don’t do anything that they will learn from. That happens in practice; that doesn’t happen when we compete.
Further, the other little girls with whom we attend birthday parties and pumpkin patch trips become the enemy when we compete with them. If only Bailey Sedona weren’t here, the kids’ eyes seem to say, *I’d* get a medal. They’re old enough to play politely, sure, but what’s going on inside? What kinds of feelings of affection mixed with anger are they suppressing? What kind of message is that about girlhood, about cattiness, about being in this wacky life for each other, together?
When our day is full of travel, we have the opposite experience. When we gloat, we quickly learn that our experiences, our houses, and our countries aren’t really better. In fact, there was a lot more comparison back before we started talking about other people and other lands so often.
A routinized lack of creative expression is also squashed flat. My kids were floored the last time we crossed the border from California to Arizona, and in the hills of Blythe, a flock of Ocotillo started pushing up through the rocky landscape. Saguaros. Agave. They oohed and ahhhed. They celebrated what it must be like to see something new and amazing and how interesting it would be to live among these alien plant forms! They screamed, “prickly pear!” They ate sour oranges. They spat them out. But they tried.
Back home, we just don’t try as much. And that’s a shame.
Because the world is really about experiences. Collecting them, tasting them, spitting them through our teeth. And connecting with each other. The values of travel have given us that. Now, if only I could convince them that we could do without the competition elsewhere in our lives, too…