March 06

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Don’t Give Up by Barbara Carroll Roberts

What if you’d always been the best at something you really loved doing, and then suddenly, you weren’t? Suddenly, there were lots of people better than you.

And what if, at the same time, you realized that you would almost certainly never again be one of the best, because you hadn’t inherited the physical gifts you’d need to truly excel at the thing you loved?

And if you were thirteen years old when you smacked up against that cold reality? What would you do then? How would you react?

This is the situation thirteen-year-old Nikki Doyle faces in my middle-grade novel, Nikki on the Line. Nikki is passionate about playing basketball, and she’s always been the best point guard in her entire county-wide league. As her coach says, she’s the “floor general,” the player who runs the team, the player who can help all the other girls on her team play better. And Nikki loves this distinction. Loves being a star.

But then she tries out to play on an elite-level club team. And when she makes the team, she’s suddenly not the best point guard anymore.

In fact, she’s not a point guard at all.

Her new coach wants her to play a different position. A position she doesn’t know how to play, a position she doesn’t think she has the skill to ever succeed at. So now, instead of playing with confidence – instead of feeling confident, knowing she is one of the best – Nikki is shaken, unsure of her place on the team, questioning her ability to compete at this higher level, no longer sure who she is.

To make matters worse, she’s studying genetics in her science class, which leads her to the realization that though she may be somewhat tall compared to average-height girls, she will never be “actually” tall, not compared to basketball players. Nikki’s “not-tall” parents gave her their “not-tall” genes, and there’s absolutely nothing she can do about that. And as she knows – as everyone knows – tall is better in basketball.

So what should Nikki do? What can she do?

Because now she’s facing a reality that the vast majority of kids – the vast majority of us – must face at some point, whether we play sports or sing or solve physics problems or do just about anything else. When we move up to higher and higher levels of achievement, the competition grows ever stronger, and by definition, there will be fewer and fewer stars.

 

As my children were growing up, playing a variety of different sports, I watched many kids run into this situation. Maybe they were natural athletes who didn’t have to work hard to excel when they were young. Or maybe they were kids who hit puberty early, gaining height and putting on adult muscle when their teammates still looked like fifth-graders. These kids got used to being the best players, the starters on every team, the league all-stars. But then some of the other kids – the gangly, uncoordinated kids – started to grow and grow-into their bodies and because some of them had always had to work extra hard to find a place on the team, they kept right on working. And then suddenly, they were roaring past the early-achievers.

Some of those early-achievers got so frustrated and upset, they quit playing. Some switched to a different sport.

But a few dug in, refusing to quit without a fight, and worked harder than everyone else to master new skills and find a different way to compete.

And that’s what Nikki decides to do. She dedicates herself to hours and hours of practice at the basketball hoop in her driveway, working to transform herself into an outside shooter – a skill she’s never possessed. Sometimes she gets help from her family or a friend, but more often, she’s all by herself, tired, frustrated, sore, but determined to keep working and keep playing the game she loves.

Sports occupy an odd position in our culture. Some of us seem to imbue them with undue importance, looking at winning and losing as matters of life and death. Others write them off as close to useless, the province of no one but “dumb jocks.” But I think that one of the great values of sports, especially youth sports, is that they can help young people figure out how to face adversity, how to decide which goals are worth working toward, whether or not the potential rewards are worth the sacrifices.

And as Nikki discovers, if you’ve always been the best, and then suddenly you’re not, continuing to work at your sport can give you an opportunity to turn yourself into someone new. Someone stronger and more resilient. Someone with a broader, deeper vision of who you can be.

 

Barbara Carroll Roberts is a graduate of Hamline University’s Writing for Children and Young Adults MFA program. She played competitive sports in high school and always wished there had been books in her library about athletic girls. That desire – and the realization that there still aren’t many books about girls who truly love sports – inspired her to write this book. She lives outside of Washington, D.C. with her family and their many pets. This is her first novel. You can visit her at barbaracarrollroberts.com.