The Joy in Defeat
Tim Whiteford PhD
Over the years I’ve heard many of my friends, probably mostly dads, “complain” to me at different times that they can no longer beat their sons, or daughters, at one-on-one under the basketball hoop. For some it is a major notch in the belt of aging; a sign that this young whipper-snapper is just too fit, quick, cunning or plain and simply “better than me”. For others it is a relief to know that they no longer have to kill themselves proving they can still win at will when they want to. And then there are those dads who can finally sit back and say; I’ve given you wings and now I know you know how to use them. It is one of life’s rites of passage to independence and self proclamation; the first tooth, the first overnight party, the first solo journey trip after passing the driving test.
For still another group of dads, in which I include myself, there may never be a time when you have that sensation of eating humble pie, of being athletically humiliated, of seeing your son, or daughter, use the wings you have spent years helping to construct. The letting-him-win games seem to stretch endlessly over the horizon until the day you physically cannot move a leg or lift a basketball and you lose by physical default. I’m speaking of those of us dads who have sons, or daughters, with a disability of some sort. It’s not that I’m a competitive person, in fact far from it, but it’s the idea of passing the torch, of watching your child be better than you are. Isn’t this what we all want for our children?
Andrew, my son, is the most amazing kid I know, rivaling even my amazing daughter in terms of the “impress me” stakes. He has Down Syndrome and yes, I know we all think our children are the most amazing people, but no matter what I do I cannot beat Andrew at virtual bowling. For his 16th birthday last summer we bought him a Wii game that included the basic Sports CD complete with baseball, golf, boxing, tennis and the aforementioned bowling. The first night we played Andrew bowled a 175 to my 88. For the next several weeks we played almost nightly and Andrew’s average steadily climbed to around 210 while mine languished around 120. Not only was his average almost double mine but his deviation from it was significantly less. In other words he consistently bowled between 195 and 230. My scores, on the other hand, ranged from as low as 80 to a once in a lifetime 219.
To make matters “worse” he hadn’t read any of the instructions and didn’t even know there was a place in the game where you could go and practice your virtual bowling skills. He didn’t even know that you could move the angle and location of the “bowler” on the screen or that you could “spin the ball” so that you would have a greater chance of making a spare or strike. He just aimed and bowled and hit down lots of virtual pins night after night. I even took to getting home early from work and practicing, or getting up early in the morning, making sure I turned the volume down so it didn’t wake him up. I developed a really mean “hook” on the ball that, if done right, would virtually guarantee a strike, but I couldn’t perfect it with anywhere near the consistency required to beat him.
After several weeks of failure and humiliation I went and bought an additional remote control module so that we each had our own hoping that some form of consistency in holding the module would help me win but of course it didn’t. I even wondered if I should start giving him pointers on how to “improve” his game but thankfully I haven’t sunk to those depths, at least not with the bowling game.
Tongue in cheek aside, the fact that he is consistently beating me is one of the most rewarding facets of our incredible relationship. I know that he doesn’t always pedal as hard as he can when he’s on the back of our tandem bicycle but I make “allowances” for that. The wonderful thing about this Wii experience is that it is a small aspect of our relationship that has been totally “normalized”. In a way, I can get a sense of what that rite of passage is like. I can truly respect his superior skill and feel that wonderful sensation of being humbled by one’s own child. Just this once, I don’t have to “make allowances”, accommodate, adapt, modify, simplify or tamper with the activity we are engaged in so that the playing field is artificially leveled. This is him against me; both trying as hard as we can to win and feel that sense of competitive edge that is such an important but carefully orchestrated aspect of what it means to be human. He has even started chuckling quietly when I leave an open frame. How cool is that?
More recently he seems to prefer the golf game that is part of the start-up Wii package. I think he may have tired of my futile attempts to beat him at bowling and is looking for a new challenge. At this point we are still pretty close although he probably has a slight edge. The big questions for me now are should I tell him how the on-screen wind-speed and direction indicator affects the flight of the ball, or how by pressing button A you can see the slopes on the green to help you direct your putt? Or should I keep this knowledge to myself as a competitive edge as we develop our virtual golf skills? What would you do?
I have tried to find an explanation for why he is so adept at the Wii bowling game but any type of rational explanation seems elusive. We bowl at the local bowling alley perhaps a dozen times a year and he takes part in the Unified Sports bowling program several times a year. Unified Sports is an incredibly wonderful volunteer program devoted to arranging sports events that include student with and without disabilities. He usually bowls around 80 – 100 with the bumpers in place so it’s not as though he has a natural propensity for bowling.
It would be interesting to know of other people are having similar experience using the Wii games with students with disabilities. I know they are used for helping the elderly lead more active lives but are there others who are having similar experiences to the one described above? Is there a neurological explanation for what is happening? Does the Wii game tap into some sort of processing capability that Andrew has that may not be expressed in any other aspect of his life? Does it utilize his spatial intelligence in a way that nothing else does?