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Volleyball, Tennis, and Adoptive Parenting

I was a volleyball player. I played in off-season traveling leagues. I went to out of state training camps each summer. Only an injury got me to quit, but only after playing through it for over a year. I can still, practically subconsciously, demonstrate the different technique drills I was taught and rehearsed around the gym for hours a day. My muscles automatically drop me into proper form as I left, right, lift.

In high school, I decided to pick up tennis as a Spring sport, even though I had never played before. There were a lot of volleyball skills that helped me pick up tennis more quickly, but there was one major exception. I can still hear, "Quit serving like a volleyball player! You’re on the tennis court now!" yelled across the practice courts. Volleyball was ingrained in me. Coach DeVault could have me serve for hours a day, but there was enough similarity in the motion that I automatically reverted to the skills I had previously learned. Unfortunately serving in volleyball is not the same as serving in tennis, and the racket is not the only difference. His yelling and instruction could not re-shape me entirely. I now know enough about neurology to know that I was not getting enough reward to change what I was doing.

I wanted to learn to play tennis well. I was a driven, competitive, not-quite perfectionistic teen. The majority of my serves on the tennis court were "in", but that was not good enough for me. Despite the yelling, I believe Coach DeVault cared about us as individuals and cared about teaching, but he was teaching the Varsity and the JV teams concurrently; he could not immediately reward every success or every step closer to success. I was too hard on myself to notice incremental improvement, and he was too busy. Without any reward (verbal affirmation from my coach and/or positive affect of pride from my successes), I was not cementing the skills on which I was working.

When a child is adopted, he or she is a volleyball player who suddenly finds him or herself on a tennis court. All he or she knows how to do is play volleyball, and he or she will call on those skills to try to succeed in this strange new environment. Because I had practiced volleyball so intensely, it would have taken me twice as long practicing my tennis serve before I could master the new skill without calling back on the skill that made me successful on the volleyball court. Children that are adopted have to both learn new skills that are functional in a family and unlearn skills that helped them survive in an institution; because they must both learn and unlearn, learning takes longer. They are approaching the tennis court like a volleyball player, making tennis more difficult to learn. Parents of children that have been adopted need more patience as their children learn the skills that will help them navigate the world.

If my coach had been able to notice each time I maintained the right tennis posture when I served or I struck the ball at the correct angle, I could have been rewarded by verbal affirmation and experienced positive affect. If I was less competitive, I might have been able to notice this incremental success and experience positive affect as a result. The reward of positive affect makes it more likely that a behavior will be repeated. Children that have been adopted are primed to survive, not to notice incremental success. It is important for parents to provide positive reinforcement for even the smallest improvement to help the child know exactly what he or she is doing right. They know they aren’t on the volleyball court any longer, but that doesn’t mean they know how to play tennis just yet.

This blog was originally published at MLJ Adoptions 

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