Amazing Kids! Magazine

Magic Knee Pads

By Ally Frye, age 14, Ohio


The black, elastic cloth stretched over my small legs, from my thighs to my ankles. Giggles echoed through the otherwise empty gym. The words “try hard” bounced off the walls and through one ear, but went right out the other.

Not one doubt crossed my mind about wearing those knee pads. I kept thinking they’re just jealous because they’re not good enough to have them.

To me, those knee pads were my cape, and I was Superman—well, girl. I was unstoppable, breaking through every wall, defying every limit. As long as I had those knee pads, I could never miss.

Then I grew up.

The girls who were once the same height and level as I grew like trees in a jungle while I stayed the same, like a blade of grass in the yard, reaching for the sky but never as close as the trees. Those knee pads that had carried me through all those years suddenly stopped working. I was nothing special. Stoppable. I still made the teams I tried out for, but all I was, was a toy in a store. Replaceable.

When I started doubting myself in basketball, it was like I took out a log of the dam holding myself together, and the rest of the dam collapsed with it leaving all my doubt to overflow.

I couldn’t look at myself the same without pointing out every flaw. Instead of speaking with eloquence, I rarely spoke out in fear of what people would think of me. Every time I saw someone talking, I immediately assumed it was about me. I didn’t try as hard in soccer and rarely went for the ball because I knew my opponent would beat me to it. In class I stopped raising my hand because I knew that I was deficient. It seemed like my insecurities had grown legs and I was letting them walk all over me.

I pushed myself harder and harder every day, but it seemed like everything I tried was swatted down by my worst opponent. Myself.

My self-doubt rang through my mind day and night. It screamed I would never be as tall as the trees, never as good, and always replaceable. I ran from it as long as I could, but I knew if something didn’t change soon, I’d eventually run out of breath.

I started doing extra training sessions to work on my shot, maybe put me ahead a little, make me matter on a team. I’d been working with a coach a couple times a month just on shooting and some ball handling for a while, but it felt like I was stuck in a loop, repeatedly going in the same small circles and never going anywhere.

The soft rain clung to our skin as we ran into the gym. Our shoes squeaked as they dragged along the floor. I dropped my bag on the bench and slipped off my slides. I laced up my shoes, jogged onto the court, and picked up the ball.

I ran my hands over the leather ball and traced my fingers over the lines. I pounded the ball against the floor, then brought it up to my shoulder for the shot. I hesitated slightly before thrusting it out of my hands and towards the basket. It bounced around the rim before falling to the ground with a thud. I sighed and retrieved the ball. I had already known it wasn’t going in before it left my hands, but it was worth a shot. My eyes flitted over to where my dad and Coach Santana were talking. I let the air that was bubbling in my stomach out in relief. I didn’t need them watching me miss every shot I took.

I shot around a little more before Santana walked over, making sure I never shot while they were watching. As I was retrieving the ball, Santana strode towards me.

“Hey, Ally, how ya been?” he asked.

“Good, how are you?” I responded, focusing my eyes on the ball, hoping that if I stared long enough the ball would explode and I could go home and take a nap.

We talked for a little while before he tossed me a ball. “Let’s get started,” he smiled.

We did 20 minutes of excruciating ball-handling drills that would make anyone’s arms sore just thinking about it. A million small needles punctured my arms as he counted the times I pounded the ball onto the ground. My strained face dripped with sweat as I ran up and down the court and hammered the ball as hard as I could. Finally, he let me get a drink before we started shooting. I jogged over to the water fountain, my heart leaping out of my chest.

Any day of the week I’d take shooting over ball handling, but when I was working with Santana, I didn’t like completely embarrassing myself. He was a coach for the boys’ team and could have a say in if I get a spot on the high school team, so I didn’t look forward to it.

We started with form shooting basically under the basket. Dribble, up, out. Dribble, up, out. Like a broken record, the words played in my mind as I pushed the ball to the floor, then pulled it up to my shoulder for the shot.

Since we were so close to the basket, it didn’t take too long to reach 10 in a row before moving on to the next spot. Dribble, up, out. Dribble, up, out.

After what seemed like a million years of form shooting, I looked at the clock to see the long hand had moved 10 lines. I sighed and looked at Santana with disdain. He took the hint and laughed before switching drills.

He guided me to about 10 feet away from the basket and lined me up from the base line. I had to make five consecutively from each spot on the court. He tossed me the ball, and I lined up to take my shot. Instead of dribbling, this time I instantly lifted the ball and let loose.

In my mind, my first shot sets the tone for the rest of the game or drill or practice. In this case the ball looked good and felt good, too, but instead of the familiar swish, I heard a clunk and a thud. The ball bounced off the rim and fell short. Shot out of the sky like a bird falling dead to the ground.

I let out a disappointed breath and got myself back into position. The ball came to me once again, and I hesitated before I flung it back towards the hoop. I didn’t bother waiting to see if it would go in because I already knew it wouldn’t. I was right.

Even after two shots, it felt like forever. My arms sagged with the weight of the ball, and before I shot it, I assumed it wouldn’t go in, but luckily this time I was wrong.

This small victory gave me enough energy and confidence for the next one. To my surprise again the ball fell through the hoop and glided through the net without a sound.

After too many shots to count, I finally made five in a row and moved on to the next spot. This spot had an angle so that it was easier to position and get the ball in the basket. But my insecurities got the best of me, and I missed my first three shots and many more after that. I could hear him talking, but I wasn’t listening. Thoughts raced through my mind as I looked at Santana’s face and saw nothing. All of my worries and doubts suddenly came crashing down on me like a wave. I was blinded by my failures, and my conscience came echoing through my mind once again.

Give up.

Stop trying.

You’ll never do it.

I pushed the thoughts out of my mind and took a breath. I could see Santana watching me with such intensity it seemed as if he was expecting me to fall apart on the floor, and the way I was playing, I thought I just might.

“Hey, go get a water break real quick,” he told me, taking the ball. I nodded and walked out of the gym to the water fountain. I could feel his eyes burning into my back as I walked away. By the time I had finally gotten to the water fountain, I wanted nothing more than to scream at myself. I took a breath and bent down to get a drink.

I walked back in the gym and jogged over to the basket. Santana passed me the ball and told me to go back to my previous spot. I took the ball, took a breath, and let go. The ball bounced around the rim before falling to the ground, sinking like a stone in the river. I drooped my head and sighed.

“I think I know the problem,” Coach Santana said. “You’re too worried about missing. Take the shot like you know it’s going in. And even if it doesn’t, it’s not your fault. The rim moved. Have a little confidence. That’s what will shake the other team. You can’t be broke.”

His words rang like a bell through my mind as he passed me the ball again. This time when I caught the ball, I looked at the rim and focused. This is going in, I thought. I positioned the ball and bent my knees. I pushed the ball up and out of my hands. There were only four words going through my mind as the ball flew out of my hand and towards the rim. This is going in. This is going in.

The ball arched and fell through the net with a gentle swish. I closed my eyes and smiled.

“See, you just gotta think it’s going in!” Coach encouraged.

The next four shots fell perfectly, barely bouncing around the rim. I didn’t make every shot after that, but it seemed as if the ball could hear me yelling in my mind and were following my directions. I believed it would go in, and it usually did; and even when it didn’t, I knew that it wasn’t my fault because rims move.

Soon enough, the drill was over, and my dad was there to pick me up. While he and Santana talked, I took the ball toward the free throw line to get some shots in before we left. Dribble, up, out. The ball soared through the net and hit the ground with a thud. Out of the 10 shots I took, 8 of them sunk into the net.

I smiled as I hit Santana’s hand when he held it out to me on my way out the door, back into the soft rain, but when I went to cover my head, the rain had stopped. The sun was pushing away the clouds, slowly at first; but by the time I got to the car, the clouds were gone, and the rays shone directly on my shoulders. I thought back to those knee pads that so many years ago gave me the confidence to play and realized that it wasn’t them that made me play well when I was younger: It was the way they made me feel. I didn’t need to be magic to play well; I just needed to feel like it.