My cousin Ethan (by marriage) who is 6’6” and played professional basketball for a league in Israel in his younger days, says what’s the point of playing anything if not to win?

In the fifties, when I grew up, competitive sports for girls were virtually non existent. We played basketball using only half the court. No running. Girls were not supposed to sweat. (I don’t know who they thought was gonna buy all those deodorants with the pink caps).

Neither of my parents ever played a sport, and my grandparents, who lived with us, thought athletics were a culturally accepted form of violence. Play nice was my grandmothers mantra.

I don’t know which of my folks made winning a bad thing but somehow I internalized that if you won, that meant someone else had to lose. And you would be responsible for making them feel bad.

Last weekend Ethan, who is now the family backgammon champ, played our six and half year old grandson Eli. Every time Eli had a good roll, a cheer rose up in our little cabin and I saw what self esteem looks like. Eli has been playing with his dad and his poppy and has gotten quite good. And in fact he won the game.

Teaching backgammon to the youngest members of the Aronie clan is a family tradition that includes offering hints until the student no longer wants them, playing your hardest and being fine examples of gracious losing.

Not only did I not have training or coaches or teams but in my house there was an unspoken (maybe it was spoken) message that if you’re not good at something right off the bat then just don’t do it. My father’s attitude was loud and clear. Don’t look foolish. Don’t be a beginner. If you’re not a natural why bother? His definition of a natural was someone who won without the effort. I came home from ballet lessons complaining that my toes hurt and my mother said well honey if it hurts, then quit.

Pushing through the pain was not in their lexicon. Neither was practice, and process was a foreign concept. Playing games was a luxury not afforded my poor exhausted hardworking parents. They went to their jobs, came home, got up the next day and went back to work. They weren’t playing round robins in their tennis whites at the club.

When I married I married into this big joyous competitive mostly guys, extended cousins everywhere family. My husband practices everything. Everything he does he does to get better. He is always a beginner.

When he took Suzuki violin with our kids he walked around the house screeching Twinkle over and over. It was fascinating for me to watch. I’m sure I thought, but hopefully did not say, why are you doing this? You’re not good at it. Then one night after months of practice he woke me up in the middle of the night and played Twinkle perfectly. I think I sat up and wept. How, I must have wondered, did I not know where all that practice was going? How could I have gotten to that point in life and not made the connection to hard work and positive results? The shift was instantaneous. You don’t start out perfect. Maybe Mozart did. But regular people have to struggle.

It turns out I’m a regular person.

These days when I’m swimming laps next to another lap swimmer, sometimes I’ll race them. Unbeknownst to them of course. When I win I get the exhilaration of success. It saddens me to think about how much I missed out on. But I don’t stay sad because I get it now.

In true grand parenting fashion, I do need my grandson to win. Of course in a healthy competition kind of a way.

Nancy Slonim Aronie is the author of Writing from the Heart: Tapping the Power of Your Inner Voice (Hyperion/Little Brown) and teaches the Chilmark Writing Workshop. She is a commentator for NPR.