I’ll be quite honest, my kids are normal. All four are mediocre (at best) concerning physical abilities. (Much to my consternation as a natural athlete and coach.)
Growing up, I loved competition. I played competitive sports from elementary school through college, and I enjoyed every minute of it. The camaraderie you have with your teammates, the blood, sweat, and tears you put into practice, the adrenaline, the passion, even the heartache when it all fell apart… I loved all of it, and when I became a parent, I was excited about experiencing it with my own kids.
It didn’t take long for me to realize my kids would have an uphill climb were sports were concerned. I tried every angle as a sports parent, and more often than not I was spinning my wheels and likely (unintentionally) doing damage to their self-worth. Here’s a little of what I’ve learned over the past 15 years of watching my kids play competitive sports and coaching them on the competition floor, and from the sidelines. (First of all: Please don’t coach your kids from the sidelines.)
In America, there are over 8,000,000 high school students that participate in athletics, and 480,000 college athletes across all sports. Which means once your child is in high school, they have a 6% chance of playing a sport in college. Only about 150,000 of those college athletes are awarded scholarships, or approximately 1.8%. For most parents, hanging the hopes of their kid’s future or their happiness on a college sports scholarship is a gamble that won’t pay off.
If they’re not going to earn a scholarship (they’re probably not) why bother?
Because they love the game. It teaches them life lessons they can use to be successful in other endeavors. It helps them develop relationships, learn to take correction, practice self-discipline, and organize. There are a million beneficial reasons to encourage your child to play sports, to challenge them to always try their hardest, and develop a good work ethic. But it’s also important to understand that they’re not professional athletes, and just like you, they’re going to have bad and “off” days.
If perfection is the parental driver, you’re setting yourself and your child up for failure. You don’t want your kids’ identities to be wrapped up in how well they did or didn’t do in the sports arena. They know when they had a bad meet, and they didn’t do poorly on purpose. These kids are giving up most of their social lives, they’re struggling to finish all their homework, they’re training more hours than some adults are working. When all that effort falls apart at a meet or a game, the last thing they need is to feel like their biggest ally is disappointed in them too.
Disappointment and failure are a part of life, and another huge lesson your kids can learn from through athletics. We can use failure as a teaching tool, “What do you think went wrong, and is there a way to be better prepared next time?” and help them learn from their experiences. Unfortunately, more often than not, parents have a tendency to tie their kids’ value to their win/loss record.
Olympic Gold medalist and World Champion gymnast Shawn Johnson once shared her experience winning a silver medal in the individual all-around at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. During the awards ceremony, as she was crowned the second best in the world at her sport the medal presenter whispered, “I’m sorry.” As if Johnson wasn’t supposed to be proud of her achievement and by not winning the gold, the appropriate reaction she should be feeling was remorse, failure, and defeat.
Your kids likely won’t have to worry about how they feel winning a silver medal instead of gold at the Olympics, but like Shawn Johnson, they will take their emotional cues from external sources — mostly you. They will tailor their reaction after yours. If you’re upset, disappointed, angry; that’s the emotional reaction they’ll think is appropriate. The culmination of these thoughts and ideas is the crossroad at which I heard the five words that changed the way I interact with my kids at sporting events.
I JUST LOVE WATCHING YOU.
I was challenged a year ago to see if I could spend an entire sports season not saying anything negative to my kids concerning their performances. The only words I was permitted to say were, “I just love watching you.” This became the mantra I beat my drum of motherhood to. My kids had good coaches that pushed them appropriately physically and mentally, and my job was to let them know I love them no matter the outcome of the game.
What did I learn?
I learned that I really do just love watching them. It is enormously joyful seeing my kids work toward a goal and accomplish it. When they don’t, it’s intensely satisfying to see them fall down and pick themselves up, learn from it, and move on. They performed better than before because there was less pressure when my expectations were removed from their shoulders. They weighed less, so they could achieve more.
They still ask my opinion and when it matters, I’ll give it- but it’s a more gentle discussion now, and it always ends with those same five words. When my gymnast daughter asks why she didn’t score well after a particularly bad meet I might be honest and say “I do think I’ve seen a bit of a slide in your work ethic lately at practice, and that’s maybe had a negative impact on your performance, but you know what, I just love watching you.” And it’s true. I really do just love watching them.
No matter what happens, I don’t want any of my kids to have the memories of their childhood eaten up by feelings devastation or sadness because they disappointed me with their sports performance. I want them to remember me making them feel inspired, uplifted, and proud. But they won’t remember that unless I live it out in front of them one meet, game, or practice at a time.
Secret Coran-Stacy is an author, entrepreneur, and artist living the dream as a middle class suburbanite in Central Arkansas. Find out more by visiting www.secretstacy.com