Thursday, January 17, 2008
A few weekends ago our youngest son participated in a workshop where he was put in the weakest group. The experience brought back to me all those waves of anxiety I have felt over the years with my kids in sports as they attended workshops, Olympic Development training, tryouts for teams, and team practices. As hard as I tried to keep my emotions in check, I couldn't help reading something into every placement. I also know from watching the body language of those around me that I wasn't the only one either uncomfortable or delighted with what I saw. Our natural impulse as parents is to make life as pain-free and as positive as possible for our kids. Yet sports has a nasty habit of thwarting that impulse because of its competitive and selective nature. Success at sports demands its pound of flesh no matter how good a player may be. If a player is marginal in any way, then success requires extra and even creative effort. As parents there is little if anything we can do to mitigate this path other than to be supportive during the journey, sympathetic during setbacks, and offering restrained praise during success.
As a former program administrator with the US Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program I have experienced my share of player and parent disappointment. Whenever I sent out the letters to those who didn't make the state pool, I knew the emails and phone calls I would get in return. Having been there, done that, I, like Bill Clinton would say, definitely felt their pain. Unlike a bad grade in a subject, not making a team is out and out rejection and that's a bitter pill to swallow. We parents don't see our children as rejects, and our aim is to see them succeed. But trying out has only two outcomes: making the team or not making the team. Putting ourselves in that vulnerable position can result in deep heartache. Even worse, most players experience this at a relatively young age. While we can hope that it toughens them up for inevitable rejections later in life, it's no fun to see them in pain.
Our youngest daughter had the dream of earning a varsity letter in a high school sport. While proud of her dream, her father and I also knew it had little chance of succeeding since she never trained in any sport and up until her junior year hadn't participated in any high school sport. But she was adamant. She was going to be a swimmer. As the varsity tryouts approached, I did my best to prepare her for the inevitable rejection while still appearing to be supportive of her dream. I doubt I did a very good job since the two were nearly mutually exclusive. We talked about which events she would tryout for and what times she would have to achieve to be among the top four or five. She decided on the butterfly and the breast stroke. As far as I knew, she could do both, but I had never seen her do them. The two days of tryouts were torture for me. I didn't want her to feel foolish or a failure, but I knew that she couldn't be among the top swimmers since she never had trained. I decided to bake chocolate chip cookies for her and placed a box of tissues on the kitchen table.
She arrived home with her hair still wet and her suit still on under her clothes. So I assumed she had dressed quickly to escape from the experience. "So. . .how did it go?" I prepared for the floodgates to open. "Great! I made the team." "You did" – I tried not to put a question mark at the end by having my voice rise up in incredulity and instead put an exclamation point there as if I knew she would succeed. But I think I actually said, ""You did?" without being able to help myself. "Yeah. . .I did." "What event?" "Well. . ." and here's where I learned a big lesson about wanting something bad enough to make it happen. It seems she was definitely not butterfly or breaststroke material, but in the end the coach had no one to swim the 1,000, so if Shane was willing to do that event she could be on the team. She got her wish, the coach and team got the necessary points at each meet from someone swimming the 1,000, and I got to sit in a chlorine spa every week cheering on my daughter for 20 laps.
Not every tryout has such a unique and happy ending, but the main reason this one did was because the force behind it was Shane herself. I try to remember that whenever I see our boys struggling. Ultimately my role is simply that of support. The decision to try or not to try belongs to the boys. The ability to succeed lies in their talents and drive. Whenever I sit on the sidelines and watch them ride the bench I complain to anyone in range, but I don't say a word to the coach. That's the boys' job. When they get placed in the weaker group, then they have to figure out how to resolve that dilemma or live with it. When they don't get on a team, they have to decide will they try again. As parents we can serve as sounding boards for our kids as they try to figure it all out and we can offer advice, but we have to let the battles be theirs alone. To succeed in such a highly competitive arena as sports players have to have the inner drive. Mom and dad can't smooth everything over and they can even make things worse.
When our oldest son got an offer to play soccer at the University of San Francisco, he wavered on accepting. As a parent I wanted to tear my hair out because naturally all those years of sitting out in the rain and snow, traveling to exotic locales like Ft. Wayne, Indiana and Collinsville, Illinois, and paying thousands of dollars for the privilege made me want to sign the papers myself and force him to go. But I had to also take a step back and realize that my 17 year old was making a decision about living 1,500 miles from home, leaving his girlfriend, going where he knew no one, and facing the rigors of competing for his spot on a Division I soccer team. While at face value, he should have been leaping at the opportunity, I respected that this was a huge decision. In the end, he took the opportunity with the caveat that he could fly home whenever he had a free weekend. I knew that was a pretty good deal because he probably wouldn't have any free weekends, but he didn't need to know that! It had been his dream to play Division I soccer, so he made the decision to make the dream come true. He made the decision. And his success or failure at that decision will lay 100% with him.
Of course that didn't stop me from agonizing this past season when he didn't play a single minute – but that's my job!