Is it genetics or performance pressure ?

swimmer with JO medal
My daughter with a Junior Olympic medal as a young teen.

Yesterday I wrote about Amy Osaka and her withdrawal from the French Open due to her taking care of her mental health. You can read that post here.

Immediately after I posted that story, I ran across a SwimSwam article about a swimmer retiring because of her mental health. I remember this swimmer because she was at the big meets in Southern California as one of the youngest, if not the youngest swimmer entered — and she was from Virginia! She was very fast, too. She held the national age group record for 11-12 years olds in the mile.

“Isabella Rongione announced the end of her competitive swimming career, opening up about her personal struggles and the need to put her mental health first.”

PAC-12 STANDOUT ISABELLA RONGIONE RETIRES, OPENS UP ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH
by Jared Anderson SWIMSWAM

Rongione shared the news in an Instagram post this week. Her last swim came in December of 2018, the month before Rongione says he was admitted to treatment following a suicide attempt.

“My mental health had to be the priority over the past couple years and I never was able to fully commit to getting back into the pool,” Rongione writes.

“To all those athletes dealing with mental health issues — make sure to take the time you need in order to heal yourself properly.”

There are many famous athletes who suffer from depression including Michael Phelps, Amy Osaka, Allison Schmitt (Olympic swimmer) and Serena Williams. You can read about 10 of these athletes here. I wonder if it’s genetics or the pressure with being an athlete at such a young age?

My daughter who was a swimmer at a high level (college scholarship athlete and high school All American) suffered from anxiety and then depression while swimming in college. She swam competitively from age five through 22 — when her shoulder gave up on her.

Looking back, we were such enthusiastic parents cheerleading her swim career along the way. It was exciting and took over a lot of our family’s life. Did we create an unsustainable path for her? What happens when the swim career, the center of her world and identity ends? Or in the case of someone like Amy Osaka or Isabella Rongione, is the pressure to perform too much?

Here’s a study published online from Cambridge University by Lynette Hughes and Gerard Leavey called Setting the bar: athletes and vulnerability to mental illness.

Risk factors for athletes

“Although moderate or vigorous-intensity aerobic activity is important in the prevention of and recovery from mental and physical health problems, when performed more intensely at ‘professional/elite’ levels, physical activity can compromise health. 1,5 Beyond the national prestige, fame and glory of Olympic success lies the darker side of overexposure to elite sport such as overtraining, injury, burnout, increased risk for sudden cardiac death and other non-cardiovascular conditions such as respiratory symptoms, iron deficiency, increased incidence of allergies, immunological suppression and infection, gastrointestinal symptoms, diabetes mellitus and eating disorders. 6

“Athletes may also be vulnerable to mental illness for several reasons. First, the social world of many organised elite sports is one that requires investments of time and energy, often resulting in a loss of personal autonomy and disempowerment for athletes. 7 The elite-sport environment can result in ‘identity-foreclosure’ leaving athletes few other avenues through which to shape and reflect personality. 7 High athletic identity has been linked to psychological distress when this function of identity is removed, and to overtraining and athlete burnout. 7 The latter conditions strongly correlate with affective disorders such as major depressive disorder.”

I also read that 30% of NCAA athletes report having depression. It could have only gotten worse this past year.

young swimmer getting medals from coach.
My daughter, age 5, receiving medals, ribbons and applause from her coach after a swim meet.

What are your thoughts about athletes and depression? Do you think it’s genetics? Performance pressure? Or both?

10 and unders relay team with medals at JOs
My daughter’s relay team after winning third place at Junior Olympics in Southern California.

How do you handle stress?

Did you know that 85% of Americans view stress as negative and something to be avoided? I know I do. I’m anti stress. And I get stressed out easily.

freestyle swimmer breathing to the side
My daughter racing.

I listened to a webinar called “Helping Children Handle Stress in Sports” by David Benzel of Growing Champions for Life. I’m not through the entire webinar, but I learned a few things I wanted to share.

Benzel explained that there are three main types of stress: developmental, environmental and accidental. Developmental stress refers to the changes we go through during different periods of life like going to school, graduating high school, moving away for college, graduating and getting a job, etc. His talk focused on environmental stress for sports parents. Is the team culture stressful? Do your kids get stressed out to perform? Personally, one of my major stresses is driving on freeways. That environment gets me freaked out.

The third type of stress is accidental as in accidents. I know my daughter spirals out of control when she’s faced with something unexpected like her first day of work on Monday and she discovered someone smashed her car window. Or when she’s gotten in car accidents.

We all handle stress differently and have different symptoms. Personally, I feel stress in my neck and shoulders. When my shoulders are touching my ears chances are I’m feeling stress. I also get an upset stomach, start sweating profusely and shake. Ugh. My body takes over and I feel out of control.

Benzel made the point that our bodies memorize stress after our brains calm down. A healthy reaction to stress is a spike up with the fight or flight response followed by a dip or valley before going back to a normal range. Some people have three or four spikes and don’t get back to normal right away. That’s because they (or me) tend to play the stressful situation over and over in their minds. Stress is a physical reaction going off in our bodies, Benzel said. So, if you “hash and rehash” as my daughter pointed out I have a tendency to do, our body is going to refresh the blasts of cortisol — the stress hormone — over and over.

What I’ve learned so far listening to this webinar is to take a new approach to stress and realize that it is normal and neutral. Benzel said we need to look at our mindset about stress. 15% of Americans view stress as enhancing. They think it adds to their performance and production. Stress can improve health and vitality, learning and growth. In other words, accept there is stress in our lives and look at how it can helps us.

cardboard boat races for physics class
My son and teammate racing their cardboard boat in a high school Physics competition.

What gets you stressed out? And how do you feel stress in your body?

Parenting tip: When to keep your mouth shut

freestyle stroke in pool
My daughter swimming on her own during vacation.

I read a great article, “The first rule of sports (and all) parenting: Don’t speak,” in the Washington Post by Nancy Star:

Your child doesn’t have to play in the Super Bowl for you to know the feeling. Their team was supposed to win and then they didn’t. What do you do? Being the mother of two girls who played soccer and ran track, I thought I knew the answer: Talk it through. Tell them you love them. Say it’s just a game. Remind them there’s always a next time. Isn’t that what good parenting is all about? Keeping channels of communication open even in tough moments?

Turns out the answer is no. I learned this when I had a “don’t speak” moment.

I understand this all too well. After my kids would have a disappointing swim, I’d try to reassure them. I wanted to take away their hurt and make them feel better. Most often after I’d say, “That wasn’t so bad,” or “You have another swim ahead.” I’d be met with negativity and a statement like “I sucked!”

I’d get a barrage of negativity that would take me by surprise. I never figured out that by trying to protect them from their upset feelings, I wasn’t making it better for my kids, but was making them feel worse. They weren’t ready to talk about a bad swim with me and “hash and rehash,” as my daughter would say. I read in a David Benzel sports parenting book, “From Chump to Champ,” that we should wait for our kids to talk to us. We need to be there and listen. But, if we start the conversation first, even with the best intentions, they’ll probably pull away and stay quiet. They want to please us so much and may take any little thing we say personally, as though they’ve let us down. It’s best to be quiet and listen. They may surprise us and open up more than ever if we let them take the lead.

Here’s more from the Washington Post article with the mom watching her daughter’s varsity soccer team lose their final meet. She received advice from a dad, Peter, who had more experience with soccer parenting and she followed it.

“Their lead slipped to a tie toward the end of the second half. In the last minute of play there was a stumble, scrambling and a goal for the other team.

Parents supplied transportation for home games, so we waited while our daughters gave sullen high-fives to the winners and then huddled with their coach, listening as he shared his disappointment. When he was done they separated and, backpacks slung over shoulders, trudged across the field toward where we stood.

Watching their grim faces approach I wished a meteorologist were present to confirm my suspicion that 22 high school girls who’ve just lost a chance at a state title can change the atmosphere, collectively sucking the light out of the sky. Their fury was frightening.

But Peter had been through this before. “Don’t speak,” he said. As I started to turn my head he added, “Don’t look. Just walk. Go to your car. She’ll find you.”

I tried not to move my lips as I objected. “All I want to say is I’m sorry.”

“Don’t,” he advised. “Don’t speak. Not until she talks to you.”

Because he had been through this before, I listened and walked to my car alone. I felt her before I saw her, walking silently beside me. Reassuring phrases immediately formed in my brain but, channeling Peter, I said nothing.

A moment later I noticed her teammates walking with their parents, mothers mostly, who offered words of consolation. “Are you okay?” and “You played well,” and “There’s always next time.” To me the words sounded gentle and kind.

The girls did not agree. “No,” they snapped, and “I sucked,” and “There won’t be a next time.”

By the time we reached the car, every daughter except mine was crying and the moms were, understandably, annoyed and lashing back. “Why are you yelling at me?” and “Being upset is no excuse for being rude.”

We were silent on the ride home, silent as I turned on to our street. It was when I pulled into the driveway that my daughter finally spoke. “That was such a bad game.”

I nodded.”

How do you handle your children’s athletic or academic disappointment?

PAC 12 swimmers cheering on teammates
My daughter on the blocks cheering with teammates.

What’s the main role of parents?

swim coach with young swimmer

My daughter with her coach, who also was a mentor.

In my SwimSwam parenting articles I often stress that parents and coaches have different roles. There’s a saying that I learned from USA Swimming back when I wrote a monthly newsletter for our swim team: Swimmers swim, parents parent and coaches coach.

As a long-time swim parent, my role seemed to be filled with endless loads of washing towels and feeding super hungry kids.

Yesterday I listened to a webinar that took this topic head on. It was by David Benzel of Growing Champions for Life called How to discuss performance issues with your child — and remain friends. Benzel said that the word coach was first used in the days of the stagecoach. You know, that vehicle that helped people get from point A to point B. A teacher referred to himself as a “coach” back then and today we all use the word to describe the person who helps our athletes on their journey.

Another point he made was that parents main role is to be a mentor in life lessons, while a coach helps on the field of pool with improving their skills. All mentors are coaches, Benzel said, but not all coaches are mentors.

coach with young swimmers

Coach Dwight was an amazing mentor to our young swimmers.

Here are the words Benzel used to describe coaches: instructional, inspirational, analytical, authoritarian, organized and encouraging.

The mentor or parent is supportive, exemplary, compassionate, authoritative, empathetic and loving.

If you get your roles mixed up and tell your kids how to improve or what they did wrong they can get really confused and upset. They don’t know if you’re coaching or criticizing. If you’re inspiring or disciplining. So often our kids fear they are disappointing us. Coaching them will make them defensive and feel like they’re never good enough in our eyes.

Isn’t that amazing? We are only trying to help our kids be better and want them to succeed.

In order to help our kids Benzel said we need to tell them “I love to watch you play.” And then be silent. Don’t say anything more until you’re asked. He said if we as parents ask thought provoking questions like “why do you enjoy swimming?” or “What are you doing when you feel the best?” — then we aren’t being judgmental but may open up a conversation.

Here are the life lessons Benzel listed that we can help our kids learn in our role as a parent and mentor:

self-esteem, self-confidence, self-discipline, self-control, empathy, generosity, sacrifice, patience, personal responsibility, grit, optimism, handling emotions, humility, gratefulness, fairness and loyalty. 

Boy, that’s quite a list. Yes, I hope my kids learned these things through their years in the pool. I hope I helped them along the way. Because as Benzel said, If not you — WHO? If not now –WHEN?

college daughter and coach at the side of the pool

My daughter with her college coach at a big meet in Santa Clara. Another coach who was also a mentor.

If your kids are in sports, what do you see as your most critical role?

Youth Sports: If I Knew What I Know Now

swimming pool in Palm Springs

Our beautiful city pool where our team practices.

I made a major mistake as a swim mom. This is a true confession of how I blew it and how I wish I knew years ago what I know today. I’m talking about understanding the role of a swim parent. I listened to a webinar yesterday by Growing Champions for Life’s founder David Benzel. He said he started his not-for-profit because he made so many mistakes as a sports parents and wanted to help others from making the same mistakes.

That’s how I feel, too. That’s why I began writing parenting advice for SwimSwam, the world’s most read swimming site. What I heard yesterday from Benzel made me remember a lot of the mistakes we made — yes, I’m dragging my husband into this, too.

Picture a triangle. In the center of it all is the youth sports team, whether it’s club or school. Your child, the student-athlete, is at the top of the triangle. The left bottom corner is the coach and the remaining corner is the parent. We each have a different role to play. It’s crucial we understand what our role is and not get in the other person’s lane.

For athletes, their role is to have fun, learn new skills and develop character through sports.

For parents, we need to teach character lessons, build family unity and reinforce sports messages.

For coaches, their job is to teach sports skills, build team unity and to reinforce character lessons.

That simple equation of Swimmers swim, Coaches coach and Parents parent hit home. I realized that one big mistake in swim parenting started when the kids were very young. There was a much more experienced swim dad who worked at the same firm with my husband. He told us how great a sport swimming was. He suggested reading up on technique because of the fine details like how a swimmer holds their hand and enters the water could make a difference in how fast they swam. That sounded so fascinating to me and my husband.

That little bit of advice and information opened up a can or worms. We thought it meant IT WAS OKAY TO COACH OUR KIDS. It’s not. It’s very confusing for kids when we are yelling from the sidelines, or telling them to do something a certain way after practice, on the drive home. Their coach may be focusing on something altogether different.

Now that I became a swimmer with my own coach. I understand that he often gives me one or two things to work on. He doesn’t overwhelm me with everything that’s wrong with my stroke. He tries to correct head position, or rotation. Something basic and integral, before moving on to the next “fix.’

As parents, we often have no clue what the coach’s objective is. We don’t know what they are focused on. By inserting ourselves into the wrong lane — the coach’s lane — we can cause confusion for our kids, frustration for us and the coach. I talked to my daughter about how we tried to coach and how wrong that was. She said, “You did forever. You guys never stopped.”

Another reason why it’s bad to put on the coaching hat, when we aren’t the coach, is this: kids want to please their parents. Continual coaching and correcting can make our children believe they have failed us.

Best to focus on telling our kids, “I love to watch you swim.” Tell them how proud you are of their hard work and let them have fun.

my kids and me at PAC 12 swimming champs

At the PAC 12 swimming championships with my son and daughter.

What experiences did you have as a sports parent and did you ever catch yourself coaching when you shouldn’t?

Does IQ Determine a Child’s Success?

kat underHow our children handle adversity is more important to their success than their intelligence. I heard this during a webinar for youth sports parents, but it also applies to every day life. David Benzel, sports parenting expert, from Growing Champions for Life, discussed this and gave other gems of advice in “Overcoming Adversity in Sports and Life.” 

Benzel said, “Opportunities for personal growth usually come disguised as setbacks, disappointments and problems.” An interesting statistic he shared was that only 25 percent of success can be predicted by IQ, while 75% is because of the level of optimism, social support and the ability to see adversity as an opportunity and not a threat. So the answer to my headline question is a resounding “NO.” Our IQ isn’t as valuable as our AQ (Adversity Quotient.)

He gave examples of adversity in sports that included an injury, time off from practice due to COVID-19, not connecting with a coach, losing to an inferior opponent or being in a slump. Think of what so many kids are going through today with schools not opening, sports being cancelled. They are facing adversity like never before in their young lives.

According to Benzel, there are three types of reactions to adversity that he described as the Prisoner, the Settler and the Pioneer. The goal is to get to a pioneer mindset. That’s because the other two aren’t great. The prisoner gives up, is controlled by circumstances and feels fear and anger. The settler settles. That mindset seeks to be comfortable and feels they are doing as well as possible considering the circumstances.

The pioneer learns continuously, challenges assumptions and adjusts their strategies to succeed. They believe that they can accomplish anything if they bring light to the situation. Bringing in light makes the darkness go away. 

Here’re four tips Benzel gave to have a pioneer outlook to adversity:

  1. Listen to your adversity response. Is it fight, flight or freeze? Do your internal thoughts help you with the situation? 
  2. How can I bring light to this?
  3. Take charge of what you can control.
  4. Create a state of wonder to create a solution. Ask the question, “I wonder how I can…” Suddenly the pity party ends and your brain goes to work to find a solution.

One of the more helpful things I learned from the webinar is that optimism can be learned. So, if we’re feeling down or defeated, or our kids are, remember to ask the “I wonder how I can” question.

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When you are faced with adversity how do you see your mindset? Do you see yourself as a pioneer in spirit?

“Love Him Where’s He’s At”

ballet

My daughter in royal blue.

I ran across an interesting email that talked about motivating a student-athlete. It reminded me that motivation is internal and no matter how much a parent or coach may want to light a fire under someone — it doesn’t work that way. This is an excerpt from the email from sports parenting coach David Benzel of Growing Champions for Life:

The following situation came from a coach, but it could have easily been a parent. I was asked if there’s anything that could be done about a 14-year-old athlete who is loaded with natural talent but has lost his motivation.

The desire to work and improve seems to be missing.” said this coach.  

While this is frustrating for a coach or a parent who takes a personal interest in an athlete, the short answer is “love him where he’s at.”

Despite the urge to become a protector of this athlete’s career, you cannot give someone a “want to” if they don’t have one of their own. You can create opportunities, provide an inspiring environment, and tell uplifting stories, but a “want to” comes from the inside, not the outside. 

There’s usually a story behind the story when dealing with an athlete who has lost his motivation. It may stem from a relationship issue at home, strife with a coach, or other pressing priorities.

As parents, we need to let out kids live their lives and be cheerleaders on the side. We cannot make them do anything like a sport or piano lessons because we want it. We can manipulate and bribe, but that’s not an ideal way to build a healthy relationship. I like the advice to “love him where’s he’s at.”

I wanted my daughter to love ballet because I did. She hated it and big tears would run down her cheeks when I made her go. That was true of piano lessons, too. I really wanted her to stick it out. My son loved piano. I was already driving him, so she could have her lessons, too. She loved swimming instead. My son like swimming, too, but with severe asthma it was a battle staying well during the winter months. He’d make progress only to get sick and miss weeks and weeks of practice. His interest moved to music in high school and he formed a band and performed with his non-swim friends.

I love my kids for who they are — not for what they did. I hope they know that now.

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My son and swim team friends.

In what ways have you tried to motivate your kids?