What can parents do about tears in youth sports?

kat groupI’ve witnessed my fair share of crazy parents on the pool deck. I watched one parent yell at their child after a race and hold up her iPad, “Do you want to know why you swim so slow? Well I’ll show you right here!”

I heard one mom yell at her daughter, “We’re leaving the meet if you continue to swim like cr*p.” After her next race was over, she pulled her out of the meet.

When my daughter was at her first Summer Junior Olympics she was scared to death for her first swim. She was afraid she’d come in last place. And guess what? She did. What did I do? I ran up to her afterwards and said, “What happened?!”

I read some helpful tips in Sports Parents, We Have a Problem: Crying after sports is not healthy for child development by Jim Taylor Ph.D. for Psychology Today. Read the entire article here.

Like I said, sports parents, we have a problem. Want to know the problem? Well, look in the mirror. I don’t mean to insult you by indicting you as being the problem as an individual parent. I don’t know you or how you are with your children in their sports lives. I’m talking about the many sports parents who have been both seduced by and abet the toxic youth sports culture in which your children are now immersed. You know, the one in which results are all that matter for parents and children alike, even at a young age. And let me be clear: many children are suffering for it athletically and personally.

I am writing this article based on a disturbing experience that made this problem so glaringly evident to me. My painful epiphany occurred while attending a regional championship in a sport in which my younger daughter was competing.

Here is what I saw:

  • A father telling her daughter before the competition, “I know you’re going to win today.”
  • Parents coaching their children before their events.
  • At least a dozen kids in tears after their events.
  • Parents in the finish area talking to their children about their result immediately after they finished.
  • A boy who was lying face-down on the floor of the clubhouse in tears while his father had his earbuds in and was looking at his phone.
  • A father trying to console his sobbing daughter after her event. When a teammate approached, patted her on the back, and said “It’s OK,” the father asked her how she did. When the teammate said, reluctantly, that she won, the father high-fived and congratulated her with tremendous enthusiasm … all the while his daughter lay below him disconsolate.
  • A mother who is a friend of mine told me that her son didn’t want her to watch his events because it makes him too nervous.
  • A father I also know said that his daughter was in tears and vomited before her first event because she was so anxious and she was too upset to compete in her second event.

Why were these young athletes so unhappy to the point of tears in sports that are supposed to be such fun? And keep in mind that these were kids younger than 12 years old, most of whom won’t even be competing in a few years because of their interest in pursuing other activities. I didn’t, of course, interview each one of the tearful young athletes. At the same time, I have seen variations of these kinds of reactions in my consulting practice for decades.

If you dig down one layer to examine the causes of such painful reactions in young athletes, you’ll find expectations and pressure, primarily from parents, but also from peers (by way of comparison rather than ill intent) and our intense youth-sport culture. The weight of expectations is a crushing burden on the shoulders of young athletes. Imagine your children having to put on a 50-pound weight vest when they enter the field of play and you’ll get a sense of what they feel and how it will make them perform.

If you dig down to the very heart of these reactions, you will find a fear of failure—specifically, that if these kids don’t perform well, they perceive that something really bad will happen (however objectively untrue it may be). Based on considerable research and my own work with young athletes, the most common causes of fear of failure include:

  • Disappointing my parents (and, by extension, my parents won’t love me)
  • Being rejected by my peers
  • Ending my sports dreams
  • It will all have been a waste of time
  • Failure in sports means I’m a failure

These beliefs produce in children a threat reaction that causes powerful internal changes including:

  • Psychological (e.g., negativity, doubt, worry)
  • Emotional (e.g., fear, anxiety, stress)
  • Physical (e.g., muscle tension, racing heart, choppy breathing, too much adrenaline)
  • Behavioral (e.g., self-sabotage, avoidance)
  • Performance (e.g., tight, tentative performances)

With this reaction, not only are kids pretty much guaranteed of not performing their best, but sports simply becomes a truly aversive experience.

Let me be clear that this problem isn’t even a sports problem. Rather, it’s a problem that permeates our results-obsessed achievement culture that you find in school, the arts, chess, anywhere in which kids can aspire to great success and where parents can become overly invested.

Now here is where I’m going to go on a rant, so be prepared. Mostly, importantly, my rant starts with a question: As a sports parent, do you want to be part of the problem or part of the solution? (This should be a rhetorical question.)

Here’s a simple reality: Kids under 12 years old shouldn’t be crying after they compete (in fact, no kids should be)! What so many parents and young athletes don’t realize is that results at such a young age (even up to 16 years old) just don’t matter. Sure, it’s great for young athletes’ efforts to be rewarded with good results. And it’s gratifying for kids to get attention for their successes.

Speaking of crying, I remember several times when my kids cried at meets. I wish I would have had the common sense to see that it was not a healthy place to be. My daughter cried after competing for the last coveted spot on a 10 and under JO relay team. The coach had them compete at last ditch, and the fastest that day would make the relay. There were four or five fast young girls competing against each other. Afterwards, my daughter was crying in the warm down pool for an hour.

My son was upset after a race at the Claremont pool and threw himself down on the deck and cried. I was beyond knowing what to do. Another mom was very sympathetic and I remember her trying to talk to him. He ended up walking off the deck and disappearing. I didn’t know where he went and I was frantic. He obviously wasn’t enjoying swimming or competing then and needed space. But we were insisting that he stick with it.

With those horrible memories, I’m thankful they weren’t the norm, but were exceptions. Most of the time my kids were smiling, laughing, hanging out with their friends under pop-up tents and not that concerned with how they swam. It was all about the fun. IMG_5008

Here are the tips the author has for sports parents:

We can’t change the sports culture. So, it’s up to us parents to shape our family’s sports culture and do the right thing for our young athletes. During this holiday season (and beyond!), give your children the gift that keeps on giving: your love and none of the crap.

Here are a few concrete suggestions (and I realize how tough they are to enact, but I can assure you that I’m walking the walk on every one of these with my two athlete daughters):

  • Remind yourself why your kids compete in sports (and it has nothing to do with results).
  • Be happy and have fun at competitions. If you are, your children most likely will too.
  • If you can’t control your emotions at competitions, don’t go.
  • Before competitions, if you find that you are stressed, worried, or anxious, stay away from your kids.
  • Before competitions, don’t try to motivate or coach them; nothing you say will help, but a lot you say can hurt.
  • Before every competition event, smile and say “I love you.”
  • After every competition, smile and say “I love you. Do you want a snack?”
  • After competitions, if you find yourself frustrated, angry, or otherwise upset, stay away from your kid till you’ve calmed down.
  • Here’s the toughest one: Never, ever talk about results! I know this sounds impossible, but it can be done (though it takes tremendous willpower). If your children bring up results, just say, “Results don’t matter now. What matters is that you gave your best effort and had fun.”

33944149_10156550450214612_1114497597600432128_oWhat are your suggestions for when kids cry at meets or competitions?

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Humility: Is It Overlooked in Athletics?

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My daughter with teammates.

Yesterday I wrote an article about the amazing role models our children have in the world of swimming for SwimSwam.com. I was pointing out three greats as examples: Michael Phelps, Kaitlin Sandeno and Ryan Lochte. Yes, Ryan Lochte.

For non swimming fans, Lochte did something amazing this past week. His suspension ended a few days ago and he won a gold medal at the US Nationals in Stanford on Sunday. He turned 35 years old the day before. He was racing kids who were 17 and 19 years old! And he won decidedly. Talk about a role model. He didn’t give up despite really screwing up and blowing it at Rio and beyond. Instead he got his life back on track and trained. He got married, has two beautiful babies and entered rehab. He showed a sense of humility and gratitude after winning the gold medal that quite frankly was missing in his youth. Here’s the video of him winning the 200 IM.

As far as Michael Phelps, I was honored to hear him speak a few years ago. He told a story of his bouts with depression and substance abuse and said at one time he no longer wanted to live. He’s refocused his life and is making a difference in the charities he volunteers for as well as being a father and husband.

I am reading “Golden Glow: How Katilin Sandeno Achieved Gold in the Pool and in Life” and she is truly inspirational as well. She was a 17-year-old phenom who earned a spot on the Olympic Team in 2000 and 2004. Through her stellar career, she faced many hardships including undiagnosed asthma, a fractured back, shoulder issues and weight gain in college. Through it all she was humble, inspiring and a joy to be around. I highly recommend the book for parents and kids! For many years, she’s dedicated time as spokesperson for the Jessie Rees Foundation, named in honor of Jessie who died from inoperable brain tumors. Sandeno visits hospitals and connects with kids fighting cancer and brings them “Joy Jars.”

What incredible role models these three are, and they all show humility. Of course there are many more in the world of swimming, too.

I found an article called “Humility in Sports–Why Does It Matter?” by Malcom Shaw, a soccer player. He has some good stuff in his article. I feel like humility doesn’t get as much attention as other traits of successful athletes like talent or hard work. Yet, it’s just as important. Here’s an excerpt:

Humility is one of the most respectable and admirable traits that an athlete can possess. The prime essence of a humble athlete is the act of selflessness and modesty which transcends to the world. Oftentimes in the realm of sports we witness many accounts of prideful behavior, whether it be on or off the playing field. Being a competitive athlete myself, I’ve watched and observed professional athletes of the highest caliber. As much as I would gravitate to their individual skills and talents, I would even more so be observant of their character and demeanor.

When athletes talk about humility and comprehensively act on it (Principle 2), they set a precedent for fostering good character.

Below are a few ways humility is exemplified and embodied in an athlete. 

Modesty

A modest athlete is one who handles character gracefully on and off the field. An individual who doesn’t excessively floss their achievements goes far in character cultivation. When they are in the spotlight, they carry themselves in a way that draws limited attention (even when there is). Modesty in a successful athlete is a trait noticed and respected by many.

Leads by example

Leading by example can come in many forms. Whether on or off the field, leadership is noticed everywhere. Being the hardest and most consistent worker, or being the only one to help clean up equipment after practice are all ways leadership is exemplified . Leadership in the world of sports is not prideful, but it looks to inspire and better others.

Lifts those around them

Athletes who embody humility take responsibility for their actions, especially when things don’t go well. In a team sport setting, there are usually situations where blame shifting occurs. Examples of blame shifting can be things such as, “We lost because of you” or “Your mistake costed us the game.” In situations like these it takes someone with humility to diffuse the problem by sharing some of the responsibility. 

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Team cheer on the college swim team.

What are your thoughts about humility in today’s society?

If I Could Have a “Do-Over”

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My young Piranhas.

If I could go back in time, say 15 or so years, I’d do things differently as a parent and a swim mom. I’ve loved every minute of being a swim parent and truly believe that signing my kids up for our local club, the Piranha Swim Team, was the single best thing we’ve done for them. Sticking with the team through ups and downs was a plus, too. Not only did my kids become crazily physically fit and skilled swimmers, they learned to never give up through tough times—whether it was an illness, a plateau or learning what a new coach expects.

So what would I do differently? Here’s my list:

One
Not focus on performance.

Sometimes, I get way too caught up in big meets and best times. I wish I could kick back, relax and enjoy the little moments more.

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Medals at a meet.

Two
Not get involved in parent drama.

Like most sports today, where you find a bunch of enthusiastic and involved parents, there’s bound to be some drama. If I could do it over, I’d never take sides or get involved. At times, I didn’t have a choice because of being on the board. But, the drama and problems we lived through don’t amount to beans, anymore.

Three
Realize everybody is different.

Not every swimmer has the same drive or goals. Not every family is going to focus their lives around the pool. It’s okay for some kids to skip practice and have other interests besides school and swimming. I’d be less judgmental if I got a do over!

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Signing day.

Four
Not compare my kids to others.

When my kids were young and new to swimming, it was common for us to compare their progress to other swimmers. That led to upset feelings all around. Looking back on it, things that seemed so big at the moment, were only a fleeting moment in time.

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My son learning to dive with the swim team.

Five
Enjoy every moment of the process.

The years go by so quickly. The friends made with other parents, coaches and officials are ones to treasure. Enjoy it all.

What would you do differently as a swim parent?

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Back when my daughter liked her green fuzzy robe better than the team parka.

Looking Forward to Our First Regatta

IMG_0292My son took up rowing a while ago. He rows with the East Bay Rowing Club and enjoys it immensely. He recently had his first “regatta” which is what they call a meet in rowing lingo. After years and years as a swim mom, I am learning a whole new language that goes with a new sport.

We really wanted to come watch his first regatta in the Bay Area, but he was adamant that we not come and cheer him on.

He has a regatta coming up in So Cal and I asked again if we could come. It’s only a short drive for us.

“Oy vey!” was his answer followed by “I guess so.”

“Really? It’s okay? We get to watch?” I asked.

“Oy vey,” followed with a groan. “But you aren’t allowed to cheer OR talk to anybody!”

I’m laughing so hard. What does he think we’ll do? Run along the beach yelling and cheering for him? I guess that is a distinct possibility. After all that’s what we did at my daughter’s open water swims. He’s on a team of all adults, it’s not a child’s sport. My bet is that we will be the only parents there! I guess that’s kind of embarrassing in itself.robert

Will there ever be a day where our kids won’t be embarrassed of us?

5 Things I Wish I Knew Before the Kids Left for College

I wrote this story in July a few years ago while I attended college orientation with my daughter in Utah. It was a valuable orientation for many reasons, including the information I gathered. Also, a friendship began with a family who we’ve enjoyed ever since.

 


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This week I made the trek to the University of Utah to attend orientation with my daughter, who is an incoming freshman. Class of 2018 — does that sound scary or what?images-1

I spent two days in the pristine mountainside beauty of Salt Lake City with clear blue skies and intense sunshine. Parents attended most meetings without their kids, who were similarly engaged with topics angled for teenage consumption.summerFun_FrisbeeGolf_LBoye_067

Having been to college orientation three years prior with my firstborn, I didn’t think I’d learn anything new. However, in “Supporting your College Student” presented by Dr. Kari Ellingson, Associate Vice President, Student Development, I wished I’d heard her advice before I sent my first child to college.

“I think she’s met my son — the one who’s going to be a senior in college,” I whispered to a mom next to me. (He’s also the son who tried to give away the cat on FB.)

She answered, “No, I’m sure she’s talking about my oldest daughter!”

What did Dr. Ellingson have to say that we wished we heard the first time around?imgres-10First…

Children go through changes. But, if it’s your first child going to college, or your last, you will be going through changes, too. We are in the process of changing our relationship from parent to child to adult to adult. We go through transitions, pushing them away and holding them close.

Second…images-2
A student who works 10 to 15 hours on campus will do better in school than someone who works off campus, or doesn’t work at all. Students working on campus are making connections with the campus, student, and staff. They are completing their identity as a student first.

Students born from 1980 to 2000 are known as millennials. They don’t like to suffer —  they love nice things — and they don’t mind working for them. Unfortunately, this can interfere with their education. So, if they want spending money, suggest a job on campus.

Third…images-3
Cell phones according to Dr. Ellingson, are “the world’s longest umbilical cords.” Some students call home 5, 6, 7 times a day. In our day, we waited in line for the phone down the hall on Sundays — when long distance was cheaper — and horror of all horrors — there wasn’t such a thing as a cell phone!

Don’t let your child’s crisis become your crisis. Let them problem solve. Ellingson’s example was a daughter who called her mom and said, “I flunked my midterm. The professor hates me…” After consoling her crying daughter, the mother called back later with more advice. The daughter was like, “Huh? What are you talking about? Everything’s fine.”

images-5Fourth …
They are learning to become themselves. Making new friends. They will be grieving and letting go of high school friendships, but will build new and deeper ones. A main developmental issue is finding their identity. Their core stays the same, which has been developing over the past 18 years. But, how they express themselves changes.

They may try on new identities by copying new friends to see how it fits or feels. You may say to yourself, and hopefully not to your child, “Who the hell is this?” Then you meet their new friend, and say to yourself, “Oh, now I see who this is!”

Intellectually they are still developing. They see things differently than before. They love to debate. They will try out their debating skills, or how to express themselves by choosing opinions contrary to yours, even if it isn’t what they truly believe.

And Fifth…imgres-2
Dr. Ellingson talked about independence: “Their first steps as a toddler are towards you. Every step after that is running away from you.”

They need to discover how to be on their own — and this is one of their fears. Delayed maturation is common. It used to be people matured around 19, 20, 21. Today it’s 26, 27 or 28. They will say to you “Leave me alone!” Then, “bail me out!” This is normal. The pendulum will swing back and forth.

Just remember to love them, guide them, but let them figure it out. The more we solve their problems, the more we delay their growth into independent, responsible adults.

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And one more thing…”GO, UTES!!!”


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Sometimes they fall before they fly

I wrote this story several years ago about my son and his struggles leaving the nest. I’m proud to say, yes he made it and he’s flown away successfully. This year, we’re watching our daughter as she makes her way out of the nest and into the world of “adulting.”

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“Sometimes when they leave the nest, they have to fall to the ground before they learn to fly.”I was at a swim meet this past weekend, talking to a longtime coach friend of mine. The “leaving the nest bird analogy” was his answer to my question about if you should let your children fail. Or, continue to support them at all costs and bail them out of trouble? When is it time to say no?

In my opinion and according some of my best friends, at some point you have to put your foot down and no longer give in. The sooner you do that, the better off they will be.

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My son at Laguna Beach.

 

Is this “tough love” or is it merely letting our kids face reality and consequences?

My son, who is a bright, loving person, struggled through some of his college years. His first year, he was in an accident and looking back, he should have taken a hardship withdrawal. Now, in his final quarter of school, he’s been sick for at least six straight weeks. He wants to take a hardship withdrawal now—with only four weeks left before he graduates.

Literally, it kills me. In the very least, it sickens my heart. I want him to finish, but we’ve drawn a line in the sand. We will not give him a dime more for college. He’ll have to figure this out for himself. In fact, I told him that if he withdraws from college now, he’ll have to come home. We aren’t paying for him to live in Santa Barbara without going to school. No, we’re not paying for next quarter, either.

Are we being too hard? I don’t think so. It would be easy to give in.

robertUnfortunately, I didn’t allow him to fail when the consequences weren’t so high. I was one of those helicopter parents rushing to school with forgotten papers, etc. I did him no favors by saving him from small failures. 

He’s thought through his options and I’m happy to say, he’s sticking with school. However, I came to the realization, that whatever path he takes, it’s his decision and his life. There isn’t a right or wrong way to go. It would not be the end of the world if he didn’t get his college degree in June. It isn’t my first choice for him, don’t get me wrong. But, if he had to work for a couple years and save the money to finish college, he’d learn a lot. He may even appreciate the opportunities we’ve provided for him.

Nobody told me parenting would be so hard.

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Fly Away
by Lenny Kravitz
“I wish that I could fly
Into the sky
So very high
Just like a dragonfly
I’d fly above the trees
Over the seas in all degrees
To anywhere I please”
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What are your thoughts about letting kids fail?

The look in her eyes overwhelmed me

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Downtown Seattle on a sunny day.

I will never forget the look in my mom’s eyes when I said goodbye. My daughter and I were visiting my mom in her assisted living home on a recent trip to Seattle. After lunch at our favorite sushi restaurant, we sat around a table in the lobby playing a card game our family played when I was a child, Demon.

It was fun and we all laughed as we got more and more competitive. They teamed up against me, as they tried to defeat me–but didn’t of course. My daughter slowed down her speed to make the game more fun for us old folks, because seriously she could beat us handily at anything involving speed and reaction time.

After that, we walked mom back to her room, got her settled in and said good-bye. My mom stared at me, sitting in her comfy chair, like her heart was breaking. Her big hazel eyes filled with water and I fought my own tears. I felt like I was deserting her.

My daughter asked if she wanted the TV on, and she said, “No, I’m fine.” As we closed the door, I peaked in and saw my mom sitting on her chair with her head dropped, staring at nothing.

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My mom was surprised to learn I had a camera in my phone. She enjoyed the selfie.

The good news is I came the next day, and the next. Each day she looked happier and her spark returned. She has a witty sense of humor and kept me laughing. By the time I said my final good-bye, she looked so much better. I think she’s terribly lonely and I need to visit more often.

If you live away from your elderly family members, how do you feel when you say good-bye?

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Nothing better than a mother daughter trip.