Learning to get over how your kid's sports prowess (or lack thereof) reflects on you
As a follow to my Field Guide to Youth Sports Parents, a scary look at parental excesses that has already struck many young couples sterile, I highlight a column from Alex Podlogar, the sports editor for the Herald in Sanford, N.C, in which he reflects on the evolution of his own dreams of youth sports parenting as his daughter announces her retirement from the sport of soccer. At age 6.
The lesson the column teaches is that good or bad sports parenting isn’t about dreaming of your in utero child becoming World Series MVP — it’s about what you do with those dreams when it becomes abundantly clear that day will never come.
Podlogar calls himelf an “idiot” for what he thought before his daughter was born about what his (he and his wife didn’t find out the sex before birth, but he was thinking boy all the way) athletic career would be like, and all the reflected glory if it went well and reflected failure if it didn’t. (And if you don’t think the parent gets reflected glory and and/or failure, watch the other parents watch that kid’s parents in an extreme case of talent or lack of it. I remember my first kindergarten soccer game, when one girl started tearing up the field, and after everyone’s mouth gaped open looking at her, they looked slack-jawed at her mother, apparently to see if they could spot any magic loins.)
The following passage is reflective of what a lot of men think, even those who aren’t sports editor of the local paper.
Allow me to be clear — I, like everyone else who’s ever been so lucky to have a child, wanted only for our child to be healthy. Nothing else was important.
But that doesn’t mean there are never extenuating worries, most of them insignificant, but worries nonetheless. And, I’m ashamed to say, I was a little concerned that if we had a son and he wasn’t a 12-sport letterman by the time he was 10, he would unduly draw the sneers of a public that wondered why the sports editor’s son wasn’t a great athlete.
I shouldn’t say only men have these thoughts. All I know is, I’ve never heard of a group of women discuss whether their babies will ever grow up to be Cowboys.
Mama, don’t let ’em.
It’s a parental cliche that whether it’s sports or science or stripping, you dream during the first pregnancy of your child become the best, richest and most famous in his or her field. Once the baby arrives, your dreams don’t end, but they are put aside as that crying sound after the hours of labor shoves them aside in favor of more mundane things becoming the most spectacular miracles of life. As Podlogar put it:
Looking back, I try to chalk this insane insecurity up to the plagues of youth. No doubt, though, I should’ve still known better, but when Allison came into the world right at 5 pounds, yet strong and with all her fingers and toes, I immediately stopped worrying so much about my stupid pride.
Not because she was a girl. Because she was Allison. Our Allison. My Allison. My daughter.
However, even those parents who have those more prosaic thoughts can jump right back to my-kid-is-gonna-be-a-star-in-what-I-like. I like basketball, and I made sure my firstborn son had a hoop and ball as soon as possible. The trick to parenting is watching your child develop so you can balance what you would like your child to be with what your child actually wants to be. Podlogar, being a small-town newspaper sports editor, got a pre-parenthood education in wacky youth sports parents enough to know that giving your child a ball and a hoop is one thing, but forcing your child to use it every night from 18 months old onward as you scream instructions is another.
That’s why, after a year of soccer, Podlogar took it in stride when his 6-year-old daughter no longer was interested in playing.
But when she decided after a year to back away, we let her mull her decision. We made sure she knew what her decision meant, gave her some more time, and when all of us were certain it was the route she wanted to take for the right reasons, we moved forward.
I don’t know if Allison will continue to dip her toe into sports. She has interest in basketball and swimming and may want to stoke her competitive fire again one day. When she does, I believe we’ll encourage her to make that happen.
But as she’s grown up over the last six years, I feel like I have as well. Kids will do that to you, I guess.
I’ve learned a lot, but nothing as important as this: when it comes to your kids, who cares what other people think about them? In the end, it matters only what your kids think about themselves.
And it’s my job, my wife’s job, and all of our jobs as parents to ensure they’ve got the wherewithal to understand that.
Let the kid define the experience, instead of the sport, or anything for that matter, defining the kid.
Alex Podlogar, if you read the field guide to youth sports parents, I think you’ll see yourself as The Role Model.