The Agony and the Ecstasy of Being a Parent of an Athlete

my kid playing baseballI wrote a “slice of life” piece about my son’s baseball game last week but felt that it was important to include some personal background to give you some context for the story:

Growing up, I was a competitive gymnast, tennis player and golfer. I had a driving force that would send me to the gym, tennis court and driving range for hours on end (Too many injuries pulled me out of gymnastics and I fizzled out of tennis because I simply wasn’t good enough). Over time, when I hit a rough spot during my teenage years, my internal drive was still strong but it had shifted. I was motivated more by negative forces than positive ones, and my self talk often sounded like this, “If you don’t win, you are worthless, a nothing. Work harder and whatever you do, DON’T FAIL.”

Surprise, surprise, those messages, which pounded in my head for years, would ultimately destroy my ability and motivation to compete. I never developed the essential coping mechanisms for dealing with failure that all successful athletes must cultivate for times when they are in a slump, they lose a game or a match, or are not performing at the level to which they are accustomed. My lack of resiliency would explain why after shooting a terrible first round in the state high school golf tournament my junior year, followed by an equally terrible second round, I refused to pick up a golf club for decades.

Which brings me to today. I have now have a son who is a competitive baseball player, and anyone who knows anything about baseball knows that it is game of failure. The best of the best pro baseball players hit the ball three out of every ten times, and the scoreboard has an actual spot that highlights the number of ERRORS the players make (not fouls, like in basketball, but errors-as in how many times you totally screw up). And my son plays two of the most high-pressure positions out there: short stop and pitcher.

I love to watch my son play. But in all honesty, there are times when I think I will explode from the nervous energy that brews within me. As much as I try to push my old demons away, to try and separate my stuff from his, so that I can support him and love him no matter what successes or failures he experiences on the field, there are times when my competitiveness takes some of that joy away. Every single time I find myself feeling stressed or anxious about a game of his, I have to talk myself off the ledge and remind myself that this is my MY fear of failure and MY difficulty in dealing with competition—not his, and that it is crucial that I do not drop my old baggage on him.

I have seen him have moments when he did not deal with failure as well as he wanted to. But watching him work his way through these issues, and find coping and recovery strategies for dealing with failure has provided him with some of his most important life lessons and has been incredibly healing for me.

The Story:

I needed a break. I could tell that my energy wasn’t helping him. My perfectionism, my fear of failure, my feeling that I could some how control the outcome of his baseball game by willing him and his team to succeed. It was time for me to separate myself and let him play his game. He was in a slump, had had a tough game the night before, and I felt that my presence at his game was some how hurting him.

Could that be true? What if it was?

The section tournament game—a game not to miss.  The team wins, they move on; they lose, they are done. “I’m thinking of sitting this one out, hun,” I mentioned to my son the day of the big game, trying to sound casual about it. “It seems like that the games that you played when dad and I were out of town were the best three games of your season. How would you feel if I didn’t come? Do you think it’s less pressure for you if I am not there,” I asked him somewhat tentatively.

“Mom, it doesn’t matter if you are there or not. Do what you want,” he responded, like a typical 17-year-old.

Ok. Got it. But I still felt unsure. How could I really not go? Would the other parents think I am not supporting him? Am I being crazy? My husband said that it is okay either way. “He knows you love him,” David said, trying to ease my tension. And he repeated my son’s message, “Do what you need to do,” but added, “It will be okay.”

My youngest daughter and I headed out to the lake and she jumped thrillingly into the hot tub while I sipped a beer and sat on a deck chair allowing the blazing sun to warm my face and offer me some semblance of calmness. I exhaled and felt like I was a million miles away, and that a million pounds had been lifted off my chest. I knew I could support him better from where I sat; that my energy was positive and detached—not in an “I don’t care” kind of way, but in a spirit of letting go and practicing self-care kind of way. It was better for me to not be in the stands riveting with anxiety, and deep down I knew that this was most likely better for him.

But there was that all-too familiar feeling of guilt to reckon with—that frustration with myself and more questioning, ”Why can’t you just go enjoy your son’s game? What kind of mom doesn’t go to his son’s section baseball game?” Well, I guess this kind of mother, whose 10-year-old daughter splashed in the hot tub, thrilled that she would not be dragged to her millionth baseball game of the season. Thrilled to have time alone with me—a relaxed me (or at least trying to be).

“J just got a hit and drove in a run,” my husband’s text message popped up on my phone and pulled my eyes away from my daughter, and away from my here and now. I smiled and mindfully tried to stay focused on her, chasing the “I SHOULD be there” thoughts away. “Mom, watch me swim laps! Time me,” Jo blared toward me before submerging her entire body under water.

As I a concentrated on my stop watch on my phone, it buzzed again. “They are hitting us like it’s batting practice. We are down 6-2,” my husband revealed. O.k., another big inhale as my mind turned to the seniors who could be playing their last game, and then jumped ahead to next year when my son would be a senior (oh my!). Then my heart became even heavier as I thought of the 8th grader who made the varsity team and whose dad was rapidly losing his 3-year battle with cancer. Would his dad get to see him play another baseball game?

“Mom! How many laps did I swim?! How fast did I swim them? Mom, come on, please get off your phone!” I peeled my eyes away from my hand held device and back to the here and now. Back to my daughter’s youth and innocence—a reminder that despite the fact that life is filled with all different kinds of losses, there is also so much joy. I was reminded that it is okay to sit back sometimes and allow myself to just be, and to take care of myself, and trust that my son knows how very important he is to me, and how much I love and believe in him, no matter where I am or where he is. I hoped that all my children feel this.

“Twenty-five laps in 35 seconds! Best yet,” I shouted loud and proud, as if she had just beaten Michael Phelps’ record (there I go again!).

My phone vibrated. That magical and yet baneful piece of plastic and metal, which has the power to instantly pull me out of the present and split me in two—I’m here but I’m there—which is actually kind of nowhere.  I should just turn it off. Yep, I’m turning it off. I grabbed the phone out of my pocket and positioned my finger on the power button. As I started to press down, I glanced down for a split second as the words flew off the screen and and hit me on the head.

“J hit a home run.”

My eyes filled with tears and my heart began to pound so loudly I was sure my daughter could hear it from under water.

“No way,” I managed to type, half wondering if my husband was telling me the truth. My son had never hit a home run.

“Yep, first of his career,” my husband revealed (as if I didn’t know).

My daughter looked at me and asked me what was wrong. “Honey, you need to dry off, we are going for a ride,” I told her, and continued to explain to her about her brother’s milestone and that I just needed to be there when he walked off the field.

As we drove out to catch the last few innings of the game, I felt at peace. I didn’t know if he would have hit his first home run if I had been in the stands that night. But it didn’t really matter. I was truly and completely happy for him. And I was happy that I was able to let go and create some healthy space for myself and for my son.

This was a victory in and of itself.

Did You Know that Motherhood is a Competitive Sport?

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I didn’t really either until I had kids. It starts when they are babies, “My kid is 18 months old and still doesn’t sleep through the night.”  “Oh really? Sucks for you, my kid started sleeping through the night the very first night he came home from the hospital and has done so ever since.”  Then the competitive banter moves to when they start walking, talking, reading, writing, adding, subtracting and goes all the way to their GPAs, SAT scores and what college they are attending.

I am all for healthy competition. I think it is part of what makes the world go around. But the idea that parents are competing with each other based on their children’s merits…to me, this is downright crazy!

Our children naturally compete with each other, hopefully in a motivating way, but competition can be difficult for kids to navigate. Parents can be helpful or hurtful in the way they teach their children to deal with competition. It is essential for parents to look inward and be aware of how much they are using their children’s accolades to boost their own self-esteem and their feelings about themselves as a parent. Beware of this mindset: “Just look at how great my kid is! I did this!”

This issue is often taken to an extreme when it comes to kids in sports. I am blown away by the adolescent behaviors that are demonstrated by adults when it comes to kids and their sports. Are some parents trying to realize their own unfulfilled dreams through their children? Do they have early visions of their kid playing at Wimbledon, the Super Bowl or the World Series and will stop at nothing to make sure these visions become a reality (and actually think that they have that much control)?  There are actually two issues at hand here. The first involves how hard parents push their kids in sports (and in life, which I will cover in another post), and the second is how some parents develop extreme levels of competition with other parents in an effort to try to get their child “ahead” of others.

As I talk with other moms about this, I find that I am not the only mom who has been completely ignored by another mom who is pissed off that my son was chosen for a certain team and hers wasn’t, or that my son was getting more playing time than hers. Mothers have shared with me stories of how teammates’ parents have marched into coaches’ offices and ranted and raved, “How could you choose Susie for the last remaining varsity lacrosse spot?! My daughter is so much stronger and has trained so much harder! That should be her spot!” And to get even more infantile, this mother will proceed to give both Susie and her mom the stink-eye any opportunity she gets.

I am not saying that I have not felt that surge of competition or even jealousy if another kid gets picked for a team or a position over my kid. Of course, I have, this is only natural. But it is what we do with these feelings that matters.  I am not mad at the parents of the kid who got picked over my son. I am not mad at the kid either. Or the coach. I may be disappointed but I try to deal with that disappointment, and not take it out on others.

How I treat my son’s teammates and their parents is not going to affect whether my kid gets more or less playing time, or gets the position for which he is competing. I wonder if some of these parents who chose to treat other parents and kids poorly think that this is some kind of intimidation tactic. The only word I can think of in response to that is, “ICK!”  Another disturbing fact that I have learned is that sometimes the kid, whose parents are acting like this, doesn’t care that much about whether he makes the team or gets on first or second line on her hockey team. Also, she has no problem with her teammates or their parents. It is solely an issue for the kid’s parents! They are competing for the kid’s spot on the team more than the kid is! So, what I would like to ask these parents is, “Who this really about, your kid or you?”

Obviously, this issue has hit a nerve with me. Quite honestly, I was very hurt and blindsided by a mom who recently chose to act this way toward me. All I can say is that if your kid is on my kids’ team, I will talk to you in the stands, I will cheer like crazy for your kid, as I do for every kid on the team, and this is what I will tell my kid about being on a team and competition:

  • Work hard and always show respect to your teammates and your coaches.
  • Cheer on your teammates! Even if you are sitting on the bench and are not happy about it.
  • When it comes to direct competition with a teammate: Maybe you are better, maybe he is, but this competition will force you to continually strive to improve.
  • Ultimately it is up to the coach to make the decisions for the team. Respect that (and so will I.)
  • Welcome to life. It isn’t always fair. You will compete for a job. Sometimes you will get it, sometimes you won’t. End of story.
  • Don’t ever give up, on yourself, on your team or on your coach.
The Blog of Author Tim Ferriss

Tim Ferriss's 4-Hour Workweek and Lifestyle Design Blog. Tim is an author of 5 #1 NYT/WSJ bestsellers, investor (FB, Uber, Twitter, 50+ more), and host of The Tim Ferriss Show podcast (400M+ downloads)

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