I just had a rather disturbing conversation with a college coach friend of mine about one of the best athetes on her team. This athlete recently had a season ending injury. The athlete’s response to this injury was quite interesting. She was TREMENDOUSLY RELIEVED! Accidentally getting hurt removed all of the intense pressure that she ALWAYS felt whenever she competed. This pressure did not inspire this athlete to perform to her potential. On the contrary! It consistently and completely shut her down and caused her to choke!
Truth be told, the major source of this pressure started long ago and came from mom and dad! From the very first signs that their daughter had talent, these parents became over involved with her training and performance. They responded to her losses and setbacks as if they were personal blows! When their daughter failed or screwed up they felt diminshed and when she did well, they celebrated, feeling the victory personally!
Now don’t misunderstand me here! It’s fine for parents to feel happy for their children when they excel and have success. What parent wouldn’t be visibly proud of their child when that child achieves a level of excellence? It also makes sense that parents get disappointed FOR their child-athlete when that child loses or fails because loving parents feel for their kids and do not want them to suffer!
This is NOT what these parents were doing! Dad especially was far more concerned about how it looked to others whenever his daughter lost! In other words, he felt diminshed with and embarrassed by his child’s failures. That was front and center for him and his empathy for his daughter and concern for her feelings and what she might be going through were nowhere to be found!
Early on our kids pick up on this parental stance. They learn that when they fail, you as the parent are angry, disappointed, frustrated or upset with them. They feel like they have let you down, and, as a result, they feel that they are less lovable! The next time they go to compete, they are hyper-aware that now there is far too much on the line. Their self-worth and lovability is at stake. The kind of pressure that this puts on a young athlete is unbearable!! It immediately kills any joy or fun the athlete might have in the sport and makes things far too serious!!!
This creates a sense of danger inside the athlete that sends their nervous system into the RED ZONE! This makes the competitive environment a very dangerous place for them and when this happens, the athlete is “burnout waiting to happen!” Now the ONLY way that I know of that an athlete can escape this inescapable, high pressured situation, “If I don’t perform well and win, mom and dad won’t love me as much, but there’s no way I can perform well when I’m this nervous and fearful” is by GETTING INJURED!
Injury is the only way that athletes in this situation can save face. “Mom and Dad can’t be angry and disappointed with me if I’m hurt because it’s NOT MY FAULT! I couldn’t help it!” The sad thing here is that the above college athlete told her coach, “The happiest time of my life was the 4 months that I was hurt and I couldn’t play!”
To me, this is a tragedy! What a sad thing for anybody to say! This is a kid who should NOT be playing this sport any more, and I know that this is exactly what this young woman desperately wants. To quit!!! The problem, all these years later, is that when you compete and you’re trying to carry mom and dad’s happiness, hopes and dreams on your back, the burden of that is like you actually trying to perform with the weight of mom and dad strapped to your back! IT WILL SURELY CRUSH YOU!
PARENTS! LET YOUR CHILDREN PLAY THEIR SPORT JUST FOR THEM! LET THEM PLAY JUST FOR FUN, FOR THE JOY IT PUTS IN THEIR LIFE. LOVE THEM UNCONDITIONALLY WHETHER THEY WIN OR LOSE, EXCEL OR FLOP! THEIR SPORT IS NOT ABOUT YOU! IT’S ABOUT THEM! THEY SHOULD NOT BE PERFORMING TO MAKE YOU LOOK OR FEEL BETTER ABOUT YOURSELF! THEY SHOULD NOT BE PERFORMING FOR YOUR LOVE AND ACCEPTANCE! YOUR LOVE AND ACCEPTANCE SHOULD BE THEIR BIRTHRIGHT!