I once read in an article that the six words your little athlete most wants to hear are, "I love to watch you play!" I took that to heart and now say this often. But three years ago, I was also given six words that truly helped me become a better sports mom. Three years ago I was a bit (read: very) aggravated at my 8-year old daughter’s poor performance in a race. And as I look back on that moment, I must say I'm pretty ashamed of myself.
I’m a competitive person. I’m a pusher. I own that and try to be aware of it. And though I shake my head now, in that moment, I really was disappointed. How could she go so slow? I did at least have the sense to walk away so she didn't see my disappointment, and in that (ridiculous, shameful, high-strung – take your pick) moment, a good friend approached me and said something I’ve carried with me for three years. It’s something I still ask myself today.
“Did she do it on purpose?” he asked, eyebrows raised and a chill-the-heck-out look on his face.
I don’t know why, but that question and those six words hit me really hard.
It made me reflect on the hour-and-a-half practices that she busted her butt through, three days a week. The time she skipped her best friend’s birthday party because she wanted to go to a swim meet where Ryan Lochte was going to speak to all of the swimmers. The alarm clocks set for 5 a.m. on swim meet weekends, mornings on which she woke before dawn without a single moan or groan because she was genuinely excited to get in the water and compete.
Of course she didn’t do it on purpose. She went out there, wanted to do her best, and simply didn’t. I thought of times I had tried to do well and failed. There had been a lot of those.
I felt pretty crummy in that moment.
“No,” I answered, pretty ashamed of myself. And after a silent self-scolding, I went and gave my daughter a hug, which she needed so much more than to know her mom was disappointed in her. She was upset enough already.
That was three years ago. Why bring this up now?
We just got home from my daughter’s first swim meet of the long-course season. Some of her times were slower than she swam a year ago. Some were faster. The same was true for most of her teammates. Swimming is a funny sport in that way.
What is not funny is when parents rage against their children for a poor athletic performance. When parents gauge everything by winning, and ignore progress. When parents fail to acknowledge the hard work and effort their child has put forth, and the disappointment she feels when it just doesn’t pay off in a given moment. (I've also written about some of the unhealthy lengths sports parents go to in a previous blog post - read it here.)
But what goes beyond “not funny” to heartbreaking is when a parent directly tells his child that the time he spent watching him compete was a complete waste of his time. That he was not worth his parents’ time because he didn’t post the numbers mom and dad wanted to see.
Sometimes you can just about see a child’s spirit break right in the little spaces between his parents’ words.
If you’re competitive by nature, you’re gonna get caught up in your kids’ performances. You’ll feel disappointment because you love your children. You recognize their potential and you want to see them do their best every single time. But they’re not going to. Because they’re human. Sometimes they will miss the mark. Like you have. Cut them some slack.
Our kiddos don’t need us to tell them how poorly they performed. They know. They saw the clock or the scoreboard. Their coach talked to them. So unless you are your child’s coach, please just give the kid a hug.
And PUH-leeeeeese don’t tell her she did a “great job!” when she didn’t. (One of my biggest pet peeves, along with participation trophies...a topic for another day.) But give her a hug or a rub on the back or tell her to “go get the next one”.
This is not a new conversation, I know. But I’m reminded too often, as I was this weekend, that our children clearly need us to continue this conversation and to bring it to parents that haven’t been listening. So as simple as they may seem, these six words have really helped me be a better sports mom to my daughter, and I wanted to share them with you.
Did she do it on purpose?
Ask yourself these six words the next time your child isn’t doing so well at a game or meet or match or competition and you feel your blood pressure rising, your fists clenching, or your jaw tightening just a little too much. And then go give her a hug and tell her how much you love to watch her play...