No, seriously, check your feelings before you walk out the door. Decide which emotions are useful, to you and to your sporting child, and leave the rest at home. Intentional presence will positively enhance every part of your day, and has potential to be a game changer for you as a sports parent.
I’ll expand on that in a second, but first I want to tell you about a celebration we had in our house last week.
Middle Sprout had a horrible hockey game. I’m not kidding, it was like the worst game she has maybe ever played. On the heels of a really emotional week for her team, after two days of finals (including her hardest test the day of the game), she struggled to focus like she usually can in net.
As a goalie, she is vulnerable to the extremes of emotion. When she plays out of her mind, stopping every shot she sees, she is on cloud nine. The days she is mucked up with distraction, or over-exhaustion, she usually doesn’t perform well and it feels pretty horrible.
This is a flawed rule, and I have worked hard to break it as often as I can. It is not easy, but it is so worth it.
There are a lot of goalie moms (and dads) who feel what their kids do. It’s my suspicion many parents discourage their kids from playing goalie because they do not want to have to navigate the emotional minefield (oh yeah, and pay for all that gear). Goalie parents don’t hold the corner on emotional attachment to athletes, however.
My disclaimer is that I am not the typical sports parent.
I work hard to be in my own emotional space when it comes to our kids’ sports experiences, and I choose for that space to be a positive one. It helps me to be a better mom for them. I contend that the entire youth sports environment would be vastly improved if people were willing to engage in personal emotional work.
It Matters that Parents Rise Above Emotion, Not Become It
When our goalie daughter has a rough day, if I am in the muck with her, how do I support her? If, at the end of a tough day, I need a hug more than she does, how does that help her?
The same applies when I coach. I work on maintaining control of my emotions. If I am overwhelmed by emotion I cannot make the best tactical or instructional decisions. Objectivity is the regular victim of undisciplined emotion.
I have practiced understanding and controlling my emotions for a really long time: as an athlete, as a coach, as the spouse of a coach (yes, even as a spouse: it’s tough to hear unfair things said about a person you love) and as a parent of athletes. All sports endeavors are filled with emotion, so I have had LOTS of practice. (forty-something years worth)
I have also been intentional about my study of emotions and how to navigate them. While researching for the book I am writing Choosing to Grow: For the Sport of It, Feeling My Way, I have uncovered nugget after nugget about the power of emotional health, and it has changed my relationship with sport, enhanced my relationships in my family, and it has improved my ability to coach.
I was happy after last week’s awful game. Not because our daughter struggled. Not because the team lost 10-1. Not because there was plenty of hurt and upset for the girls and their parents. I was really happy because I have actually found a way to separate myself from the emotions that used to govern me. My strategy last week included concentrating on the parts of my presence at that game that brought me happiness:
- Our entire family was together in the same room.
- Teachers from the high school were there supporting the team.
- I felt good about organizing the celebration for the seniors and their parents.
- I had my camera in tow and I love taking pictures.
- And, we had a short trip home that night.
The things that made me happy were not huge things, but concentrating my thoughts on those positive aspects of the evening, influenced my mood significantly.
After the game, as I prepared for the hug I knew I would need to deliver to a sad and disappointed daughter, I smiled and laughed at a funny story. I was still smiling when another hockey parent stopped me. He asked me how I could be so happy all the time. (I know he was referencing the hockey mom rule I like to break) I take his comment as probably one of the most extreme compliments I have ever been paid. I am increasingly happy because I have put a lot of energy into self-reflection and legitimate work into understanding and processing MY emotions around our kids’ sports.
It’s true. I have been working through and writing about emotion since I started my first Choosing to Grow project. A few highlights of the ways I have written about and exposed my wounds as they pertain to emotion in sport are:
- When our son was 12, he was cut from a team I believed he could make. I wrote a blogpost about my grief.
- About that same time I wrote a post about anger, in the post, “I never thought I would be that crazy hockey parent.”
- More recently, I dissected and wrote about the emotions that surrounded the kneeling during the anthem at NFL games.
- And babbled through what it felt like to witness our son’s senior season of hockey.
I would say that the majority of people would rather avoid the “feelings” talk, and especially in sporting arenas. It is deeper and more painful than most people want to engage. My hope is to move the needle past that status quo. People will benefit from introspection, relationships with the children in our lives will improve, and if we are going to have any chance at positively impacting the youth sports landscape, we have to start paying serious attention to the emotions we carry.
Answer these questions honestly: How emotionally tied are you to the outcome of a game or to the performance of your child? When your kid makes a glaring mistake, how do you feel? Really think about it…which emotion do you feel most? Anger? Sadness? Frustration? Shame? What about when your child succeeds? Joy? Excitement? Happiness? Pride? How would you describe your level of emotion when you watch your children compete?
STEP ONE: Acknowledge the feelings you feel. Feelings are never wrong and they are always trying to tell us something
STEP TWO: Identify the trigger for your emotions.
The second step is figuring out why you might be feeling the way you do. What is triggering your emotion? And don’t take the easy way out and say, “Well, obviously I’m pissed because my kid sucks.” I contend there is more to it than that. Why do you care so much if your kid makes a mistake? You’re not the one who failed. What else might be making you angry?
One of the women I interviewed for my book told me that watching her kid play is like watching her heart out there running around. Well, that sounds pretty vulnerable. Could being angry be a defense mechanism? Could something else in your life be an underlying reason for anger?
I will warn you, introspection will change the way you watch games. It is admittedly a bit of a buzz kill for those parent-fans who enjoy the emotional roller coaster. I chose to work through these things because I wanted to improve my relationships with our kids and I wanted to learn how to best parent them through youth sports. That may not be a priority of yours, but know that choosing the fan experience over the parenting one could make the navigation through youth sports more negative and difficult. Plus, it really doesn’t help your kid in the long run.
If you are able to identify the trigger for your emotions, STEP THREE: is to Do Something Positive.
Okay, so let’s say your kid swings and misses, spins and falls. You get pissed and are able to admit to yourself that you feel embarrassed. Maybe you figure it has to do with a similar experience you remember as a kid and you were made fun of. Whatever the case, knowing the emotion and the why doesn’t exactly make the feeling disappear. So, what then?
Now comes the harder work. Find something positive to do. Decide to set the feeling aside, on purpose, and do something positive. Seek out ways to help someone else. Go for a walk. Knit a scarf. Pick up your phone and try to take a picture that you know you’ll want to use for your kid’s graduation table. Or better yet, start lugging around a camera and literally change your focus at the games.
If your emotional experience at your kid’s games is impeding the experience for your kid, check your feelings and put in the good work to be intentionally and positively present. Please and thank you. (from a fellow sports parent and coach who happens to be…choosing to grow)
Copyright Choosing to Grow 2019 www.meaganfrank.com