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On Sports Parenting

I am a sports parent but have never been the type that lived through the achievements of their kids, but even so, there are parts of Rich Cohen’s The Sad Fate of the Sports Parent I identified with.

The end began like this: One evening, after the last game of the high-school season, I asked my son if he’d be trying out for spring league. For a youth-hockey kid, playing spring league is the equivalent of a minor-league pitcher playing winter ball in Mexico — so necessary as a statement of intent and means of improvement that forgoing it is like giving up “the path.” Rather than a simple affirmative nod, as I’d expected, I got these words: “I’m going to think about it.” Think about it? For me, this was the same as a girlfriend saying, “We need to talk.”

Only later did I realize that those words were the first move in a careful choreography. My son wanted to quit, but in a way that would not break my heart. He also didn’t want me to rant and rave and try to talk him out of it.

We had reversed roles. He was the adult. I was the child.

I find the life-long child/parent role-reversal dynamic endlessly fascinating. And also this bit:

He had no inherent genius for the game, but he loved it, and that love, which was his talent, and the corresponding desire to spend every free moment at the facility — the life of a rink rat — jumping onto the ice whenever an extra player was needed, shooting tape balls in the lobby, made him an asset. A kid can have all the skills, speed, size, and shot, but if he doesn’t want to be there, if he doesn’t love the game, it’s not going to work.

It was passion that got him onto the top teams (this was tier-two and tier-three hockey in Fairfield County, Connecticut) and thus sowed the seed that eventually became, for me, a bitter plant. His love for the game elevated him to the hypercompetitive, goal-fixated ranks, where it’s always about the next tryout and the next season, who will make it and, more important, who will be left behind. Irony: His love for the game had carried him to a level where no love is possible.

Both of my kids are skiers competing on a national level and they are definitely struggling with this — how do you balance the genuine love of a sport and competition with the fixation on goals & judging? When is it no longer worth it?

Discussion  7 comments

Edith ZimmermanMOD

Great post. Makes me think of Linda Flanagan’s book, Take Back the Game: How Money and Mania Are Ruining Kids’ Sports - and Why It Matters.

Jo Ma

What?!? Capitalism ruins yet another thing?

Thanks for the book rec, sounds interesting

Meg Hourihan

Another good one with actionable steps for people involved in kids' sports is Changing the Game: The Parent's Guide to Raising Happy, High Performing Athletes, and Giving Youth Sports Back to our Kids by John O'Sullivan.

Reply in this thread

Yen Ha

I always jokingly lamented that my younger kid never wanted to compete in figuring skating, which he excels at, but the bonus is that he still loves it all these years later and is doing all sorts of crazy things on ice that won't matter to anyone but himself

Brady J. Frey

“I find the life-long child/parent role-reversal dynamic endlessly fascinating.” As a military brat, I do too (for, at least, personal reasons). Parentification is the research term; gave truth to what my sister and I experienced.

Trent Seigfried

Things you choose to spend time on in life are either hobbies or jobs. A hobby is something you do that gives you intrinsic joy, whereas a job is something you do primarily because of extrinsic rewards. I think youth sports often start as hobbies ("this is fun") but can turn into jobs ("I need to do this to get a scholarship / to get recognition / to appease a parent").

Mike F. Edited

Growing up in small-town Saskatchewan, I can affirm that hockey parents can be a whole special level of crazy, but still...

You’re treated better when your kid scores; your status is raised.... If your kid is demoted, your status and social life are diminished.

In 40+yrs of coaching youth sports, I didn't observe that kind of dynamic amongst parents.
I'll agree that for the afflicted parent it FEELS that way to them, but my experience suggests that that's all it is - parents do not draw that equivalence (good athlete = good parent).
Rather, it seems the parents for whom this feels most real are the one that have only that metric to fall back on to show that they're doing a "good" job as a parent. Forget about whether or not their kid comes to them when sad or lonely; or if they feel safe and loved regardless of results; the fact that "my kid's an all-star" means I'm an all-star as a parent.

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