This piece was originally published on TenToTwenty.com
I simultaneously anticipated and dreaded my practices and games as a teenage athlete. I loved the sport, working hard, and learning new strategies. My coach was gifted at teaching skills and as a result our team was very good. But there was a dark side to being an athlete as well: the pressure and anxiety that came with playing sports.
My coach often yelled at us in negative ways. She was continually telling us to be stronger, faster, thinner, more athletic. She herself ate ultra-healthy and constantly worked out. She may not have meant it this way, but most of us interpreted her comments as “lose weight”.
She expected perfection. When she didn’t get it, I felt like a failure. I was terrified to make a mistake because she had proven over and over that if I made just one error she would pull me out of the game. She didn’t have time for me to fail and improve. She needed me to deliver immediately. With one breath she told me I needed more confidence and with the next she destroyed what little confidence I had.
By my senior year I made myself indispensable and worked my way into the coach’s inner circle. She no longer had the luxury of simply pulling me out of games, but I still felt her disapproval and anger. Being in her inner circle meant having a small amount of influence over the team, but it also meant taking the brunt of the responsibility and expectations of perfection.
My coach’s job was to teach me about the sport, and she was extremely successful at that. But she also unintentionally taught me other things through her actions and words. She taught me that crying is weakness, but anger is normal. She taught me that in order to be successful I must be a perfectionist; mistakes are unacceptable. She taught me that “healthy” is skinny and strong. She even taught me that much of the time in life, it doesn’t matter what skills you have, it only matters whether important people like you. It’s been years, but I’m finally learning to be less anxious when playing sports and to ignore the negative recording of my coach’s voice that used to constantly play in my head.
To make myself clear, I did learn some positive things as an athlete and I love that as an adult I can still get exercise playing a game I enjoy. I think sports can be a great experience and I enjoy being involved as a volunteer and coach. I try hard to give kids a positive athletic experience while still pushing them to improve. And yes, someday I plan to encourage my kids to play a sport when they are old enough. But if they do, I want them to do it in a healthy way, both physically and emotionally and with positive role models and encouragement.
Playing sports can be either a great or terrible experience. Truthfully, much of the athletic experience hinges on the coach. Some coaches are wonderful. Some coaches are not. Like most people in this world, most coaches are a mix.
Kids and teenagers are far more perceptive than we give them credit for. They know what coaches really believe about themselves, about the world, and about their athletes. They learn by seeing our actions as adults, especially if we are important to them. Every interaction we have with a kid leaves a permanent imprint.
If your teenagers play sports, I guarantee it will be an important part of their life, one way or the other. If you’re involved in sports as a coach, volunteer, or even a spectator, then you’re an important part of the athletes’ lives too. It’s a heavy responsibility, but also one that is easily reflected in attitudes.
Sports are important, precisely because kids learn far more than just a game. Coaches must remember that ultimately they’re not teaching athletes about a sport, they’re teaching kids about life. Winning is important, but forming a fragile young life is far more so. Parents need to remember that winning and playing time isn’t everything and make sure their kids are being lifted up rather than torn down. Ignore the coach and even your own child’s pleas to stay out of it and instead be involved. Involvement is more essential than we realize.
My adolescent athletic experience could’ve been completely different. I could’ve learned that hard work yields rewards and been encouraged to be a considerate winner and gracious loser. I could’ve been informed of the true meaning of health and wellness. I could’ve been shown that mistakes are inevitable and taught how to handle stress, anxiety, and discouragement.
It wasn’t like that for me, but it’s not too late for our kids. My high school experience doesn’t have to be the norm. Instead, by working together we can reclaim the fun of sports and teach our young athletes positive life lessons.