Friday, July 10, 2009

Being Olympian

My daughter has been a member of a swim team for 15 months . She is a good swimmer, but at her current rate, she will never be Dara Torres. But even though she will (probably) not be an Olympic swimmer, I care deeply about the life lessons that she is learning from being on a swim team.

While swimming is mostly an individual sport, she is also learning what it means to be on a team. At a swim meet held recently, I watched her pump up the members of her 200 Freestyle Relay team, and it made me smile. At 10 years old, she was the oldest in the foursome. One girl was swimming in her first meet and was very nervous. Hannah offered her advice, and said, "It'll be fine...You'll be great." My daughter may not be the fastest swimmer, but she is a kind-hearted, nurturer to her teammates. She may not always contribute points to the team's cumulative total points, but she definitely adds to the group's bottom line.

Her coach, Matt Wunderlin, recently told his swimmers the following about swimming: "It's not about being an Olympian. It's about being Olympian. Learning to be a hero. And, it is not comfortable to be a hero. If it were, being one wouldn't be so great."

Trying things that you haven't attempted before, losing the safety net, and stretching yourself beyond your self-imposed limits, now that is heroic. I explain to my daughter when she laments that she doesn't swim faster or that she DQs sometimes, she does heroic things everyday. Going to swim practice three or more times a week, when you'd rather be vegging with a good book, is heroic. Cheering on your teammates in a race is heroic. Giving kind words to struggling swimmers is heroic.

As parents, and as coaches, we need to teach our children how to be heroes in their daily lives. The following story now embarrasses me, but I tell it with the hopes that another parent might learn a valuable lesson from it.

When my daughter was a 2nd grader, she joined a competitive soccer team. This was her (our) first venture into the sports world. Many of her teammates were also new to soccer, so we weren't expecting to win the Waunakee World Cup or anything. At this age-level, the soccer players don't understand the concept of "playing a position" on the field. Constantly, it looked like a group of swarming bumblebees with all ten players hovering around the soccer ball. The background music provided by the parents sounded something like this, "SPREAD OUT! MIDDLE! GET TO THE MIDDLE! SPREAD OUT!"

Soccer just wasn't serious at this stage. For the kids, I should say, it wasn't serious. For the parents, well...It wasn't unusual when play was at the other end of the field, to see the goalie turning cartwheels, sitting down in the goal, daydreaming, or picking flower weeds.

After their 8th straight loss without scoring a goal, I (this is the mortification part of the story) actually went up to the coach and asked (pleaded) with him to set it up so that they could score a goal in the next game. "Can you put in a few extra players on their side or something? Just so that they can know what it FEELS like to score?? They are demoralized and it's hurting their self-esteem." I am now certain that he was internally rolling his eyes at my pathetic, dramatic tirade. My request came from a good parental place, but I know now that it wasn't the right answer. He managed to soothe and placate me, but didn't agree to my suggestion. (thank you...and I'm sorry, Steve)

The team ended up finishing their season with a record of 2-14. Yes, they did manage to score some goals as their play improved...on their own and using their skills...without parental intervention. The players self-esteem wasn't scarred for life and they learned, in a safe environment, that sometimes you just don't win. The coach, by not rigging the system in their favor, taught them perseverance, strength, and sportsmanship. (My daughter even scored a goal, though she was supposed to be playing defense at the time.) The bottom line is that the coach allowed them to become heroes. They turned into kids who overcame a miserable string of losses, with their improved skills, teamwork and determination.

It's easy to make similar over-protective parental mistakes. As parents, we want to keep our children safe, and it seems intuitive that we should protect our children when we can. We want everyone to get a ribbon. We pad the walls. We hover like helicopters, never letting them be alone to explore the world. We don't let them fail. We lessen life's blows to the ego. We offer excuses for them. Basically, at times we carry them and keep them sheltered from life's storms in plastic bubbles. And, then we have the audacity to pat ourselves on the back, because we are "good parents."

Is it wrong to want our children to always be happy and successful? Actually, it is. If our child is sad and disappointed, we tend to attempt to talk them out of the mood. We spin strands of golden sunshine of happy words to cheer them. This is wrong. By dismissing and belittling their feelings, we disparage our children. We need to let them feel their emotions, and learn to express them appropriately.

When a child cries because they failed, they are expressing their disappointment. They are not asking you to fix the issue. Parents are fixers. From the moment we gave birth, we want to make it all better. Falling down and getting a boo-boo requires a band-aid and a kiss, yes. Your child getting a bad grade on a report card does not require you to phone the teacher and petition for a better grade. As parents, the answer needs to be more cuddling and far less coddling.

By cushioning every bump in life's roadway, we cheat our children of the opportunity to fail. Yes, you read that correctly. The act of failing is an opportunity. You know the old adage, "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again?"Failing is a chance to find a way to do something better, or perhaps in a different way. Children who are allowed to fail learn self-coping skills. These life lessons are better learned now as children, when the stakes are small.

The reality is that sometimes you don't win. Sometimes, you lose and fail miserably. Sometimes your feelings get hurt. At times, you will have to play hurt. And, sometimes, you will even have to ride the bench, while others play. Real life has many competitive moments, and there aren't many consolation prizes for 2nd place, much less 16th place.

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