I Just Want to Love Watching Them Play

We always wanted our kids to play sports.

While I clung to my dreams of having a tiny dancer, both our son and daughter left those dreams in the dust by the time they were in elementary school.

When our daughter decided that she also wanted to play soccer if her little brother got to play, we quickly resigned ourselves to the tens of thousands of sports parents around the country.

After a failed attempt at basketball when our daughter was in kindergarten, we watched her bloom as a soccer player and I grew to love watching a sport which had terrified me when I was a child. (I had no desire to have other people kicking at or near my shins.) We expanded our repertoire with basketball and then this past summer, flag football.

We’ve anxiously watched rain forecasts to determine rainouts, dragged ourselves out of bed on early Saturday mornings, warmed ourselves with coffee, and baked in the hot Texas sun. I’ve taken countless photographs with my phone and SLR, proudly posting them to social media and making my kids look more successful on the field than they are in real life. We’ve supported their desire to be active and play with their friends, paying the necessary funds for sports fees and new shoes and shin guards and dinners consumed on the run while we try to make it from one activity to the next.

But through it all, it has always been just a part of our kids’ lives, not their entire lives. Travel teams, special leagues, and multiple training camps have never been a part of the discussion. We’ve done a couple special classes for our son over the years, but often discovered that they added little to no value to his experience with the sport, not giving him the break that he needs to just figure out life.

My daughter loves to play basketball and soccer, but she’ll never be a scholarship athlete; she’s been blessed with my speed and agility. And so we’ll just keep supporting her until her skill level becomes outpaced by her peers. Our son keeps changing his future dreams, and while he currently has stolen my husband’s heart with his desire to play for the Big 10, I think we’ll just let him be nine-years-old and step up the training if and when he makes up his mind.

After all, our goal has always been kids who love to be active and understand team sports; we never wanted their futures to hinge on an injury-free childhood full of focused training and void of free play.

I like to believe that this balanced approach to athletics makes us reasonable parents. Would we love it if our kids were able to pay for the college education of their choice because they are skilled at a specific sport? Sure, but then I have to ask myself, “at what cost?”

We’ve watched our friends sacrifice family vacations and hundreds to thousands of dollars to pay for their kids to craft their skills in a single sport. We’ve watched family members and then our own peers’ children suffer from injuries that used to plague adults twice their age. We’ve watched parents from the sidelines at our own kids’ games as they have talked about running from one practice and game to the next, barely slowing down to breathe or even take a moment for themselves.

And then we’ve looked at each other and shaken our heads.

I recently spoke to a former student who went to a smaller school on a football scholarship and then eventually decided that the school, and the team, weren’t for him. If he wanted to pursue his new dreams, football was going to have to be a past time and not remain central to his college career, a decision that he found more freeing than defeating.

One of my current students confessed that months of social distancing and shut down club volleyball opportunities gave her the chance to try new things and she started to realize how much she had been missing in the pursuit of scholarship dreams. She’s not sure that she wants to keep working at a sport that was keeping her from enjoying just being a teenager.

I’ve seen students comment on getting burned out of sports that they loved because they played too much or it got too competitive and it stopped being fun. I’ve seen other high school students crushed by career-ending injuries that forced them to rethink their entire futures before they turn eighteen. And I’ve seen students who believe that their experiences in club and high school sports helped to shape them into the young adults that they are while giving them opportunities that they never would have had otherwise.

The most well-adjusted of those students are the ones who have the freedom to pursue what they love and make their own decisions concerning their athletic futures.

But what floors me is the parents who lose their minds over a bunch of nine-year-olds learning how to pass or dribble a ball. The arguing with referees who don’t have to spend their evenings with crazy parents but still choose to do so. The yelling coaches who forget that they are teachers responsible for not only instructing their charges in the rules and skills of the game, but in how to gracefully deal with disappointments when the game doesn’t go their way.

No, I don’t like watching my kids lose, and we’ve seen a lot of that over the years. No, I don’t like to see my kids disappointed when they don’t get the team spot that they want. And no, I didn’t like having everything shut down and my kids sitting around doing nothing physical because of arguments that it was too hot to play outside. (And they said this while a pool sat in our backyard begging them to dive in).

But I also believe there are important lessons in having our kids play but not making it the central focus of their lives or the lives of the entire family. We still need to make space for family vacations, summer jobs, worship, academics, and yes, general leisure. I believe that one of the reasons that we struggled so much as a society when everything initially shut down due to COVID-19 was that we had been running ourselves ragged, and nowhere was this more true than in our overscheduled family lives.

So yes, let us encourage our kids to play. We should encourage them to pursue their dreams and set goals. But we should also avoid allowing them to make that dream and goal the one thing that makes life worth living.

Because selfishly, I really just want to be in the moment enjoying watching my kids do what they love, fully aware that they have our permission to stop when it’s no longer fun for them.

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