Hurts, Healing Involve Weighty Emotions
Like many memories of youth, adults tend to recall only the best of times spent on the baseball diamond with school chums or playing rough and tumble football games in the backyard with next door neighbors. Those were the good old days with few worries and plenty of fresh air and exercise! We project these feelings of carefree fun on youth athletes of today because we primarily associate youth sports with our own fond memories of unstructured, no-pressure childhood games. But it’s not like that anymore. Not by a long shot.
Today’s sports landscape for young people is highly structured. Coaches, practice schedules, team dynamics, high-pressure games, expenses, and travel are intense and unremitting. Teams are not formed organically from amongst good friends; instead, they are primarily chosen by adults whose priority is to win. If your child participates in youth sports at the middle school or high school level (or younger), it’s weighty emotional business. As a licensed athletic trainer (LAT) within ThedaCare Orthopedic Care, Elle Kosciuk works full time at Shawano Community Middle School, and she sees a lot of this emotional weight as it’s thrown around amongst peers, coaches, and parents. Here’s some of what she’s learned about sports and emotions in the world of a young person:
- Adults like to associate “life lessons” with the sphere of sports: Learn to win and lose gracefully. You can’t win ‘em all. Work as a team. Yes, these are all true and good, but most middle school and high school athletes are too young to make life lessons connections in sports. They do not yet possess the wisdom or emotional maturity to extrapolate their experiences on a team, on the field, or in the hallways or locker room to the wider world they will face as young adults. “Their main priority is to try hard, have fun, and achieve some level of success in their play,” Kosciuk said. In time, young people may look back and make these deeper connections to their early sports experiences, but for now, it doesn’t pay to preach about life lessons. They’ve got too many other balls in the air.
- Young people have a hard time separating their self-worth from a big blow to their egos, whether it’s being cut from a team, missing the game-winning free throw, or dealing with complicated teammate relationships. Young athletes tend to associate every failure (or big success) with their worth as a person. Trauma over a snub from a peer, a mistake on the field, or a failed tryout can balloon into an existential crisis. A teen’s prideful swagger can also balloon to an egotistical crisis, so parents have to be prepared to deal with both extremes. Here’s how Kosciuk advises parents to help their young athletes through a tough time with the team:
“Give your child time with his or her feelings,” Kosciuk said. Sadness about a loss, a screw-up, or being cut from a team is deserving of disappointment. Don’t rush in to save your child from these emotions. He or she needs to experience these feelings to constructively work through the struggle and put it in the past.
Explain that a bad experience does not make your child, a person with lots of different qualities and talents, a failure as a human. It may not be an easy sell, but plant a seed so he or she thinks about this idea in quieter moments. Bad day at sports? Your little brother still thinks you’re a hero. Feeling like you don’t fit in with a clique on the team? Remember all your awesome friends in band, scouts, or youth group. “Sports are important, but they do not represent a person’s entire worth,” Kosciuk said.
Model appropriate responses to failure. Aside from words of support and comfort, Kosciuk suggests you say as little as possible. Do not get angry or vengeful. Conduct yourself like an adult and you will provide your child with a powerful model for handling setbacks. When the time is right, your job is to explain to your child he or she is not alone in such disappointments and it’s a common life experience.
Parent the successful young athlete as much as the struggling one. When you are the star of the team, there is a tendency to believe that sports are everything and you are the hottest star in the sky. Energetically celebrate success, but reign in an overblown ego with talk about other team members’ contributions, how hard the coaches work to guide the team, or point out the parents who travel and support the team. “Youth sports are made possible by hundreds of behind-the-scenes boosters who rarely get applause. No one does it alone,” Kosciuk said.
- Mom and Dad matter more than you know. Sure, your athlete acts cool when you come to the game and he or she acts cool when you miss the game, too. But the truth is, it’s a big disappointment when you don’t show up; or worse, if you do come and shout instructions or condemnations from the sidelines. Come and watch with the best of intentions.
Kosciuk says, “A lot of the kids I see in the training room aren’t really hurt,” meaning they aren’t physically injured, but they may need a little help to sort out where the hurt is coming from. And if an athlete does suffer a physical injury, his or her emotional state will profoundly affect the healing process. With the right perspective and support, parents, coaches, and trainers can really help heal a kid’s injury, whether it’s to body or soul.
For more than 100 years, ThedaCare™ has been committed to finding a better way to deliver serious and complex healthcare to patients throughout Northeast Wisconsin. The organization serves over 200,000 patients annually and employs more than 7,000 healthcare professionals throughout the region. ThedaCare has seven hospitals located in Appleton, Neenah, Berlin, Waupaca, Shawano, New London and Wild Rose as well as 32 clinics in nine counties. ThedaCare is the first in Wisconsin to be a Mayo Clinic Care Network Member, giving specialists the ability to consult with Mayo Clinic experts on a patient’s care. ThedaCare is a non-profit healthcare organization with a level II trauma center, comprehensive cancer treatment, stroke and cardiac programs as well as a foundation dedicated to community service. For more information, visit www.thedacare.org or follow ThedaCare on Facebook and Twitter.