This used to be my playground
Ever wake up in the morning, early on a Saturday and the alarm is blaring because it’s time to get up for practice and wonder if you should even bother? You’re exhausted, as most teens are, from the constant pulling in many directions, conflicting standards of different authorities in your life, navigating new territory pretty much daily, emotional ups and downs that are partly environment and partly hormones that you’re being held captive by, and then somehow- no matter how hard you try- often feeling like you’ve let someone, somewhere down? In a world that is already hard to navigate, right and wrong no longer being very clearly defined, and a microscope of video, social media putting a bright spotlight on you, and posted photos that can be expanded to extreme close ups to show any tiny perfection and mocked and shared limitlessly.
It’s in this world that your alarm clock is beckoning you to get up and get dressed for practice, to go to the sport that you used to run to for fun and confidence as a little kid. That place where making friends was easy and the coaches played games like tag, and they acted silly right along with you and thought everything you did, even messing up was hilariously adorable. When losing meant getting an understanding hug and some ice cream and winning meant pretty much the same thing. This used to be your playground, it used to be the place you ran too for comfort, solace, fun, excitement, and joy.
But in this new world as a teenager, the sport is connected to new feelings. Instead of a release and a place for building connections and friendships and fun, it’s become a place connected to dread. A fear of mistakes and the dread of punishment runs. A fear of being called out in front of the team for mistakes and a dread of not mastering a skill in the expected amount of time. A fear of misunderstanding the directions and the dread of being first in line and being exposed as someone not paying attention. A fear of that giggle with a friend because it means you’re not focused, but then the fear of not giggling when the coach has decided it’s ok to be goofy in that moment and you’re not sure where the line is.
This is the time that sports purge athletes in record numbers, with over 70% in player drop off. Often players site two reasons – lack of time, and lack of enjoyment. Many will say they just don’t love the sport anymore. But I challenge you to invite a former player of any sport to participate in a free pick-up game, with no coaches and just their friends and other people who love the game and I can bet they would have a blast. That their love of the actual game is there, intact, fully functional and missing it.
They haven’t lost their love of the game – the game is fun! They’ve lost their love of the way the game is being taught, played, trained and how it makes them feel. The fun has been removed, and it can hardly be called a game anymore. It’s being turned into a job. There are many skills athletes learn from sports that will make them better at their jobs classified as hard work; determination, perseverance, growth etc, but fun is also one of them. I can train intensely hard for something, or on a job task while continuing to find fulfilment, enjoyment, fun, and excitement. It doesn’t have to be one or the other.
My advice to any teens who feel like they are losing the love of the game would be to go search for a coach and a program that embraces connection, fun, and joy in learning. A coach that gets you excited about learning, mastery, and training to get better. A coach you can’t wait to show your progress and excitement too.
A coach you choose may be very successful, but wins don’t define happiness- they never have and never will. Is your coach enthusiastic about training or too busy punishing and yelling to crack a smile and make it fun? Is your coach still in love with the game, were they ever, are they there for a paycheck or title, ego, or because they can’t say no? Because if they aren’t in love with the game, there’s a good chance you will struggle to hold onto yours. Does your coach light up when they teach? Or seem annoyed and quickly agitated? Are they patient? Will they allow you to ask questions until you get it or do you feel pressured to understand right away or hide that you don’t get it? Do you ever feel set up to fail, or do you feel you have a guide who’s committed to making sure you don’t get left behind?
If your practice isn’t a place you run to as your place of joy, if training hard and getting sweaty and feeling a little sore doesn’t make you feel proud because you know you’re getting stronger, if that training feels like punishment and failure, if you are afraid to ask questions or have the coach watch you to give you feedback, if the people on your team make you feel like you don’t belong and you can’t seem to feel a part of the team, if you think about skipping practice more often than not, then you may need to get out of there, and find a better fit.
As parents we must ask better questions when signing our kids up for training and programs. We are investing huge sums of money into these programs with very little accountability, and we are investing something much more important – our kids. We need to watch a practice and watch the sideline at a game and decide if this is a good fit for our kid. It doesn’t matter how many games they win, if their social media makes them look like the most fun team on the planet, or what kids they get recruited, or if they offer new and exciting this or that, or big name player/coaches. What is happening to your kids love of the game and training? What’s on the players faces in the half-time and post game talks? How is their self-talk being affected?
Is the twinkle still in their eye when they hit the field, how about when they leave the field?