The Cost of Winning (Revised)

Note: This post has been radically modified from a previous version (which I virtually crumpled up and tossed in the garbage can). Blogging mad isn’t good for the soul.

Here’s the honest truth about kids’ sports – yeah, they’re great and teach kids all sorts of valuable life lessons about teamwork, leadership, dealing with adversity, etc. But when winning comes at the expense of kids’ health – physical, mental, or emotional – it’s just not worth it.

We’ve experienced being part of a “winning program”. There’s no doubt about it, winning is fun. It’s fun to be known far and wide for being excellent at something. The newspaper clippings, the radio and tv coverage, the awards and honors – they’re exciting. And seeing your child’s hard work pay off is immensely rewarding. But behind all the trophies, plaques, and medals, there’s often an untold story. A dark side, if you will.

Too many hours in a gym can also result in orthopedist visits, countless hours of physical therapy, x-rays, MRI’s, and even surgery. Lately, our coach has been pushing for my daughter to get a cortisone injection for the tendonitis in her hitting shoulder. Her inability to “terminate the ball” is costing him wins, and he wants a quick fix. It worked for another hitter on the team, so why can’t we do it too? Did I mention this is high school volleyball?

Winning can become an addiction that clouds your better judgement. The line between right and wrong gets blurred when you cross uber-competitive kids with an extremely driven coach. Parents often feel stuck between wanting their kids to succeed and doing what’s best for their health. So we sometimes make bad decisions.

I know I’ve been guilty of letting my kid play when she probably shouldn’t. As she’s gotten older and we’ve both gotten a little wiser, we’ve learned to listen to her doctors and her physical therapists instead of falling victim to the coach’s “play at any cost” mentality. Sometimes that means butting heads with a Hall of Fame coach, which certainly isn’t easy.

We’re taught to respect coaches, so having to stand up to one and say NO is scary. But here’s the thing about respect – it’s something that is earned. Coaches should be judged like anyone else – by their actions, not their accolades. A good coach will respect the advice of health care professionals and respect an athlete’s desire to do what’s right for her own body. If that respect is missing, all bets are off and you shouldn’t feel even the tiniest shred of guilt for standing up for your child and her health.

Aside from the physical cost of winning, there can be some just as damaging mental and emotional effects. The pressure to keep winning can be intense, especially if dominance in a particular sport is a school’s only claim to fame. Student athletes in these winning programs are under pressure to maintain the dynasty and live up to expectations. The focus can easily turn from developing as a player and as a team to breaking records and increasing streaks. Sometimes too much winning can result in a quest for perfection that is simply not attainable. The pressure to be perfect will burn out an athlete quicker than anything.

Coming back again to coaches and respect, the same rules apply for a child’s mental and emotional health. A good coach will treat his players with dignity and respect and try to build them up instead of tear them down. Is there a place for criticism in the coach/player relationship? Yes…as long as it is constructive and is aimed at improving the player’s game.

When the coaching becomes more about belittling the players than encouraging them to improve, there’s a problem. Some coaches with a winning record fall prey to the notion that since they’ve won for years and years and years, they alone hold the key to winning. So if the winning isn’t happening, it must be because of the players. Unfortunately, that can lead to negative coaching which relies on criticism that isn’t constructive. Living with that kind of behavior from a coach, day in and day out, can be extremely damaging to a child’s self esteem.

Are there winning programs that respect players’ physical, mental, and emotional health? Absolutely. But not all of us are lucky enough to find ourselves in one of those. The bottom line is that it is our duty as parents and as fans to know what’s going on behind the scenes. We need to be advocates for our student athletes, even if that means standing up to a coach with a winning record. Because the cost of winning is not worth our children’s well-being.

Namaste.

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When Dreams Die

“You’re going to be a volleyball star someday,” the PE teacher told my daughter in Kindergarten. Thus began a dream that consumed almost an entire childhood. Now, standing on the brink of that dream’s death, it’s hard to know how to feel. Depressed? Angry? Relieved?

My daughter had to wait three years after the aforementioned prophecy from her PE teacher (who also happens to be the VB coach) to actually begin playing. When the note about Junior Olympic volleyball came home in third grade, our first answer was no. But my daughter felt destiny tugging at her even then – she begged and pleaded and sobbed until we finally agreed to let her play.

Her first years on the court weren’t pretty. She was probably one of the worst kids on the team. But she had natural athletic ability, determination, and coachability. She was willing go the extra mile, work a little harder than the rest, and do what she was told. Those qualities propelled her to success, and her dream of being a star outside hitter grew.

By sixth grade, she was playing a spring Junior Olympic season and a regular fall school season every year, in addition to attending every open gym and extra hitting practice she could. Our lives revolved around volleyball. She ate, slept, and breathed the sport. There was little time in her life for normal kid activities. Our friends and family grew accustomed to hearing, “Sorry, we can’t – we have volleyball.”

She started dressing varsity in eighth grade and took on a starting role as an outside hitter in ninth grade. The summer before becoming a starter, she had a health scare that threatened everything. She was evaluated for Marfan Syndrome and had to see a pediatric geneticist and a pediatric cardiologist before being allowed to continue playing sports of any kind. There were some tough days and a lot of tears and anxiety leading up to her appointment. She wasn’t ready to give up her dream.

Ultimately, it was decided that she did not have Marfan’s, but we were warned that her loose joints put her at higher risk for injury. The geneticist told us quite frankly that her body might not hold up. But we were so relieved to have the signed physical form in our hands that the warning barely registered with us. We walked out of there and never looked back.

By tenth grade, the buzz surrounding my daughter grew. She’d been told at a combine-like event that she had “tremendous upside” as a potential college player. She was showing up in the newspaper, on the radio, and even had an Athlete of the Week segment air on local TV. Her numbers were huge that fall season, and her coach was pushing for her to go D1. But the immense pressure and all her gym time took a toll on my daughter, mentally and physically.

As the pressure to succeed mounted, so did my daughter’s anxiety and depression. Often, she was so distraught that we were afraid to leave her home alone, not knowing what she might do. At the same time, it became clear that D1 was outside the realm of possibility for one simple reason – my daughter quit growing at 5’7″. She was nowhere near tall enough to play outside hitter at the D1 level, no matter how much she or her coach wanted it. The dream would have to be modified. My daughter took a deep breath and decided that D2 was a more reasonable goal.

The summer before 11th grade was a turning point. Hoping to make a good impression, my daughter attended a volleyball camp at the D2 college she had set her sights on. She made that good impression by winning the G Award at camp, but quickly realized that she didn’t care for the volleyball program there. In fact, she was concerned that playing at the D2 level might be more pressure and more of a time commitment than she could give. She worried a lot about disappointing people, especially her coach.

That same summer, we sought professional mental health care for her, because her anxiety and depression were not getting any better. It was during the sessions with her psychologist and psychiatrist that we learned that the “volleyball only” atmosphere she’d grown up in was extremely unhealthy. Kids and teens need balance in their lives – they need time with friends and family, as well as time to just hang out and be a kid. We’d done our daughter a great disservice by allowing and even encouraging her single-minded pursuit of volleyball greatness.

It took prescription meds and many visits to finally get her back to a good emotional and mental place. Part of reaching that place involved modifying her dream once again. If D3 was where she’d feel most comfortable, that’s where she needed to go, regardless of pressure from her coach. My daughter had a D3 college ready and waiting, eager for her to join their team. Her high school coach was disappointed, but my daughter quit caring as much about what he thought. She was exhausted and a little fed up with all the pressure to perform.

Meanwhile, it was becoming clear that there was a problem with my daughter’s hitting shoulder. Joint instability and overuse caused chronic tendonitis that plagued her throughout the 11th grade fall season and caused her to sit out most of the following Junior Olympic season. There were consults with orthopedists and physical therapists, and she was given exercises to try to strengthen surrounding muscles. But the fact remained – if she continued to play, she would continue to struggle with tendonitis. Even if we found a surgeon willing to do something, there was no guarantee it would work.

Suddenly, the prospect of even playing D3 was gone. I watched as one day she sought out her future D3 coach and told her that her career was over after high school. Just like that, it was done. I was sad and deflated – so much time and effort for what felt like no return. But curiously, my daughter felt differently. She was relieved. For the first time since she was nine years old, there was no pressure.

She entered her 12th grade season with a sense of calm. She’d gotten her 1000th kill the year before, and her 1000th dig seemed inevitable. The team was playing well together, and a trip to State seemed likely. Her brand new dream was to finish her Senior season and move onto the bright future awaiting her (thanks to her 4.0 gpa and excellent ACT score). Even when the tendonitis limited her practice and playing time, she didn’t worry. She planned to tough it out if necessary to finish the season strong and help get her team to State.

BUT…one day in practice, she dove for a ball and partially dislocated her left shoulder (not her hitting one). Even though it popped right back in before she even got up off the floor, she was in pain. She toughed it out for a game the following day and a weekend tournament, but she was suffering. A trip to the orthopedist left us with the opinion that there’s a 50/50 chance she has a torn labrum. Both her doc and her physical therapist say it’s okay for her to try to finish out the season, but the reality is that she might not be able to. It might end up being too painful. And if that shoulder should dislocate again, she’s done right then and there.

As it is, we’re looking at an MRI after the season and a discussion about possible surgery. Her latest dream of simply finishing out her Senior season is in jeopardy every time she steps onto the court. I know some people think that allowing her to try is insane. But I have to let her see this through if she truly wants to.

This dream has existed in some form or another for over half her life. It’s been modified and scaled down so many times that it doesn’t even remotely resemble the dream she began with. Every step of the way, it has withered a little more, but it’s not dead yet.  Yes, it will be sad when it is.

But I’ve also learned enough of my child’s determination and resilience to know that this broken, dead volleyball dream will get replaced by something new. Something better. Something that will be shaped by my daughter’s experiences and her desire to teach others. She has a lot to say to young athletes, and I hope someday she’ll get the chance to do so.

Until then, we’re taking each practice and each game as it comes, praying to be granted just a few more weeks on the court.

Namaste.

Stretched

Close to the beginning of The Lord of the Rings, Bilbo tells Gandalf, “Why, I feel all thin, sort of stretched, if you know what I mean: like butter that has been scraped over too much bread.”

Yes, Bilbo, I know exactly what you mean. I’d like to have a big party, give all my stuff away, and go off wandering. But I can’t.

Every year, this online school adventure gets harder and harder. The curriculum is great, but the teacher quality is going down, and the technological side of it is getting extremely difficult to maintain. In addition, we’re struggling (and I do mean struggling) to get Kid 1 through her Senior season of volleyball. She desperately wants to finish what she started, but the universe seems to have other ideas.

Some day, I would love to dedicate a few posts to kids’ sports, because we’ve learned some hard lessons along the way – lessons that might keep others from making the same mistakes we’ve made. Some day I will, I promise. But right now I’m just focused on getting through today.

And today I feel stretched. Like Bilbo. So I had to stop in here and remind myself to breathe. Just breathe. It’s Monday, and everyone knows that Mondays suck. If anyone else is feeling like this today, let this be your reminder, too.

Keep breathing. Tomorrow will be a new day.

Namaste.