Did everyone see this clip, of the parents of U.S. Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman?
They are not just feeling what most parent would feel while watching their child compete, at any level: the sense that you hope like hell that she won’t fall/that he’ll save the goal/that she makes the point. No, Mr. and Mrs. Raisman were living their little girl’s every move. Doing the moves for her in their heads, even with their bodies. It was excruciating to watch.
I don’t ever want to be that parent.
We have a little bit of Olympic fever in our house. Well, mostly, my younger son, 7-year-old James, has Olympic fever. He’s pretty equal-opportunity in his love of watching sports, so far, though give him a soccer game and let him know “who we’re rooting for,” and he’s all set. But he also will watch just about any event for at least some length of time. For example, just last night we put on one of the non-prime-time channels that’s broadcasting the more obscure (read: not swimming or gymnastics) events. And James, for the 15 minutes it took, got totally into a women’s judo match between an American and an Italian. (“Do it! Go! … She’s down! Mom, she wins the bronze!“)
He’d never seen judo before. In fact, he’d heard of judo before.
Yeah, yeah, it’s all super cute.
But then I got to thinking — though my son is enamored with sports, and is competitive, and plays his own favorite sport, soccer, each spring and fall — he’s still not what anyone would call obsessed.
And as his parents (me, you’ve met; and my husband, who is also our boy’s soccer coach), neither are we.
As much as I jumped up and down like a lunatic on the soccer sidelines the first time my son’s (to start with) ne’er do well team, the Tigersharks, scored a goal, there’s still a part of me that would be very happy to keep it right there — at this level. On the sidelines, cheering a hard-working team that is clearly mostly having a great time and looking forward to the end-of-season picnic. This coming year, kids my son’s age are eligible to try out for a travel team. James is pretty good — at least, others who know more about soccer than I do tell me he shows promise — but he didn’t even ask about the travel team tryouts. He’s happy to stay a Tigershark.
And I’m beyond happy. I don’t want two or three practices and games a week, off-season training, or to have to buy a team backpack. I just want to throw the ball and the water bottle and the beach chair in the back of the car. And I really hope that’s why my son wants too.
I have a nephew, now 20, who was sports mad as a little kid. At age three, he was reciting the names and jersey numbers of all the players on his favorite teams. Over and over. Toss a ball his way — any ball — and he could play. Soccer was his game, too. He did the travel teams. He had the dad marching up and down the sidelines shouting and directing. He played up until his freshman year of high school, and then he just … quit. He had stomach aches and anxiety attacks before every game and was smart enough to realize that he just wasn’t having fun anymore.
This is not a new story, of course. None of us sets out, as parents who want to sign our kids up for soccer or Little League or gymnastics or ice skating or lacrosse, to become that parent of that kid. Probably Aly Raisman’s parents signed her up for gymnastics to burn off some of her excess toddler energy, or because her friends were doing it, or because of any number of reasons that didn’t have to do with Olympic dreams.
At what point does it switch over? Who flips the switch — the parents or the kids? Or the coach? I’m not sure. I’ve talked to lots of soccer parents, particularly those who are doing the travel teams thing. They seem to fall into two camps: those who are following their kids’ lead — seeing that spark in their child and letting him run with it; and those who may be doing that, but who are also making calculations in their heads about high school stardom and college scholarships. There are those who keep one semi-critical eye on things like how the child is continuing to enjoy the sport, or not; or on how the coaches are behaving; on the time and financial commitment. And there are those who abandon all, or most, consideration of those things and just keep going.
At what point do you go from sitting in your beach chair to squirming in obvious gut-twisting distress in an Olympic stadium? At what point is it less about the kid, or the sport?
I ask because I’m not sure. Can we talk about it? What do you think?