Posts Tagged ‘sports’

I’ve been working on this sports book project for over seven years. I have tried to identify the personal places I need to grow and some of what I’ve worked through has been tough to process. I have avoided thinking or writing about this one…until now.

I am proud of my sports story. I played four years as a Division I soccer player and a year as a Division III basketball player. I achieved recognition in both sports. It is only recently I have been forced to contend with the fact that how I accomplished what I did wasn’t really all that good. There was a lot of pain for that gain, and more than there should have been.

Generally, I pay attention to those things that strike a nerve with me. A pain-filled nerve was struck for me three times in the past ten days and I need to attend to the thoughts that have emerged.

Last week, a friend of mine shared that her daughter had suffered intensely over the winter months of her sport season. The coach was emotionally abusive, but no one wanted to deal with it because the team was winning. It is a difficult position for kids and families to be in. Their choice is to endure the abuse for the sake of the team or stand up for your personal right to health and safety. I always chose the team. Most athletes do. Athletes are encouraged to put team above self and very rarely does anyone consider how potentially damaging that decision can be. Those who stay engaged beyond discomfort, working through humiliation or physical punishment, are lauded and celebrated. Toleration of coach emotional abuse is a complicated issue, but it is high time we begin conversations to change destructive coaching tendencies.

The second thought-provoking instance happened on Facebook. I commented on a shared article post about how NFL coach Mike McCarthy yelled at refs after his kid’s basketball game. I commented that he likely has emotional issues he needs to attend (as does every yelling parent everywhere) and a commenter argued that she was glad she played in a time when coaches were allowed to yell at kids because it made her resilient and tough.

Yelling coaches also made me tough and resilient, for sure. It was my only defense. This instance, however, McCarthy was in the role of a dad. The commenter forgets that a dad’s behavior, even when that dad happens to be a coach, opens an entirely different box of emotional fireworks for his kids.

My drunk and yelling dad certainly contributed to my determination. He was the fuel for my angry energy. His abuse, although explicable, should never have been excused, yet I chalked it up as something that just happens for some fans at sporting events. Too many people say the same thing.

I suffered emotional abuse at the hands of my alcoholic father, a number of times in connection to basketball memories specifically, but I forgive him. I forgive him for yelling at referees during games because he was battling his own demons. I forgive him for drinking four beers in fifteen minutes before driving me and a teammate home from a game he coached because I know he wanted the withdrawal-shaking to stop. I forgive him for showing up drunk at the hospital because I too found it a little overwhelming that I broke both my arm and my leg in one fall. I forgive him for standing me up when he told me he would take me to dinner after a college game and I forgive him for missing my senior season in college because he was in jail.

I forgive him, but I continue to be affected by how those memories shaped me.

I thought I had completely moved past my emotional abuses, and in relation to my dad I’m doing pretty well. I also had pretty decent coaches growing up and aside from one horrific conditioning night, as punishment for an irretrievable season, I wouldn’t say I was abused by coaches.

Coming to terms with the part I played in tolerating and perpetuating my own abuse, however, has been harder to work through.

The third nerve-strike happened when my husband and I were watching an ESPN 30 for 30 show last week about professional wrestler Ric Flair (AKA Nature Boy). I was riveted. He wrestled for forty years. Each day he would abuse his body on the mat and then he would drink five cocktails and ten beers at night. Every. Single. Night. His son was on the same trajectory of becoming a professional wrestler and a raging alcoholic, when he overdosed on drugs and died. Flair’s daughter is now wrestling on the professional circuit, in honor of her brother. I couldn’t turn off the program and I couldn’t get the story off my mind.

I recognized the tendencies, the addiction, and the dysfunctional drive. The question that then arrived was “Can an Athlete Self-Abuse?”

It seems like I should have known the answer to that already. Obviously they can. There are eating disorders, addiction to exercise, and toleration of abuses that should never be tolerated. I’ve recognized self-abuse in others, yet I hadn’t ever turned the mirror to acknowledge that I too abused myself in the name of sport.

You would think it would be easy to write that, “I was abused in sport”, but it’s not easy to admit. The thing is, my abuse was subtle, never criminal, and, disturbingly, mostly at my own hands.

I achieved recognition for playing and I prided myself on the highest level of sacrifice in that pursuit. The thing is, I had no clue what I was pursuing. No one asked me my long term goals and I know for a fact I couldn’t have offered one had they inquired.

Without a doubt, I battled with RED-S Syndrome starting in high school and all four years of college. It is an energy deficiency complication that affects all systems of the body, including the psychological aspects of performance. It was not diagnosed while I was an athlete, but all the evidence is there. I didn’t start my period until after I turned 16, I broke two bones in one fall, I was diagnosed with anemia in college, and I spent more time in the training room than I did on the field.

In spite of injury after injury in college and lackluster performance after puberty, I kept at it. I was tough, resilient, and gritty. I wanted to prove to the world and to myself that I was above my circumstances. I was stronger than anything that might have made me feel shameful and I could prove it. It seemed like a constructive mindset at the time, but in conjunction with everything else I hadn’t taken the time to analyze, this was not my healthiest time.

I tolerated practically anything. I put up with: sexist weight room attendants and coaches, whispers of icky sexual advances by gymnastics coaches, rumors of players sleeping with coaches, having to talk a coach out of his “funk” because he was distraught our 16-year-old captain wasn’t paying enough attention to him, driving a van full of college teammates, as a freshman, back from Nebraska at 90-miles an hour because the hungover assistant coach couldn’t drive, driving 45 minutes one way to coach for my childhood club even though I passed five other clubs along the way, accepting the emergency hire position to replace an emotionally abusive coach, agreeing to clean up his mess even though I had three children under the age of five and I had no aspirations of being a college coach. There is a lot more, but you get the idea.

I was the punchbag clown that kept popping back up after being beaten down in order to prove I could take anything that came my way. I must have thought I deserved to be injured or hurting practically all the time.

My work with this book project, including my relationship with sport and finding healthful ways for our family to navigate sports, I am convinced there are healthier ways to engage.

There is a difference between grit and self-abuse.

Self-abuse is behavior that causes damage or harm to oneself.

The definition of grit that resonates most with me comes from Cindra Kamphoff’s book Beyond Grit: Ten Powerful Practices to Gain the High-Performance Edge. She writes, “The leaders I see kill it know their goals, know why they are pursuing their goals, and keep going despite setbacks and adversity. Without understanding why you want to achieve your goals, it is almost impossible to stay devoted in your pursuit.”

As a high school and college athlete, I didn’t have goals or a clear idea of why I was pursuing them. I just knew sports kept me busy, afforded me recognition and success, and was the proof I could offer the world that I was worth something.

Healthy athletes have goals and clear boundaries. They know what exercises strengthen them and what exercises hurt them. They realize they need to push muscles through micro-tears to make them stronger, but they don’t push hard enough to inflict harm or injury.

If you haven’t had conversations with your children or your athletes about goals and boundaries, it is time.

Ask these questions:

What are your athletic goals? What are the ways you are pushed too far past your emotional boundaries?

Keep in mind, stretch and challenge is what grows you, but pushing too far can damage you. It is a fine line.

Emotional abuse is “making an individual fear that they will not receive the food or care they need.” In the context of sports emotional abuse plays on fear of not achieving a place on the team, playing time, or opportunities at the next level. That fear can be imposed upon an athlete or it can be internally driven.

Where is the line between challenging a kid and crushing him?

Where is the line between pushing a kid and paralyzing her?

Where is the line between internal grit and self-abuse?

The answers to those questions are unique and different for everyone. Part of why coaches avoid the “emotions” conversation with teams is because it’s exhausting to imagine addressing the emotional needs of each and every athlete. There is not a playbook that can be shared or X’s and O’s that make sense in the emotional world. Each athlete’s emotional needs and journey are theirs alone and it is difficult to appropriately navigate that journey but oh-so-necessary.

Sports Abuse is real. There is physical, sexual, mental, and emotional abuses happening consistently by coaches, parents and by the athletes themselves. Since we have our kids in sports for their health and well-being, and as exhausting as this work is going to be, it’s time to pursue the complete health and well-being for people who show up to take part in sports, and work to end the abuses we’ve let run rampant for way too long.

Copyright 2019 Meagan Frank

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The high school team I coach facilitates a free after school soccer club at the area elementary schools. Third, fourth, and fifth graders stay to play. There is nothing riding on these games, but emotional outbursts can still happen.

During yesterday’s games there was sadness, happiness, frustration, anger, embarrassment, anxiety and elation. The emotions arrived in tears, laughter, elbow-throwing, foot stomping, jovial chattering, nervousness and silent observation. It was an energized room, but the emotions didn’t come from who you might expect.

Probably five minutes into the first game, one of the girls hauled off and kicked a bullet of a ball right into the gut of a boy on the opposing team. He fielded the physical blow well, but when he saw her laughing, it became apparent he was not going to be able to field the emotional blow quite as well.

“That hurt,” he said, turning toward me holding his stomach while big, real tears rolled down his cheeks.

“Did it knock the wind out of you?” I asked.

“No,” he sniffled, “that was mean, she’s laughing at me.”

“Are you too hurt to play?” I asked.

The waterworks continued.

“Ok, why don’t you stay here and take a little breather until you feel ready to play again.” His body wasn’t hurt, but his feelings certainly were.

Ten and eleven-year-old boys are often more sensitive and emotional than girls the same age.

Things will change in a few years when hormones come on board, but I wanted to give him the space he needed to process.

As I finished the last part of my invitation to rest, one of the other boys in the game swung hard to kick a ball. He connected with part of it, but the bigger part of his energy went to sending his shoe flying. With just the right trajectory, the shoe slipped out of sight and into the gap between a mat and the wall.

“I lost my shoe!” the boy yelled. He looked over where I was consoling his friend and then he too began to cry.

“Well, I’m sure we can get it back. Here, come see if you can slide in behind the mat.” Both boys followed me on our new quest to retrieve the lost shoe. The crying stopped as the boys became consumed with problem-solving for shoe-retrieval. After the sadness faded, they played the rest of the day without incident.

Later in the session, the most aggressive player in the gym, a fifth grade girl, offended a boy she was challenging when she threw herself physically into a tackle. It was not a foul, but it was aggressive.

The two players looked at me to see if I was going to react and I said, “Wow, she’s playing tough.” They both turned back to the play with invigorated intensity.

I share these two examples because adults make mistakes too often when it comes to fielding the emotions of athletes, especially along gendered lines. In a single sentence I could have told the crying boys to toughen up and quit the crying or I could have told the aggressive girl to back off because she was too intense. It would have been the wrong response in both instances.

Adults need to pay attention to gendered responses to emotional athletes, and most especially boys. It is far less accepted, especially in the sporting arena, to allow emotional space for boys. I do believe emotional mastery is the most powerful tool kids can be given and they have to have room to practice.

In a 2014 article in Greater Good Magazine called Debunking Myths about Boys and Emotions  the author, Vicki Zakrzewski, argues that all kids have emotional capacity but boys are too often discouraged from those tendencies. Zakrzewski writes “Changing our society’s beliefs about boys’ social and emotional capacities won’t happen over night, but both educators and parents can do a lot to help them cultivate the capacities they already possess.”

Emotions exist in all athletes. Period.

Team Adult has a wonderful opportunity in and through sports to enter into a journey to guide kids toward the most appropriate responses to emotions that overwhelm them. We have to come to terms with the fact that the stereotypes most people believe about gender and emotion are wrong.

Regardless of gender, space and acknowledgment of emotions is the first step to helping kids achieve mastery over them. Gender expectations must be abandoned and emotional athletes must be coached well, one feeling at a time .

Copyright Choosing to Grow 2019                                     www.meaganfrank.com

No, seriously, check your feelings before you walk out the door. Decide which emotions are useful, to you and to your sporting child, and leave the rest at home. Intentional presence will positively enhance every part of your day, and has potential to be a game changer for you as a sports parent.

I’ll expand on that in a second, but first I want to tell you about a celebration we had in our house last week.

Middle Sprout had a horrible hockey game. I’m not kidding, it was like the worst game she has maybe ever played. On the heels of a really emotional week for her team, after two days of finals (including her hardest test the day of the game), she struggled to focus like she usually can in net.

As a goalie, she is vulnerable to the extremes of emotion. When she plays out of her mind, stopping every shot she sees, she is on cloud nine. The days she is mucked up with distraction, or over-exhaustion, she usually doesn’t perform well and it feels pretty horrible.

The unwritten rule of being a goalie’s mom is that I am supposed to feel how she feels.

This is a flawed rule, and I have worked hard to break it as often as I can. It is not easy, but it is so worth it.

There are a lot of goalie moms (and dads) who feel what their kids do. It’s my suspicion many parents discourage their kids from playing goalie because they do not want to have to navigate the emotional minefield (oh yeah, and pay for all that gear). Goalie parents don’t hold the corner on emotional attachment to athletes, however.

My disclaimer is that I am not the typical sports parent.

I work hard to be in my own emotional space when it comes to our kids’ sports experiences, and I choose for that space to be a positive one. It helps me to be a better mom for them. I contend that the entire youth sports environment would be vastly improved if people were willing to engage in personal emotional work.

It Matters that Parents Rise Above Emotion, Not Become It

When our goalie daughter has a rough day, if I am in the muck with her, how do I support her? If, at the end of a tough day, I need a hug more than she does, how does that help her?

The same applies when I coach. I work on maintaining control of my emotions. If I am overwhelmed by emotion I cannot make the best tactical or instructional decisions. Objectivity is the regular victim of undisciplined emotion.

I have practiced understanding and controlling my emotions for a really long time: as an athlete, as a coach, as the spouse of a coach (yes, even as a spouse: it’s tough to hear unfair things said about a person you love) and as a parent of athletes. All sports endeavors are filled with emotion, so I have had LOTS of practice. (forty-something years worth)

I have also been intentional about my study of emotions and how to navigate them. While researching for the book I am writing Choosing to Grow: For the Sport of It, Feeling My Way, I have uncovered nugget after nugget about the power of emotional health, and it has changed my relationship with sport, enhanced my relationships in my family, and it has improved my ability to coach.

I was happy after last week’s awful game. Not because our daughter struggled. Not because the team lost 10-1. Not because there was plenty of hurt and upset for the girls and their parents. I was really happy because I have actually found a way to separate myself from the emotions that used to govern me. My strategy last week included concentrating on the parts of my presence at that game that brought me happiness:

  • Our entire family was together in the same room.
  • Teachers from the high school were there supporting the team.
  • I felt good about organizing the celebration for the seniors and their parents.
  • I had my camera in tow and I love taking pictures.
  • And, we had a short trip home that night.

The things that made me happy were not huge things, but concentrating my thoughts on those positive aspects of the evening, influenced my mood significantly.

After the game, as I prepared for the hug I knew I would need to deliver to a sad and disappointed daughter, I smiled and laughed at a funny story. I was still smiling when another hockey parent stopped me. He asked me how I could be so happy all the time. (I know he was referencing the hockey mom rule I like to break) I take his comment as probably one of the most extreme compliments I have ever been paid. I am increasingly happy because I have put a lot of energy into self-reflection and legitimate work into understanding and processing MY emotions around our kids’ sports.

It’s true. I have been working through and writing about emotion since I started my first Choosing to Grow project. A few highlights of the ways I have written about and exposed my wounds as they pertain to emotion in sport are:

I would say that the majority of people would rather avoid the “feelings” talk, and especially in sporting arenas. It is deeper and more painful than most people want to engage. My hope is to move the needle past that status quo. People will benefit from introspection, relationships with the children in our lives will improve, and if we are going to have any chance at positively impacting the youth sports landscape, we have to start paying serious attention to the emotions we carry.

Answer these questions honestly: How emotionally tied are you to the outcome of a game or to the performance of your child? When your kid makes a glaring mistake, how do you feel? Really think about it…which emotion do you feel most? Anger? Sadness? Frustration? Shame? What about when your child succeeds? Joy? Excitement? Happiness? Pride? How would you describe your level of emotion when you watch your children compete?

STEP ONE: Acknowledge the feelings you feel.  Feelings are never wrong and they are always trying to tell us something

STEP TWO: Identify the trigger for your emotions.

The second step is figuring out why you might be feeling the way you do. What is triggering your emotion? And don’t take the easy way out and say, “Well, obviously I’m pissed because my kid sucks.” I contend there is more to it than that. Why do you care so much if your kid makes a mistake? You’re not the one who failed. What else might be making you angry?

One of the women I interviewed for my book told me that watching her kid play is like watching her heart out there running around. Well, that sounds pretty vulnerable. Could being angry be a defense mechanism? Could something else in your life be an underlying reason for anger?

I will warn you, introspection will change the way you watch games. It is admittedly a bit of a buzz kill for those parent-fans who enjoy the emotional roller coaster. I chose to work through these things because I wanted to improve my relationships with our kids and I wanted to learn how to best parent them through youth sports. That may not be a priority of yours, but know that choosing the fan experience over the parenting one could make the navigation through youth sports more negative and difficult. Plus, it really doesn’t help your kid in the long run.

If you are able to identify the trigger for your emotions, STEP THREE: is to Do Something Positive.

Okay, so let’s say your kid swings and misses, spins and falls. You get pissed and are able to admit to yourself that you feel embarrassed. Maybe you figure it has to do with a similar experience you remember as a kid and you were made fun of. Whatever the case, knowing the emotion and the why doesn’t exactly make the feeling disappear. So, what then?

Now comes the harder work. Find something positive to do. Decide to set the feeling aside, on purpose, and do something positive. Seek out ways to help someone else. Go for a walk. Knit a scarf. Pick up your phone and try to take a picture that you know you’ll want to use for your kid’s graduation table. Or better yet, start lugging around a camera and literally change your focus at the games.

If your emotional experience at your kid’s games is impeding the experience for your kid, check your feelings and put in the good work to be intentionally and positively present. Please and thank you. (from a fellow sports parent and coach who happens to be…choosing to grow)

Copyright Choosing to Grow 2019                                     www.meaganfrank.com

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Fight? Flight? Neither. There is a better way.

I’ll get to the strategies for disarming disgruntled parents in a minute, but I want to first lay a backdrop for where pitchfork parents are born.

Do you know what age groups seem to have the craziest sports parents? Well, in my findings, there are two hot spots for emotional craze: when kids are about ten or eleven and then again when they are in high school. There are certainly other times in a child’s athletic journey that can be difficult, (8th grade for instance…probably because it is a transition year) but by and large, those two age groups seem to be the most emotional times for parents.

Why is that? I think it is because there are windows of development, advancement, and opportunity that are opening and closing, and parents know it. Whether they acknowledge it out loud or not, they know that those two chapters in an athlete’s story are pretty important. One is the first chapter and the other is usually the last.

When kids are about ten, they are at the age where they can actually start to look like competent athletes. They are generally really excited and passionate about what they are learning to do and the growth on the learning curve is significant. Parents start to see potential. Many parents do not have a good grasp on the big picture, or patience for the entire story to play out, but they do become involved heavily at these ages. Parents are generally as passionate and excited as their kids when they reach about fifth and sixth grade. Anything that seems as though it might be an obstacle to the trajectory of where kids are headed at that point, can rile up parents incredibly fast.

The high school sports parent craze is multi-faceted. The development of a kid between freshman and senior year is incredible. If you have ever taught or coached in a high school, or raised teenagers, you know the maturity, the confidence, and the growth of independence happens with leaps and bounds throughout the high school years. This can be incredibly emotional and difficult for parents.

If families struggle to have solid communication, if they are challenged to respect a child’s autonomy, or if they are unable to healthfully encourage the independence kids are pursuing, dysfunctional emotion can spill over in buckets around sporting endeavors. That and high school sports are riddled with drama, injury, higher level of competition and rows and rows of parents who are still as passionate and excited for their kids’ athletic pursuits as they were when the kids were little. Maybe more than anything, everyone loves a happy ending and not all sports stories end well.

It matters that coaches pay attention to the emotional phases of the athletes and families they coach. When faced with emotional conversations, it is best if coaches communicate well, because the fight and flight responses are ineffective.

The Fight Technique of Coaches

I, with a few other concerned moms, requested a parent-coach meeting when our oldest son was ten. He was on a Squirt A team for hockey in Minnesota and I had observed some rather disturbing coaching decisions. One incident included an assistant coach being ejected from a game which then led to screaming and ranting his entire trek to the locker room as well as when he was leaving the building. The other incident involved a physical punishment for the chronic tardiness of a player. As each player (who was on time to practice) took to the ice, the assistant coach instructed them to skate sprints until every skater was out of the locker room. The punishment stopped as soon as the late offender arrived.

Now, it should be noted that I was a parent of a kid in an “emotionally-charged stage” where emotions (including my own) were running higher. The coaches we approached for a meeting were parents of kids in that same age group. I was unprepared for the high level of emotion that landed in the room.

,The coach came in with gloves raised. It was made clear very quickly that the coaches were the authority in the room and they were confident in the decisions they were making. The head coach could hardly wrap his head around being accosted in such a way, disregarding most of what I, or anyone else had to say.

I do remember at one point there was an exchange that went something like this: Coach: “What makes you think you can effect any change with a meeting like this?” Me: “Because the boys are still little enough that the coordination of adults can have an effect.” I believed we could have had a group approach that would have been positive for those boys, but the coach fought parental involvement to the bitter end. He lost the respect of many parents that night.

The fight technique continued through the season, including monologue emails, contentious one-on-one conversations and eventually the coach’s was the only voice being heard by the kids. (except for the confused and frustrated conversations happening in everyone’s homes) It was a growing experience in our house, but it truly did not have to be as negative as it was.

Coaches who intimidate or run roughshod over parents can sometimes maintain that posture, but eventually it denigrates the culture of the team or program and causes more harm to kids than good.

The Flight Technique of Coaches

I attended another hockey-parent-called meeting last night, this time for our sixteen-year-old daughter who is a goalie on the high school team. I was more prepared for what I believed would be another emotionally-charged evening.

Initially, the meeting was announced (not by me, I might add) via email. My husband queried whether the coaches were invited. The parents said that they had tried to talk with the coach, but he did not want to talk to them and had directed them to the Athletic Director. The question was then posed about the Athletic Director’s attendance and when an open invitation was sent to the AD, he replied, cc’ing the coaches that he could not attend. Everyone was aware of the meeting.

Neither the AD nor the coaches attended. Several parents noted disappointment in that fact.

I was relieved when, right at the start, a few voices of more seasoned parents calmed the room so that emotions could be somewhat settled and reasonable discussion was possible.

One of the main complaints in the room had to do with communication from the coaches, both with the players and certainly when any of the parents approached for a conversation. I cannot say I completely blame the coach for being hesitant to engage in conversation with some of the parents because he has had heated, in-your-face screaming encounters with a couple of them. He is younger than probably everyone who gathered in the meeting and, at least from my perspective, he is not comfortable with conversations that might be emotionally charged.

However, when it comes to dealing with sports parents, the avoidance technique is as ineffective as the fighting technique. Flight may work for self-preservation, but it is a disastrous coaching technique. One of my friends put it best when she commented on a recent Instablog post: “I often think communication, or lack of…in fact, cutting the parents out of the equation exacerbates these issues.”

Positive Communication Disarms Pitchfork Parents

Ok, so here is the scoop, in brief, for how I address parent communication with my high school boys soccer team and my approach has been generally well received.

Open, honest and consistent communication is key.

  • The pre-season meeting is important. It lays out expectations and philosophy. I make sure I stay consistent with the information I present there.
  • Parents are invited to get involved with a number of in-season activities and then they are assigned tasks as requested. I thank them profusely.
  • I try to be transparent about efforts the staff and team are making throughout the season: explaining some of what we work on throughout a week, what we are facing in our opponents, and plans to address challenges.
  • Most of my communication is delivered in Sunday night emails. They take me about an hour to compose and will lay out the schedule for the week as well as any issues that might be bubbling.
  • I engage in conversation with athletes regularly. When there is a change in lineup, a plan for subbing or an expectation with opponents, I make an effort to talk one-one with the players most affected by those decisions. I explain my reasoning, field questions and seek input.
  • I actively listen to the feedback from players and especially from the captains. Where it is appropriate, I will allow the players to influence decisions that affect them as a team. (i.e. violation of team rules, etc.)
  • I have an open door policy. I do not shy away from conversations that have potential to be difficult. As long as we are not in the 24-hour window post-game, I invite parents to bring concerns to me. Except for rare circumstances, I request the presence of the player at any parent-requested meeting. Many times they want to vent frustrations and I work hard to engage well when they are emotional.

Now, even though I am trained in communication and have studied it extensively for the books I write, even my approach is not a perfect system. I am getting better with experience and practice. I don’t know whether what I do will work as well for other coaches, but what I do know, without a doubt, is disarming emotional sports parents starts with a coach’s willingness to become an effective communicator.

Copyright Choosing to Grow 2018                                     www.meaganfrank.com

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I received a call from a parent a couple weeks ago wondering what to do. His daughter, who is seven, had participated in a “Placement Camp” for her local soccer club. Up to this point she has played rec soccer and the expectation was that she would take part in the club’s team formation for next year. My friend’s daughter likes soccer, but she isn’t any more serious about it than she is about other things she is learning how to do.

There were two teams created for the seven-year-old group and my friend’s daughter was placed on the lower level team. The placement was not in dispute. My friend called because he wondered if the information he received about cost was reasonable. He and his family were being asked to pay $1000 for ten months of soccer and over $300 in team uniform fees. She is seven. She is unsure she even likes soccer all that much. The time commitment was a lot and the bill for her exploration was going to be $1300.

I gasped first, muttered an expletive, and then encouraged him to find some other form of soccer programming for his daughter to play.

“Won’t she get behind?” he worried.

“Maybe,” I said, “but this youth sports thing is a marathon, not a sprint. You don’t have to pay that right now as she’s learning what 7-year-olds learn. If she learns to love it enough to keep working at it, she’ll catch up.”

For the hundreds of thousands of families who pay a lot of money for youth soccer (or hockey, or baseball, or basketball, or gymnastics, or swimming, or… you name it), they will likely jump all over me for thinking the cost to participate in youth sports is getting outrageous.

“We have to pay for good coaching,” they’ll argue.

“Uniform fees run that steep.”

“We’re paying for a higher level of competition.”

“We have to travel to get good competition and exposure.”

“People around here can pay that much.”

Well, obviously, if your association or youth sports group asks people to pay that, they can afford it. (that’s actually not always true, but I’ll save that for another post) The environment and the market will only bear what it can. All I know is that where I live during the schoolyear, a 10-month travel soccer fee of $270, with a uniform fee of $90 is more than some families can pay. Where I live, we may never have the programs to compete with the affluent areas, and in reality, the kids from towns like ours are running a marathon too, but they are on a completely different course. The youth sports marathon course for kids who are not from affluence is a harder course. The hills are steeper, the obstacles more difficult, and to be honest, they start a few miles back when they start. Yet, most of the time we are asked to compete against communities that are not like ours at all.

When it comes to youth sports
Where there is competition, there is divide.
Where there is money, there is disparity.
Where there is both competition and money, there is disaster.

As of August 30th, 2017 Time magazine claimed the youth sports industry was worth $15 billion. “Elite” teams exist in every single sport and with those higher levels of programming, comes a higher bill to pay. I am more and more convinced that “elite” refers less to the level of athleticism and more to the actual elite members of our society. For some families, they rarely consider the impact of their choices. Competition is stiff enough, they don’t need to worry about the poorer families who cannot afford the same opportunities.

Youth sports is just another arena where the “haves” are finding ways to participate and when the “have nots” are left behind, no one really cares. If we want to have a real conversation about the participation numbers of kids on athletic teams, we can no longer ignore the existence of capitalism and the willingness of parents to do everything they can for their own kids. Too often they make personal choices with little to no regard for other kids who are not able to afford the same programming. It’s a dog eat dog world, though, right? So why does it matter? It matters because when kids drop out of sports, or are unable to be a part of teams that encourage physical exercise, belonging, and endless life lessons, we all lose.

I live a dual life. For part of the year our family lives near where I grew up in a suburb of Denver, Colorado. It is an area of affluence with gated communities and the highest level of sports offerings around. During the schoolyear we live in a small, rural town in one of the poorer counties in all of Wisconsin where travel teams are challenging. I see the differences.

My Colorado friends jet-set around the country to take part in high level tournaments, showcases and sports experiences. Intense travel and commitment starts in practically every sport when the kids are ten and eleven, sometimes younger. They pay exorbitant fees for expert coaching and high-end equipment and some of the travel includes 10-day trips to Europe or weeklong tournaments in Hawai’i. This doesn’t even touch the specialized training or camp opportunities they finance. I don’t begrudge my friends for providing these opportunities for their children. They have every right to spend their money how they want. I’m not sure they even have a responsibility to the poorer kids who will never have those experiences, but I do, and I struggle because of it.

I coach the boys’ high school soccer team in our rural Wisconsin town. We compete against schools with robust travel programs that take place the nine months outside of our high school schedule. Travel soccer is not an option for many of the families who live here, even at the $270/year amount. Our travel is minimal and includes mostly away games in the Twin Cities (an hour away).The kids who take part in our travel teams can generally afford it, but there are a number of families who never take part because it is more than they can commit or pay. Soccer for my guys is a low-budget, low-commitment endeavor for sure.

The other side of the coin deals with the families from our town who do have a bit more in resources. Those with more capital are willing and able to take their kids out of our community entirely to pay more for the programming in a larger more affluent place. We lose kids on both ends. Even in our house, we have a couple of kids for whom we’ve made the “exit” decision and I have admittedly agonized about our choices.

There has always been a variety of experiences available to families with money. The experiences are not the same for those without money. Add youth sports in front of the word experiences and all of a sudden it becomes a choice we’re making about how we are educating our youth. All of them. It is not unlike the private education/public school debate, but it is essentially an extension of that.

Does every child deserve an education? Do they all deserve the same sort of education? Do all kids deserve a chance to participate in sports? Do they all deserve a chance to get just as good as the next kid, or to play as long, or to have a similar enhancing experience?

Some of the decisions that keep the machine in motion come down to fear. My friend was afraid if he didn’t pay the $1000 his child would fall behind. Those who can afford it have more to lose if they choose not to pay-to-play. In the affluent communities, there is always another player to take the spot. Thankfully my friend was able to find a program with a much shorter time commitment and a reasonable fee for his daughter’s current level of interest. There isn’t always that choice.

Our family’s decision to engage in the pay-to-play model is more about geography and numbers of participation, but I  agonize because it is still an impactful decision to leave a small community to travel outside of our town. Every exit takes potential resources that would be useful if families were to stay.

For my part, I choose to continue to engage in two worlds. We can afford for our kids to have sports experiences and we have tried hard to keep the experiences at a level that reflects their interest and/or commitment. The older they get and the more they personally invest, the more their dad and I are willing to invest financially. For the soccer kids I coach in our community who don’t have the same resources, I do what I can to provide the highest level of coaching and experience at little to no cost to their families. Coaching the high school team is the best way I can give back to the sport that gave me so much and offer anything I can to the kids who will likely never have more experiences than what I can provide when they play for our school team.

A recent article in Atlantic Magazine further illuminates the growing gap between the affluent sporting families and everyone else. It is an important piece and I am not sure the truth of it can be ignored much longer.

If the youth sports playing field is going to be leveled, who will do it? It won’t be the for-profit companies making hand over fist off of eager families. It won’t be the poorer families who don’t hold the purse strings. It could be the affluent sporting communities if they were to think generously about the value of a system of inclusion and enhancement, but I am not confident that will ever happen. My best guess is that legislation is the way to achieve equity in youth sports, but that sounds like a hard, arduous fight.

What do you think? Should society at large care about the trajectory of the privatization of youth sports? If so, what are some potential fixes that could make it happen?  

Copyright Choosing to Grow 2018                                     www.meaganfrank.com

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Coach a resolution

I adopted the hashtag #closethegap as my focus for last season’s team. There exists a profound skill/commitment gap between our team and the teams in our conference. People have pointed to our high school’s championship football team for some of the gap that exists, and I would be foolish to pretend football doesn’t matter. We are in a small western Wisconsin town and the number of students participating in athletics makes same-as-football-season boys’ sports somewhat disadvantaged. Demographics, too, make it tough for us to compete with some of the communities that have more resources, both human and material. None of those factors can be an excuse, however, and I refuse to play the blame game.

I have a responsibility for the growth and success of this soccer program and plenty of recent self-reflection has led me to my current resolution. I don’t want to call it a New Year’s resolution because then it seems as though I only intend to be resolute for the new part of the year or for one year only. I am resolving to make changes in how I coach, in how I approach coaching and the decision to do something, about a craft I have studied and worked at for over twenty years, is a big deal.

I blame Kate Leavell, author of Confessions of an Imperfect Coach, for this recent surge of inspiration. The perfectly-timed arrival of her book on my desk has tied together a number of the loose thoughts that have been swimming in my head for years.

I have been a somewhat fraudulent coach. Ok, maybe fraudulent is a strong word, but I know I haven’t been “all in”.

Every single coaching job I have had has been an “emergency” one.

The first team I coached was a premier u-17 girls team in Colorado. The club director asked me to coach them after their coach was caught partying with one of the players. I steadied the ship mid-season and coached them one more year before we moved out of state.

The next coaching job I had was as the head women’s coach at UW-Stout. I was hired one week before the season started. A literal emergency hire and one of the hardest things I have ever done. That emergency lasted for five years.

Next up: a U10 girls team in Woodbury and a couple youth co-ed teams in Menomonie. For each team, they needed someone to coach and I reluctantly raised my hand.

My current job as the head coach for the Menomonie High School boys team was one I hesitated to pursue too. For two years, as a parent, I watched from the sideline and struggled to coach our son through the difficulties of being on a team that lacked a positive culture or a stabilizing voice. When the revolving door began to spin again, for what would be the third coach in four years, I found myself sitting across the desk from the Athletic Director in an interview before I realized I was doing it again. I was agreeing to take on a struggling program in peril.

So here I am. A seasoned coach who has told herself for twenty years, coaching is a temporary position, a part-time gig.

What if it’s not, though? What if coaching is exactly what I am supposed to be doing? What if I pursued it completely and decided to get as good at it as I can?

My response would be, “well then, I have a lot to learn and even more to do.”

All of this brings me to my new resolution.

A Bing search of the definition of resolution yields the following:

Resolution

  • A firm decision to do or not to do something.
  • The action of solving a problem, dispute, or contentious matter.
  • The process of reducing or separating something into its components.

So, my firm decision? To pour myself in to coaching others. Sometimes it will look like soccer, but most of the time it will look like parenting, advising and teaching. I totally want to set up a booth at the end of my driveway like Charlie Brown’s friend Lucy that solicits “Help” for 5 cents.

The problem I want to solve? Inspiring those around me move toward the best versions of themselves. (another book influence: Perfectly Yourself: Discovering God’s Dream for You, by Matthew Kelly)

The process and separating into components? That’s goal-setting. I have a new hashtag for this year.

#timeandspace

I want to create spaces for people to grow and set aside time to be there with them as they do. It’s actually something my husband and I have been trying to do for our kids and our summer employees without really having the hashtag to describe it.  I want to bring that to the teams, athletes and fellow coaches with whom I work. How I’ll measure that daily, weekly or monthly is something I’m still exploring and I’ll spend more time with this concept in future blogposts.

For now, I wish you the very best in your own resolutions. May you make your own firm decisions to problem-solve for the good of those around you and find purpose in the pursuit.

Copyright Choosing to Grow 2017                                     www.meaganfrank.com

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b-w-team-huddledI’ve been a part of teams for over 35 years and I know that one of the most important parts of being on a team is showing up. Showing up for off-season lifting and pick-up games, showing up for practices, for film sessions, for team meals, and then for games. The thing is, there is more to it than just showing up… how you show up matters most.

I’ve had the privilege of showing up as a player on elite, winning teams, and I’ve had the challenge of showing up on teams that go winless for an entire season. There is a very real shift in psychology when the excitement and hope of a season fades into the frustrated reality that opponents are going to be tough and the work that lay ahead may not provide the results the team truly desires.

Players want to play and teams play games to win. Period. Putting forth exhausting effort to come up short time and again, starts to weigh on players and ultimately on teams. The psychology of an athlete and a team is challenged at the extremes. The players who experience consistent playing time and winning are challenged to stay focused and humble. The players on teams experiencing losses are challenged to see a point in working hard, they have to navigate personal, ugly emotions that come with sitting on the sideline or losing. They either give up trying or they use a lot of energy to determine ways to keep fighting and to help their teammates do the same. It is much harder to be a part of a team that is in defensive battle mode.

The hardest thing to keep in mind is that true winning (competing well each and every outing) is always possible. It’s a decision to show up well.

This is not an easy decision, however.

The team I am currently coaching is 2 and 9 and facing the back half of a season with the same opponents who have already beat up on us once. We are experiencing the hardest part of being in battle mode.

This is where the true character of these players and the heart of this team will be tested most.

There are countless ways the guys can decide to respond. Countless ways to show up….or not. I’m challenged to help them to dig in and to find value in competing well no matter their record. It’s for pride. It’s for building upon the groundwork we are laying. It’s for sharpening the character tools in their toolboxes as they prepare to go on to college, or jobs where what they’ve learned about competing well will matter.

We need to continue to show up well:

  • Show up early (or at the very least on time)
  • Show up ready (bring all gear necessary)
  • Show up positively (find the good in other players and the fun in the game)
  • Show up focused (leave other thoughts off the field and bring mental focus into the task at hand)
  • Show up ready to work hard (no matter what you are able to do in a day, do your best)
  • Show up ready to learn (see each day as an opportunity to grow as a person and as a team)

Showing up happens on an individual level, but it is layered with an awareness of what showing up means to the team as a whole.

I’d like to say, after all this time on teams, that I’ve perfected the showing up thing. I haven’t. I am equally challenged to show up well and I need reminders to stay the course too. It is a daily decision and I need to come back to the decision each morning because, for me, any time I have the opportunity to be part of  a team I have made the implicit agreement to show up well.

 

Meagan Frank is the author of the Choosing to Grow series, a national speaker, athlete, coach, and mother of three. A 1997 graduate of Colorado College, Meagan was a four-year starter and senior captain on the Division I women’s soccer team and lettered in Division III women’s basketball. She has coached recreational, high school, elite, and college-level teams for both boys and girls.

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Copyright 2016       Meagan Frank   Choosing to Grow         http://www.meaganfrank.com

 

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The price of success is hard work, dedication to the job at hand, and the determination that whether we win or lose, we have applied the best of ourselves to the task at hand.  -Vince Lombardi

I think Lombardi has it right. You pay for success with hard work, dedication, and a decision to offer the best of yourself each and every day.

The real challenge is knowing how to measure whether you succeed.

In a competitive world, it is the simple thing to measure in wins and losses…in points on a scoreboard…in stats we can count. We’re told repeatedly that only winners are successful.

I disagree. It is much more complex than that and I am challenged to stay mindful of what true success means.

Last night, on the way home from my first conference game (a lopsided loss) as the head coach for a boys’ high school soccer team, I had an interesting conversation with a couple of my assistant coaches. One coach commented about how there is a successful 17-year-old phenom who is playing professional soccer as a goalie. He lamented the fact that he is just a college kid, who isn’t playing goalie anymore, and who now has the goalie coaching job for fledgling goalies in a re-building program. Not newsworthy, in his opinion.

Another assistant coach, who is an incredible chorus teacher at the high school, also commented about colleagues who have “made it” and are big-time conductors with doctorates and incredible opportunities.

If success is only possible for the elite few who “make it”, or for the winning programs  and star athletes among us, then what is the point for the rest of us?

The point for the rest of us is the last part of Lombardi’s quote. “We (need to) have applied the best of ourselves to the task at hand.” How we apply ourselves is to compete well. The definition of “compete” is to strive to win.

The point for the rest of us is that we learn how to compete well…always and in all circumstances. Competing well is how we succeed.

For that 17-year-old phenom, the best of himself is obviously incredible athleticism and goalie expertise. It’s going to matter how his stats add up. The task he has been handed is to compete with the world’s best.

We’re not all asked to succeed at that task.

For me, and my coaching staff, the task ahead of us is to build soccer skill, to build teamwork, and to build a program that can compete better in an incredibly tough conference. We need to show up every day with those tasks in mind.

For the players who play on our team, their task is to show up with the best of themselves each day with an attitude prepared to learn and grow as soccer players and as people. They can count themselves successful if daily they strive to compete well as individuals and as a team.

The world may not do a great job of measuring our successes, but if I’m stepping up to the task  I’ve been handed, I sure will.

Meagan Frank is the author of the Choosing to Grow series, a national speaker, athlete, coach, and mother of three. A 1997 graduate of Colorado College, Meagan was a four-year starter and senior captain on the Division I women’s soccer team and lettered in Division III women’s basketball. She has coached recreational, high school, elite, and college-level teams for both boys and girls.

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Copyright 2016       Meagan Frank   Choosing to Grow         http://www.meaganfrank.com

 

 

Winning feels good. Scoring goals, having a shutout, and performing well feels good. Losing hurts, as does poor performance or lack of production.  From the perspective of an athlete who has felt all of those emotions as a player, I still struggle with how to get rid of those feelings when I watch our children from the sideline. I don’t want to feel good or badly about how our kids play because I don’t think it’s the best way to parent. The only feeling I want to havefor them is love , so I have to practice processing and discarding any other emotion.

We cannot control the way we feel, and it takes a lot of practice to suppress the involuntary emotion so that it does not appear at the wrong times.

Let me tell you how I managed my emotions well this weekend… and how I did it poorly.

It was an interesting weekend in our house.  Two of our kids had tournaments.  One kid played awesome and her team won the tournament championship…the other kid is playing pretty average right now, and his team did well to get third place. What struck me most was my own struggle with emotional reactions to the parent chatter about our children.

When people would tell me, “Oh you must be so excited…she is playing so well right now” or “Congratulations, she did awesome!” I sit for a moment. Why are they congratulating me? I had nothing to do with it. I do respond, however. I don’t want to be that odd woman who turns silently and walks away, and I want to handle it in a way that reflects my parenting philosophy. I do better with positive emotions (who doesn’t) and it is relatively easy for me to respond well. I put the credit squarely on the shoulders of my hard-working kid. “Yeah, I’m so excited for her. She has worked hard this weekend.” or “Make sure to tell her that. She earned it.”

My daughter gets big hugs and smiles no matter what…I am aware that I give her the same kind of hug no matter how she has done.

I didn’t do as well with the more negative comments about her brother.  While walking out of one of my son’s games I heard this: “Skunked again huh?  He hasn’t got a goal yet? I bet that bugs him, huh?” I didn’t respond as well as I would have liked. It has been a rough year for our son, who has traditionally believed about himself that he is a goal-scoring forward.  He has been challenged to play defense for his team, and he is working hard to learn the position. He is trying to learn to add value when what he has known to offer before has been limited to offensive production.  It has been a challenge for all of us to watch him struggle to play the way he can.

So, my impatient response was, “No, he’s just ready to be done with defense.”

It’s not really what I wanted to say, and I did not give myself enough time to think it through.  What I wanted to say instead was, “He’s having fun playing, he enjoys his teammates, he works hard to protect the goalie, and I’m proud of him for trying so hard.”

I was able to compose myself enough before our ride home, and I was more positively present for our son.  I let him tell me about the game from his perspective…I listened to the ways he remembered being valuable.

“I stayed focused and didn’t sit with the girls before the game” he told me, “Did you see me kick the puck off the line? The goalie said I saved a goal.”

I had seen those things, but I had only “felt” the mistakes… the struggles.  I needed him to remind me about the privilege I have to be his parent.

I can’t help feeling the way I feel while watching our kids pour their hearts into something.  I am along with them for the experience, but I think it is really important that I don’t influence the feelings they deserve to have all on their own. My feelings are my feelings, and I never want my feelings about their performances to be the reason they feel any differently about themselves. The only feeling I want them to feel from me is love.

When we get in the habit of basking in the awesome feelings that come with positive performance, kids pick up on that…in contrast, they will absolutely know when we are disappointed or sad if their performance wasn’t good. It is a vicious cycle that works to convince kids that their worth is inextricably tied to whether they win or lose…score or not…play well or horribly.

Love doesn’t feel like that.

 

2012 copyright Meagan Frank                                      Choosing to Grow                             www.meaganfrank.com

                                                                  

Phew. My least favorite time of year is over.

The evaluations are done, the teams are named, and although it was not a painless process in our house this year, it was a time for significant growth for all of us.

Last week, as though perfectly timed with my personal journey, I attended a presentation by life coach Dr. Jean Davidson. She offered a number of intriguing nuggets of information, but one important idea she offered is the assertion that people in our western culture are reluctant to stay in emotion long enough to actually process through it.

It is an idea I have entertained before.  As I observe relatively normal people transform into crazy people on the sideline of youth sporting events, I often wonder what emotional baggage they might be trying to unpack.

It got me thinking about how evaluations, and the categorization of kids, plays a part in the craziness.

Our oldest got through his tryouts first, and while still reeling from the emotional fallout of the decisions that were made, our middle daughter started her run through the evaluation guantlet. I was pretty emotionally spent at that point, and had a rather strange perspective as I watched the girls and their parents tighten around anxiety with the tryouts. Girls had migraines, parents were visibly nervous, nausea ran rampant, and flushed faces of people I enjoy spoke frustrated lines about the performance of their 9 or 10-year-old daughters.

It is the way of youth sports. When labels are involved,  people become crazed.

It matters that you can say your kid is on an A team. Players identify themselves with the label they are given, and too often it becomes a stamp that ends a child’s willingness to pursue potential.

“Oh, he only made a C team,” I heard some of the 10-year-old girls giggle as they settled their own nerves about the impending A-team cut. Parental, peer, and personal pressures to make the right team often cloud patient perspective.

That’s what happened to me. I claim that I can look at most of this youth sports stuff with an objective lens, but if I am honestly pursuing a Choosing to Grow sort of mentality, I have to acknowledge the presence and power of emotions. Especially my own.

I am not proud that I got angry…I am not proud that I lashed out in a  post that made emotional assertions, but I won’t apologize for allowing myself to actually feel every bit of my life and the experiences I endure. By processing where I did…in an adult venue and never within earshot of my children…I was able to get through the tough stuff to better help them cope with their own emotions. Separating my emotions from theirs is imperative to both their growth and mine. However,  I can only effectively separate  when I give myself time to identify my own emotions and work through them.

I presented paranoia, anger, sadness, and I wrote it out in a public way because I honestly believe in providing a space for dialogue about what too few people are willing to address. People who responded positively to the post admitted “feeling” similar emotions. The dissenting opinion addressed logistics of evaluations and the business of categorizing children. Processing ugly emotions IS ugly, but like Dr. Davidson contends, absolutely necessary.

The denial of emotions does not make the feelings go away, it simply delays their arrival.

I think it’s fine that Minnesota Hockey sent this note of encouragement to parents who are battling with the results of tryouts. Tryouts: The Day After The advice is sound. What the message lacks is the validation that people are hurting.  What it is missing is instruction that people should give themselves whatever time they need to work through their feelings. I would never contend that this processing should take forever, but to simply tell people to move on, without any strategies for how, you end up with destructive back-room conversations, bitterness and sometimes a crazed parent who lashes out at an opponent or a ref. (obviously anger about tryouts is just one possible reason for pent-up emotion that explodes mid-season)

For all you parents who are standing in the dust of your post-evaluation emotions, I challenge you to not walk away too quickly. Whatever you might have felt…in the lead-up to the tryouts…throughout the tryouts…and now on the backside, take a few minutes to identify what those feelings were.  Write them down. Why did you feel that way? Write that out. Share what you wrote with a friend who has absolutely no connection to your sports world. Process with them. The validation you need is not that you are right about being slighted…the validation you need is that it is perfectly appropriate to feel the way you do.  Then leave it.  Burn it if that makes you feel better, but don’t hang on to the emotions.

Whatever ugly emotions you ignore, stuff, or move past too quickly will present themselves in some surprising way that may or may not be in a place you want it to happen.

Now that I have exhausted my efforts and I chose to grow through my own emotions about the world that emerged during this period of evaluation, I am ready to lift my face and see the path better. It is not to say that I won’t stop at any point in the future to process the places my feet get stuck. When I find myself stalled, I’ll stop and stay for a while.  I wouldn’t want to move on without letting myself feel the moment.

 

Copyright 2012                          Choosing to Grow                              meagan frank