“Hey mom, on the car ride home from my game, no questions please. No instant replays, highlight reels, or opinions about my coaches. Please don’t vent your frustrations or try to ease mine. I love that you came to watch me play, but I really don’t want to play the game again in the car. It’s super hard to say all of this to you, but what I would really love is if we could just get some food. Your teen”
While these words do not speak for every teen, they spoke for one of mine and I wish he had spoken them sooner. My husband and I spent hundreds, if not thousands of hours in the car with our two young athletes after games. We traveled around several parts of the country, as well as to two countries in Europe to watch them play sports. We cheered for ther triumphs and helped pick up the pieces after the crushing disappointments. The tears, the sweat, the blood–we lived it all with them, and it was an incredible journey. But if I could go back a few years, there is one thing I would do differently–I would let them take the lead on the car ride home.
Our younger son is highly competitive–he was just born that way. He is also very hard on himself, and as he got older, these two character traits played a large role in his success as an athlete. He was driven, focused, and determined to be the best and to win. It was exciting to watch him play and move up through the ranks at a very competitive level. It was also a big responsibility to manage his health and wellbeing throughout all of this, and to guide him through many hard decisions as best as we could. We were very invested with our money, with our time, and mostly, with our hearts.
The early years were lighthearted and fun–snacks after games, pool parties, and developing friendships. Then came all-stars, then club sports, then recruiting to higher level club sports, and then everything began to really change. There was pressure, and expectations, and, well, it sort of became like a job for our boy. We really started to notice the changes on these car rides home (which were often long). He became quieter, more irritable, and would put his headphones on right away. My husband and I were beginning to feel somewhat helpless–we wanted him to be happy and to feel supported, but this was becoming harder to do after some of the more difficult games.
We thought it would be a good time to “go over” things, so to speak, on these car rides home with our son. If he had a bad game, we wanted to lift him up–to encourage him to learn from the mistakes he might have made, and to understand that everyone on the team had also made mistakes. If he had a really successful game, we wanted to celebrate with him and remind him how all of his hard work is bearing fruit. There were many frustrating games with disappointing or unfair outcomes. There were games where we couldn’t make any sense of his coach's decisions. Emotions ran high in all of these games, with parents yelling at referees, yelling at their own children, and sometimes even being asked to leave the field or court. Sports brings out a special kind of passion in people, and it has since the beginning of time. But all of this passion–the things we saw at these games, and the emotions we were all feeling, were spilling out a bit into these car rides home.
The higher up the ranks our son climbed, the hotter everyone’s passion became. The more that was at stake, the quieter our son got in the car. And it was at this point that we had to get really honest with ourselves, as his parents, and ask some hard questions: are we just helping him to process his emotions, or are we needing to process our own as well? Is he actually asking for our advice and opinions about the game on the car ride home? And, are we respectfully taking in the cues that he is giving us with his headphones on and his device wedged deliberately between his heart and ours?
The honest answers to these questions were eye-opening for us. We were not just processing his feelings in the car, we were also processing our own, and this was not the place for this, and it was certainly not the time. Our son needed some space after a game, especially after one that didn’t go well. He needed time to process his experience in his own time and in his own way. He was not asking for our advice and opinions on the car ride home, and we were not doing a very good job at taking his cues that he wasn’t ready to receive this. What we ultimately learned from all of this was to simply let him take the lead. If he was full of words and wanted to talk or vent or whatever he needed to do–we were all in with him. If the headphones went in his ears and his words were few, we let him have the time and space that he needed to decompress. And what we also learned with absolute certainty was that no matter how good or bad the game went, going somewhere to get burgers and fries on the car ride home was always helpful.