Separating “Us” from “Them”: Overcoming Over-attachment

THE PROBLEM

It is a universal truth that we, parents of athletes, can become over-attached to our kids athletic experiences. In some instances, we have taken it to the point where how they play is somehow an indication of our own success or stature. This personal fusion has caused a disruption to principled behavior and judgement on sidelines and threatens to destroy the positive effects we hoped would come from having our children develop through sport.

With all universal truths, merely identifying them does not go far enough to create lasting change. Learning how to transform unhelpful behaviors of otherwise well-intentioned parents is a pursuit worthy of our time and energy. I recently experienced a moment where I found myself over-attached and I wanted to share what I learned in the process.

Typically, during my kids games I am on the sideline coaching. It wasn’t until recently that I became a full-time sideline parent at my daughter’s high school games. This new experience allowed me to discover what it felt like to process a game from the opposite side of the field.

Here is what I found:

THE EXPERIENCE

The day of the big game had arrived. My daughter’s team was playing in the High School Lacrosse State Championship. They were having a great season. She was major contributor on the team, her teammates were driven, and her coaches were committed, caring, and always prepared.

I remember walking into the stadium feeling really proud of the season. The team had earned its way to another championship. It felt great to be part of it. I couldn’t wait to watch my daughter play. They deserved to win, and somehow I expected it to happen.

The game started and the team immediately looked shaken. It was obvious that the other team had adequately prepared a strategy against what they had observed as our strengths on offense. We couldn’t get our offense going and they jumped out to a quick lead. No smiles on our side of the stands. My inner voice was telling me that something was wrong. Something was missing. We started to pick up the tempo and closed the gap to one goal. I remember thinking okay good, this is more like it. Then the other team just kept outplaying us. The gap widened again and it looked like we did not make the necessary adjustments to keep the game close.

THE EMOTIONAL CHARGE

I was silent, but I was thinking some pretty negative thoughts at this point. The following thoughts were running through my head:

“My daughter is not having an impact and is playing below her ability.”

“Her teammates can’t make plays and aren’t putting in enough effort”.

“Her coaches are not guiding their players, and are failing to make the proper adjustments”.

“The referees were calling the worst one-sided game of the year. They’re awful too” (I may have had a point here!)

“This was not what I expected. This is painful and awful all the way around.”

It was not supposed to be like this. I was supposed to be feeling great! I have friends on the other team’s sideline and I could already see them smiling as they say “good game.” I was being cheated of what was owed to me. Other parents on the team where looking to me for answers. There was no lack of disappointment on our side of the field, and no one was trying to hide it. I was emotionally charged as if it was my own game, and I was searching for a good way to handle it.

Yikes! So this is where we get when we are over-attached watching our kids play. I believe we have all experienced these feelings in some way. In moments like these we typically use our principles and values to guide our behaviors and reactions, but when we allow our emotions to run high they can get the best of us. Somehow, we have more often than not, mishandled those moments and that is a shame because we don’t get enough of them in life.

Watching sports is exciting and allows us to share experiences with others. The challenge is that we can’t expect our team to win every game. The uncertainty is the intrigue and creates the excitement and the bond. We have to be okay with experiencing pain once in awhile and not having things go our way. That goes double for your own kids’ game, and in reality it isn’t our pain we should be working through.

FINDING THE ANSWER

After losing the Championship, my daughter walked over to our side of the field and approached me with tears in her eyes, she was sad, let down, and she was taking it really hard. I could tell she needed my help. The emotion on her face said it all. “Please help me find a way to process this.” My teammates and coaches mean the world to me, and losing the championship is so disappointing. We put so much into this season together – how is this going to be okay?”

“How am I going to recover, and get through this moment?”

In that moment I found the answer to having a meaningful impact on on our kids’ athletic experiences and I knew how to handle the emotional charge I developed during the game. Since I was experiencing some of the same emotion, I could completely empathize with her to help her find a release and an understanding.

I was relieved of the burden of those emotions by being asked to help her find the right ground to stand on in order to recover?

DAMAGING EFFECTS OF GETTING IT WRONG

I can’t imagine the mental state I would have left my daughter in had I approached the above situation differently. What if I had shown my disappointment in the way she and her team played, and released my emotion on her by expressing all my negative thoughts? She would have been left with an emotional burden that a 15 year old is ill-equipped to handle. In addition, it would have likely damaged some trust in our relationship.

It is so important that we change the way we share in our kids’ experiences. We all want the best for them, and we want them to develop an approach to finding their best that transcends the game. We want them to have healthy relationships and strong self-esteem so it is essential that we get this right.

GETTING IT RIGHT

Having been through situations like this before, we all have a place from which we can draw an answer. Here is what I ended up communicating:

“Amelia you guys have had a wonderful season. I know you have enjoyed it, we all have. This is the same team it was two hours ago, the only difference is you lost a game. I know it hurts, that’s because you guys always give your best and you care about each other and how you play. That’s worth the risk of pain. You have to play to win, but you can’t expect to win every game. Go be with your teammates, you need them, and they need you. Tell your coaches how much you appreciate them. There is so much to be grateful for and you guys will have plenty of chances to play again soon. I have really enjoyed watching you and your teammates play.”

She later gave me a big hug, and said, “Thanks, dad. I am glad you were here.”

Phil McCarthy/Athlete2lifelite.com

65 thoughts on “Separating “Us” from “Them”: Overcoming Over-attachment”

  1. LOVE this, Phil! Have incorporated the “i love watching you play” line from PCA for years now, though wish i had heard it when my boys (now 24 & 22) were younger. Will post this to our program’s (Trenton Lacrosse in NJ) FB page. Something for every sports parent to read!
    Thanks,
    Jack

    1. Thank you, Jack. I appreciate you reading this and giving your insight. Yes, simple sentiments can have large effects. The PCA advice was helpful and should continue to be shared. Thank you for sharing this with your group. Have a great weekend.

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