It was amazing to watch the highlights of the Olympics last night. What struck me the most was each athlete’s ability to manage the pressure of expectation before they jumped in the pool, hopped on a beam, or dug that first oar into the water. The perception prior to each of the events was a level of mental calm. Rarely did the cameras show someone who looked completely overwhelmed. Until the end. That last breath or the goggles coming off unleashed a flood of emotions that really drove home the level of stress that these very, very young adults face throughout their lives. I’m amazed at how well they mask or process that stress. I can’t imagine or even relate to what it’s like to have millions of people watching, expecting a win. I’m left asking, ‘how do they handle it?’. We even have two student-athletes in the Games, and I’ve never thought to bother them with the question. It’s an aspect of competition that I’ve never really focused on until watching the start versus the finish. It’s the most important moment in their lives, to this point.
It was a gray morning in Maine last week when my son had the opportunity to take his swim test in order to join the local sailing program. The test is a swim out to a mooring buoy and back. Not an overwhelming task….for an adult. I realized as I asked him if he wanted to do it, that to him, it would look like a mile; the water tumultuous and sharks circling. There was a sense of pressure to try it and be successful. I was excited that he threw his life jacket on and told me that he was ready to go. The real test was when we hit the dock and I watched him process the entire situation. “Dad, which buoy?”, as he double-checks to see if all the straps are tight on the jacket (something I’ve never seen him do before). And of course the comment from his younger sister about how she wants to do it too; a classic sibling challenge. Not to mention the mom and grandparents on the dock with iPhones ready to capture that special moment. Then he backed up and we all counted to three so he could jump. One, two, three…..
This isn’t an article about some unbelievable nugget of wisdom that I’m trying to bestow upon you in less than a few hundred words. It’s more of a question. Have you thought about how you handle pressure as a parent? What/how does that translate in your relationship with your son or daughter. Is it dictated by the results or the overall experience? Does one aspect overshadow the other and lead to friction? Have you ever thought about how you talk about competing with your son or daughter? It’s an area that our leadership team has discussed, and frankly feel could be a great area to explore with our parents and student-athletes. I don’t think there is a magic process or perfect way to handle those moments when you get out of the pool or off the pitch with a win or a loss. I do believe there are families that handle it better than others, and it would be interesting to dig into the secret of their success.
The pressure of competition can be found at all levels. The Olympic Games, a foul shot in a middle school basketball game with no time on the clock, or a swim test during summer sailing. I think it is easy for us to fall back on the idea that the Olympics and professional sports is a far greater amount of pressure than a middle school game or swim test. However, I offer the idea that the pressure is determined by the eye of the beholder. The person on the starting block, foul line, or edge of a float in Maine. In their young mind it’s HUGE. The competition looks so fast, the hoop looks so small, and man, does that mooring buoy look far away. I learned this past week that as a dad, I need to respect that and not act as if the buoy is right off the dock, the water isn’t cold, or that seaweed floating by might not get me. Because in my son’s eyes it was all there adding to what seemed to be a pretty intimidating test, that for the first time in both of our lives, he might not pass. That scared the heck out of me as a dad, and I realized that I might have been just as nervous as him. Supporting him to achieve his goals moving forward is key to us enjoying the wins, losses, and overall experience.
PS- There was never a hesitation. He leapt off the dock and swam like Phelps to the buoy and back. He was plucked out of the water with a giant hug and a huge smile on his face. Most importantly, the hot chocolate was extra rich and warm. Congrats kiddo.