Being a parent is obviously a very challenging task. From the time that a child comes into the world, the child relies on the parent for nurture and care. When the child becomes an athlete, the parent role becomes increasingly complex. Running kids to practices, buying equipment, and spending time at games are all parts of being a sports family. Life happens fast and in today’s society, it happens faster and faster. As a parent, have you stopped to think about how your child is doing? Are you being mindful to not just the words they say, but their body language and demeanor as well? I can almost guarantee you that the words that your child expresses to you and their inner feelings don’t match a lot of times.

The road to being a Division 1 football player wasn’t always an easy one for me. I was never the biggest or most talented player, but I had a great love for the game and I had an inner competitiveness that was second to none. Growing up, I always had a ball in my hand. I loved playing in the yard with my brothers, whether it be on the basketball court or making up a game that we would play for hours. I feel very fortunate to have two excellent parents, but a lot of times I hid emotions that I didn’t feel comfortable expressing. These were emotions that built up for years and emotions that I struggled with internally. I am now fortunate enough to work with many youth athletes and build great relationships with these players. It’s amazing to hear and understand that they too have the same feelings that I was having when I was a player. Because of this, I want to write a “hypothetical letter” that your child probably wants to articulate to you, but just doesn’t have the emotional tools to do so.

Dear Dad,

From the time I can remember, you have always been there for me in my pursuit as an athlete. There has always been a ball in my hand and I have always loved being part of every sport I play. You have taught me how to dribble a basketball, swing a baseball bat, and throw a football. When you introduced me to sports, you made it fun! I have such fond memories our our time in the backyard together. I will cherish those times forever. In fact, it’s something that drives me to want to have a family of my own one day. I also value how you have taught me how to be a good teammate and move on after a loss. For all of this, I am extremely grateful. As time has gone on and my skills have gotten better, there are also some things that you don’t see and maybe don’t realize. I am struggling to continue down this road. Here’s why.

In my relentless pursuit of being a good athlete, I often times ask myself if putting in all this time is actually worth it. You tell me it is, but sometimes I feel like it isn’t. I try really hard day in and day out, but you don’t tell me “good job.” You only seem to pick out flaws that I still have in my game or that I’m not doing enough to be successful. Because I care deeply about what you think and because I want to please you, I continue to push harder. This continuous push brings up feeling and emotions that I can’t pinpoint. The inner struggle is affecting my drive to move forward and also questions my ability as a player.

Mental toughness is always something that you emphasize to me. Because of this, I have an extremely hard time talking about the inner struggle that I’m having. I choose to bury these feelings and put up a protective shield. If someone asks me how I’m doing, I choose to always say “I’m good”. I do this because I’m a male and I feel like young males are not supposed to cry or express their feelings. Society tells me that I should just keep moving on. Lately, when I am experiencing joy and feel successful, it all goes away when I look into your eyes. My joy is gone in an instant and it’s replaced with despair and frustration. 

It’s gotten so bad that I get exceptionally nervous before games. You say that butterflies are normal, but this doesn’t feel like butterflies. This feels like something much bigger than just a slightly uneasy feeling in my stomach. This feeling makes me actually throw up before games and think about all the wrong things that can happen in a game because I am afraid of making mistakes. There is a distinct difference between the feeling of how it used to be playing in the backyard compared to what it is like now. Whenever I make a mistake, the first thing I do is look at you in the crowd to see your reaction. Because I worry, I play worse. Because I play worse, it makes you more upset. This cycle feels like I am in quicksand and I can’t get out.

I am already extremely competitive and want to do extremely well. Even if I play well in a game and we lose, it seems like you still find something to tell me I could have done better to help us win. My effort was high and my play was good, but it is just never enough. The drive home after a loss is the worst. I don’t like to lose, but not pleasing you is ten times worse than any loss is. I know I could play so much better if you would say “I really loved your effort out there today”, or “I really enjoyed watching you play.” That would mean so much.

Every time I look at my phone it seems like everyone around me on Instagram is happy playing sports. My classmates talk about their accomplishments  that they are having and it always makes me feel bad that I can’t get to that level. The pressure I feel being criticized by fans, yelled at by coaches, and then questioned by you make sports feel more like a burden than anything else. Sometimes I want to come talk to you about the issues I’m facing from outside sources, but your body language and tone make it impossible for me to build up the courage to do so. 

I say all of this with love. I say this because you are the one person that affects my well being and my emotional status more than anyone else out there. I love sports and I want to continue to play sports, but I don’t know how much longer I can go if this continues. If you could give me one compliment for every ten times you push me, my inner desire to play sports and get better will sky rocket. My confidence will sky rocket! If there’s no expectation placed on the outcome of games, I know for a fact that I could play better. If you could do those simple things, I would appreciate that.

Love you,

Your Son __________

You might not realize it, but your son or daughter is most likely having some of these feelings if you haven’t been mindful enough to take a few minutes to take a deep dive into yourself and also how your actions are affecting your child’s well being. Youth sports are meant to be a teaching tool. I don’t believe in participation trophies, but I also don’t believe in emotions being based off of outcomes, whether it be on an individual basis, or a team basis. Are you a father or mother that has high expectations for your child? This is a good thing. It’s alright to push and put your child into uncomfortable situations. They ABSOLUTELY need this. Do you love first though? Pushing your child without love creates emptiness. A child that is pushed constantly without positive reinforcement is an emotional ticking time bomb.

The point of this article is not to shame parents or to point the finger at parents for issues that their children are having. It is to bring to the light that until this point, mental health in youth sports is rarely ever talked about. These conversations between parent and child are hardly ever had. The words left unspoken are often times the ones that cut the deepest. These are the feelings that affect a person in a negative manner for a lifetime. It’s the parent’s job to start the conversation. Start now.

-Drew Kiel PT, DPT, CSCS  with consultation from Eric Smith