We Like To Tell Our Athletes, “They Are More Than Their Sport,” But How Many Truly Get That Option?
We Tell Our Athletes “They Are More Than Their Sport,” But How Many Truly Get That Option? The iPhone alarm jangles in another room down the hallway. I open one eye and check the clock… 6:10 AM. Experience tells me that I have ten minutes of snooze time before it goes off again, then another ten minutes before my 18-year-old daughter’s feet hit the floor and the ensuing commotion. Maya doesn’t open doors so much as she blasts through them, a technique that involves turning the knob slightly while simultaneously shouldering through it… first her bedroom door, then the hall bathroom door. A one-woman stampede down the steps and into the kitchen follows, where there’s clanging, banging, and ice-making as I come down to see her off. It’s a typical Sunday morning, and she’s enthusiastically packing two bags, one for each of the demanding sessions ahead of her that day. I won’t see her again until nearly 6:00 PM, but I get a kick out of her ear-to-ear grin as she waves while pulling out of the driveway.
Maya navigates a maze of city highways to her first stop an hour away in the next state over, her 8:00 AM “College Prep” goalkeeper training class, which is one of the highlights of her week. She’s an accomplished soccer goalkeeper who’s had a ball at her feet since she could walk and is now preparing to head off to play D1 soccer at a Big Ten school in just a few short months. She is acutely aware of the demands and expectations of that program, and unsurprisingly, her weekly schedule is littered with training and activities designed to ensure that she hits the ground running… pun intended.
What may be surprising is her second session for the day, a longer version of one that also populates her daily calendar and something that we contend is as important to her athletic success as anything else that happens on the pitch or in the gym. Maya starts with stretching and light yoga, followed by a vocal warm-up with her cast mates before spending the next five hours singing, dancing, and rehearsing for her school’s Spring Musical production of “The Addams Family.” Among the performers are other college-bound athletes, including a diver, wrestler, and football player, who are also balancing the demands of their sports and academics with those of a large theatrical endeavor.
Soccer is absolutely Maya’s passion and her first love, but singing fills her cup when life… the rigor of youth sports, the unrelenting pressure of school, and the vagaries of being a teenager… depletes it. She has always been a singer. She has always wanted to dance, act and perform. Nevertheless, conventional youth sports wisdom made it abundantly clear to all of us early on that playing competitive soccer wouldn’t allow for the intensive pursuit of other passions, particularly those outside of sports.
Playing a sport at a high level is a grind. The carousel of practices, games, private training, tournaments, showcases, camps, and gym sessions turns, inexorably, for 12 months out of the year. We laughed when we jokingly set her club’s practice field as “Work” when saving the address in Waze. There were plenty of times, however, when that designation felt more accurate than comical. There were plenty of times when her father and I sensed the shadow of burnout creeping in from the wings, despite the joy and opportunities that her game had always brought her.
One of those opportunities came in the form of a scholarship to attend a selective high school where academics are rigorous, sports are competitive, and the arts are imperative. A key consideration for us was her ability to pursue both passions. We were skeptical, given our older son’s experience in a different school setting. He was a musician and a wrestler, caught between two uncompromising worlds where students could only be one or the other. Occasionally leaving band rehearsal a few minutes early or arriving to practice a few minutes late was apparently unacceptable, even in middle school. He gave up both and pursued music entirely on his own outside of the high school program. A talented musician, he graduates from college this year with a degree in Music, Business & Technology… with neither he nor his high school having benefitted from his participation in music. The lack of flexibility, compromise, and cooperation on the part of adults leads to no one winning… especially the child.
Enthusiastic assurances from the soccer coach, athletic director, and music department chair convinced us that Maya’s experience would be different. She jumped feet first into her Freshman year, singing with the concert choir and playing varsity soccer. Four years later, she’s the All-American captain of the soccer team and area Player of the Year, co-president of the concert choir, member of the acclaimed vocal ensemble, tenor in an all-female a cappella group, twice a performer in spring musical productions and an Open Mic regular. Her school choir director was frequently on the sidelines of her soccer games, even in the pouring rain, and her soccer coach was routinely in the audience. Their constant support, encouragement, and investment in her yielded a raft of returns for all. Maya is more than an athlete to them.
I’ll admit that I found the idea of this balancing act intensely stressful as a sports parent, especially in terms of how her activities and obligations would translate beyond her school environment. We feared the dreaded side-eye from outside coaches and other tough constituencies whose respective passions were understandably their first priorities. Would Maya be judged as lacking commitment to one pursuit or the other… or both? Would her proven work ethic be overlooked, or her contributions be discounted? Her father and I constantly anticipated having to defend against pushback. Instead, we find ourselves incredibly grateful to all the people who not only helped make it work but embraced the benefits and encouraged her. We learned that communication, early and often, would be key to a smooth experience.
The list of rewards to our daughter and any athlete who is given the grace to explore other interests alongside their sport is extensive. Chief among these is the ability to create an identity distinct from their sport. It’s fashionable of late to tell athletes that they’re “more than their sport,” but do we actually give them the freedom and flexibility to learn more about themselves? There will be times in their young lives when they urgently need to know this, such as when sidelined with an injury. Similarly, developing other skills and proficiencies builds confidence, self-esteem, and resilience that carries over into every other aspect of their lives, including and especially the sports realm. Part of this self-confidence comes from developing friendships outside of their sport through shared interests and experiences, including enriching friendships that might have been otherwise unlikely given each of their usual routines. In a touching speech, a fellow athlete reflected on how joining the cast of the musical rescued a senior year that had been marred by disappointment after his storybook, undefeated football season ended in a crushing loss, followed by an injury that cut his wrestling season short. Instead, he leaves the year with great memories, new friends, and valuable skills in applying the Ickey Shuffle to a dance step.
Maya is adamant that she’s a better athlete and soccer player as a function of using her brain and body in a different way and having both a creative outlet and a release from the pressures inherent to school and sports. Physically, she finds that learning choreography, stretching, and dancing contributes to her fitness, flexibility, and injury prevention. Moreover, the pure joy that she gets from singing clears her head, and she goes to practices, training, and games mentally fresh and better able to focus, learn and fine-tune the techniques germane to her craft. She bounded into a GK training session last night, where the coaches immediately peppered her with questions about the show and crowded around her phone as she scrolled through photos. Maya is more than a goalkeeper to them.
Ironically, we as parents too often succumb to competitive FOMO or fears of falling behind where our children’s athletic performance is concerned. Guilty. Perhaps we give in to worry that exploring additional interests will not just be a distraction from their chosen sport but that those interests will overtake their sport and cause them to drop it altogether. Gasp. When we react to those fears by doubling down on more playing and training, we risk not only diminishing returns and their physical and mental health but their joy of playing entirely. Too much of a good thing may be just that. Our own experience leads us to assert that sports need not consume all the air in the room. Adults can put young people first and work with them to make space for other interests, giving them what they want and need to fill their individual cups. For those who are truly passionate about their sport, doing so will better ensure that they maintain the deep love for it that’s required to play at the next level.
So… if you happen to see a busload of college soccer players belting out show-tunes next season… give them a wave and tell Maya that we miss her.
Mary Kay Elsen is a graduate of Colgate University and a former tech executive who is presently engaged in several volunteer endeavors centered on youth education and cultural arts programming. She and her husband, Michael, are the proud parents of two, a 22-year-old artist with athletic tendencies and an 18-year-old athlete with artistic tendencies.
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