Case study: Johnny the swimmer
I watched Johnny, a very talented 14 year old swimmer at a competition. Before Johnny competed I saw him going to the toilet at least 4 times. After his race I congratulated him but commented that I saw him going to the toilet a couple of times. He laughed and admitted that before every meet he feels sick and throws up. It wasn’t what Johnny said that struck me but how he said it. He described his behaviour as something quite normal, almost a natural part of swimming.
I then asked Johnny whether his parents were interested in his swimming. He replied that his dad was. I spotted a man sitting in the stand staring at us and Johnny mentioned that the man with the 2 stopwatches hanging around his neck and the clipboard on his lap is his dad. His dad attended all his galas and training.
I asked him if he was concerned that his dad might be disappointed if he didn’t do well. He said he guesses so. Then I asked if he thought his dad might stop loving him if he didn’t continue to improve. He looked at me for the longest time, then finally lowered his head and said in a very soft voice “I don’t know”. “It must be very scary not knowing if your dad will still love you if you don’t swim fast enough” I said gently, perhaps scary enough to make you feel so much pressure that you feel sick to your stomach before every big race. He just stared at the ground and did not reply.
The impact of Johnny’s father on his performance
This raises the question: how many Johnny’s are there in sport today, and who experience similar symptoms and concerns in their sport? There are many parents who participate in their children’s sport to this degree without ever realising the impact they are having on their children. Johnny’s father became so focused on his son’s performance that he failed to even notice how terrified his son had become of disappointing him – to a point that he was physically sick to this stomach.
However I am convinced that Johnny’s father had good intentions thus supporting his child’s swimming career. But Johnny’s perception of the support was very different than his father’s intention. Johnny perceived his father, the clipboard and the stopwatches as anything but support. The so called “support” frightened him and introduced fear. All the pent-up fear became so great that it crippled his confidence and enjoyment.
Considering that fear and emotions are such a great part of competitive sport for most athletes, one would assume that learning how to deal with it will be a natural part of their training and preparation. Yet in reality it is not. In fact there is very little time if any spent on a young athlete’s emotional education. Think about it, in comparison with emotional education, how many hours do athletes spend on physical training in a week? 20 – 25 hours?? How much are parents spending on their children’s emotional education?
Another interesting point to consider is that parents and coaches need to be aware and comfortable with their own emotions before they could help or teach a young athlete (like Johnny) how to respond to his feelings. If these adults (parents and coaches) are for example very uncomfortable with their own fears and uncertainties there is no way they would ask young swimmers about theirs, because what will they do with all the information and emotions?
People such as Johnny’s father were perhaps more comfortable with giving Johnny answers such as “things will get better” or “think positive” or “try your hardest” or “there is always another day” or “you did your best”. These are supportive suggestions but none of them helps a child like Johnny to deal with his feelings, his fears or other complicated emotions. So there are two options for someone like Johnny. Firstly, he needs to listen to statements such as the ones above or be left to deal with emotions on their own. Otherwise, young athletes like Johnny are left with an emotional dilemma. They are continuously confronted with stressful, emotional situations that produce fear and the risk of disappointment. But because there is little emotional education they have no way of effectively dealing with what they are feeling.
Considering Johnny’s story what can be done to resolve this dilemma for parents? The most important gesture is emotional awareness. This means that parents need to be aware of their own emotions and attitudes because at the end of the day they have the biggest influence on children’s emotional education.
Johnny’s father can therefore start with the process of awareness by asking himself the following questions:
- How comfortable am I with intense feelings such as pain, anger, fear and hurt?
- What is the emotional impact that I have upon other?
- Can I talk to Johnny about these things, openly and honestly?
- How often do I deny my feelings because it’s easer than dealing with them?
Being emotionally aware is often a challenging process that takes courage, commitment and openness on the parents’ part to change, as well as the willingness to continually learn about and explore his feelings.
Honesty in the parent-child relationship
Johnny’s father like many other parents often might pose the question “how do you tell your child what you are feeling?” He might say that he is the adult, the strong one, the expert, the one who knows or is supposed to know. How do I tell my child that I also get scared or worst that I don’t know what to do now? They will never respect me again or think that I am soft. The paradox is that by being open and sharing some of these feelings Johnny’s dad will actually create respect and admiration. And more it might help Johnny to admit and be aware of his own fears and hopefully contribute to his emotional education. It might even help him to deal with emotions such as fear, uncertainty or hurt.
How much of Johnny’s father does each of us live out? Denying that you are in some way like Johnny’s father is already part of the problem and stress that you might put on your child?
To conclude, remember if we expose our young children to the stress of competitive sport it is our (parents, coaches, support team members) responsibility to always equip them with the resources of dealing and handling these emotions.