Jr. and Cadet Nationals is underway this week in Fargo, ND in my opinion the toughest high school tournament in the country. It doesn’t seem that long ago my summer, actually my year revolved around “Fargo” and what transpired over a ten day period each July. You see I was invested way beyond your average high school coach for many years because I was also a parent. There are a lot of coach/parents just like I was that make the trek to Fargo each summer with there sons or daughters. Each year dreams of scholarships and stop signs are realized or shattered on the floor of the Fargo Dome. That investment by parents can be both a blessing or curse to the athlete competing depending of course on how it’s all handled.
The song “Danger Zone” from the movie Top Gun (1986) with Tom Cruise will forever have a sour effect on me every time I hear it. When my son was a first year cadet he was up 9-0 going into the break in the freestyle finals against a tough kid from Ohio. He needed just one more point to tech fall and become a National Champion. With “Danger Zone” humming in the background he proceeded to lose 10-9 and take second. It was heart breaking to watch him be so close and not be able to close the deal. After, the coach in me analyzed everything from his warm-up to his par terre defense but the parent in me could only try to console him. There were lessons to be learned and I didn’t have to say anything for him to learn from those lessons. The sport took care of all that and by me opening my big fat mouth I would have only gotten in the way of the natural learning process. He recovered, probably faster than I did and came back the next year to win both Freestyle and Greco being named the OW in Greco and teching his way through his Freestyle bracket. I can’t remember what song played during either one of his finals matches that year.
It is a tough balancing act coaching your own kid and what truly can be considered the parenting “Danger Zone.” There is no separating yourself from wanting him/her to be successful, it’s human nature. We all want the best for our child regardless if its in sports, school, relationships or whatever they are invested in. The tricky part for parents is understanding that ultimately it is not about us as parents, it’s about the well being of our child. For some that’s hard to understand because they are so blinded by the connection and investment they emotionally have put into their child. Due to the personal nature of wrestling and the intimate setting this relationship can get distorted into something other than just a sport. Go to a kids tournament and look at the side of the mat where parents, grand parents, siblings and whoever else climbed in station wagon are all sitting on their knees screaming at the top of their lungs for their little guy to “Get’er done!” In other forms this intense involvement continues for many athletes well into their teenage years. If they make it to Fargo and still have the love and desire to compete they may have endured everything from nightly critiques in the car on the way home from practice to straight up punishment for simply losing to someone who was better than them. I’ve seen just about everything when it comes to parents, coaches and kids and I understand because at one time I was the crazy dad/coach. I understand but I don’t condone poor behavior by parents who justify their actions in the name of competition, toughness or whatever reason they may have to make their kid feel as if the highest value they have is as an athlete. I have told many an athlete, “Wrestling, its what we do it’s not who we are and winning and losing on a mat does not and will not define us.” If you are reading this and you don’t understand that last statement you may have a problem.
When my son was about 13 years old I made a rule for myself, once practice was over and we got in the car to go home I never brought up wrestling. We of course talked about it but I always let him initiate it. To this day we both love wrestling and we probably talk about it in some form each and every day. There were some tough lessons to be learned along the way for me as a parent. Ultimately, I wanted him to know I valued him way beyond on the sport and wanted him to own it for himself and not for me. That may sound obvious but when you spend as much time in the sport as we did and a good portion of each day is dedicated to becoming a better wrestler the message we are sending is huge. Our actions tell our kids what our priorities are and we need to be very cognizant of making sure our kids know we love them regardless of the sport and who they are is not defined by their performance.
Sports are a great conduit for parents and their children. For many of us it’s common ground that we can come together on and forget all our differences or issues. It would be sad to have the sport be something a child resented because a parent didn’t keep it in perspective. Parents should have unconditional love and support first and foremost regardless of what type of athlete their child is.