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Learning to Swing Away

by | Apr 4, 2022

Female baseball player at bat about to swing

As a parent of children actively involved in competition, I often have spirited debates with my wife about how much pressure we are applying on our son and daughter to excel. We want to cultivate a love for focusing on the process of becoming great at something they choose. But we also really, really love to win. The latter approach can be great for us as adults who are used to having something on the line, but having a young person adopt this attitude too early may be confusing and unhealthy. What we ultimately come to settle on in these debates is that the most important thing we can encourage our children to do is to find a passion that will inspire them, and then do whatever they can to attain mastery in that field or discipline.  

This can put our kids in a precarious position. The older they get, the more time and effort they exert, the higher the stakes will become for them. The intensity of rewards and consequences as they grow in their chosen craft are unavoidable. We must leave childish things behind as we assume the mantle of adulthood.  But in the end, is this such a bad thing?  Failure and setbacks are as much a part of life as success and victory. In fact, they’re often necessary in order to savor and appreciate success. Curiously, how many of us intentionally and consistently talk to our kids about how to handle success with humility and gratitude? Even more so these days, are we as parents and coaches taking time to share strategies on how to frame the challenges when people fail to meet expectations?  

To put this into context, during a conversation with a coaching colleague, we came about the subject of taking risks when discussing my son’s impending move to the Philippines to follow his dream of playing college basketball. With a daughter already studying at a ballet conservatory away from home, he marveled at the number of transitions and unknowns the family was willing to take. After a moment, I responded that I felt it was important for my wife and I to encourage our kids to be comfortable taking risks in order to reach their dreams, especially while they are young and resilient. I wanted them to swing away and swing big in order to follow their passions. Learning thoughtful risk-taking now allows me and my wife to model for them how to manage the thrill of meeting or exceeding their expectations, and more crucially, to process the disappointment of failure in a healthy and productive way. I didn’t want my children to be adults and not have experience with risk-taking, and then be left ill-equipped to figure out how to handle it.  

Now, no parent actively sets up their child to experience pain or disappointment.  It’s a special type of pain to the soul for which we don’t often have the stomach or temperament.However, I would regret as a parent raising an adult unprepared to go make sense of distress when outcomes don’t meet expectations.  Seems like a missed opportunity.  Here are seven helpful prompts I use to remind myself when my wife and I support and encourage our children as they put themselves out there are:

This is not the end!
A trap that I find athletes, parents, and coaches fall into is the belief that the next game, the next competition, or the next event is the one that will make or break an athlete’s or team’s career.  With that mindset, pressure and anxiety can build to overwhelming levels and create unrealistic or skewed perceptions of reality.  In this context, all parties involved become risk-averse and are reluctant to experiment, explore, or move outside of their comfort zone.  This moves us away from process-oriented growth and towards goal-centered outcomes.  Athletes, and by extension, most people, only grow when they are pushing the boundaries of their knowledge, skill, and experience, which is often where we find maximizing our potential. The journey’s destination is not solely dependent on one event, but a collection of repeated acts that inform our decision making. 

If this is the end, then what do we all need to learn?
If taking a swing for the fences results in a painful outcome, it becomes important for athletes, parents, and coaches to keep in mind that this is not the end of the journey. What awaits us beyond this setback is the lesson or wisdom we need that will lead us to improvement and growth.  Failure is an illusion!  We are either winning or learning, and hopefully we are learning in both situations.  

Create a courageous habit
Key to making sense of our progress, our steps forwards and backwards, is a willingness to reflect and become more self-aware.  Can we accept ourselves when we make the impossible seem effortless, as well as when we make the simple chaotic and infinitely complex?  It is not the easiest thing to sit in contemplation and review our setbacks, seeing them for the learning opportunities they are.  It’s like watching a horror movie and yelling at the screen to the unsuspecting victim to not open the door to the bloodthirsty antagonist.  You can see the situation falling off the rails, and yet are helpless to do anything about it.  So in this context, it is important to consider that self-awareness and reflection are courageous and brave tools we use to look objectively at the past, trying to eliminate assigning judgment, so that we can take what is useful to us for the journey towards greatness.  

Humility is not a bad thing
Anytime our ego has an unchecked voice in our decision making, we are often led down an unproductive detour to find our best selves.  Ego tends to cloud the mind and distort our perception of things, which leads us to not take a measured approach to what we do.  Maybe our ego tells us that we already know all we need to know. No longer do we need to learn anything new that will help us be a better athlete or person, thus preventing us from seeing the value of swinging away.  Conversely, our ego may tell us that we are infallible in our decision making and that every choice we make is beyond questioning.  Fortunately for us, Life has a check and balance for the ego, namely failure.  Because despite the best laid plans, we may still fail when we take a risk.  Eating a piece of humble pie is Life’s way of reminding us that the path we are on does not land at a particular location and we must intentionally and consistently work to find our way through and navigate it.  

Meeting the Fork in the Road
As a ballet teacher, my wife and I often have discussions about what happens when our students/athletes enter high-stakes competitions.  It is inevitable in our experiences at this level of competition to come to a point where he or she has to make a decision about whether this journey is worth the time, effort, and pain.  Our term for this is the Fork in the Road moment, when an athlete in competition is faced with a challenge that requires a skill or concept they do not yet possess or have not mastered.  In trying to meet this challenge, risk taking has resulted in setbacks and perceived failures.  There comes a point if an athlete has come upon enough of these challenging experiences where they must be self-aware enough to determine if this pursuit is really for them.  Choose one way, and the journey continues and the mindset settles on overcoming the challenge.  Choose the other way, and the athlete accepts that this is where my journey ends.  Athletes can only make this determination if they have consistently pushed beyond their skills and taken risks to improve.  There would be no appreciation of the journey if there were no bumps in the road.   

Fear Not Your Decisions, Actions, or its Consequences
Pain is a very effective deterrent.  Pain is a physiological, mental, and emotional actor in our decision making.  Fear of experiencing that pain and disappointment will stop us in our tracks towards maximizing our potential and forward progress.  It becomes important that if we have done our due diligence and have made informed decisions to take risks, we must attack those risks with confidence.  Repeatedly engaging in informed risk-taking allows us the experience and confidence to push beyond our limits, without fear of any pain we might feel.  

Trust Your Gut
All this to say, in a nutshell, is that as a parent and coach, my goal is to build up children and athletes who have had sufficient practice in risk-taking, managing expectation, remaining humble in success, and being objective and open towards failure and setbacks, that they are comfortable trusting their inner voice because that inner voice is encouraging them to be their best, as opposed to convincing them that the road is too hard or perilous.  I encourage coaches and parents to prioritize healthy and informed risk taking.  Great things have never been accomplished without the willingness to swing away, no matter what the consequences are.  

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