Coaching? Spectating? Cheering? What do YOU Bring to your Role?

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By Dr. Allison Belger

For many parents, fall is a time of returning to the sidelines of soccer, football, volleyball, or other sports.  It’s a time for cheering on young athletes and bringing snacks for the team.  Recently, I’ve read quite a few articles touching on the “best” ways to be a parent spectator.  The overall theme on the social media circuit is this: as parents, we would do best to reign in our own motivations and expectations, and simply tell our kids that we love watching them play.  We need to be present and appreciate their efforts, while leaving behind our own lost hopes and vicarious dreams.

I know from first-hand experience that matters become more complicated when we are parent-coaches.  When I worked as a learning specialist, the first thing I would tell parents of kids with academic difficulties is that the job of tutoring should not be taken on by parents; in most cases, there is simply too much relational complexity to allow for positive interchange between parent-tutor and student.  But parents around the country regularly find themselves coaching their children’s sports teams, a dual role often filled with conflict.

For the past month or so, I’ve been parent-coach for one of my daughters and parent-spectator for the other (both in soccer).  Each role offers challenge and pleasure, and as I’ve thought about this article, I’ve considered what makes each role different and what my contributions might be. My personal expectations and desires for each of my kids (which are quite different given their personalities, talents, and drives) have much to do with the experience I have while watching and coaching.  In other words, what I hope for them and what I infuse into their play has a direct impact on how I feel when I walk away from a game—and how they and their teammates feel at the end of the day, whether they win or lose.

On a broader scale, I want to raise questions about what we bring to our roles as supporter, coach, co-worker, training partner, teacher, etc., and how we provide the kind of coaching, cheerleading, assistance, or support needed in different situations.  For all of you coaches out there, you know that a certain level of personal involvement and emotional connection with your athletes comes with the territory.  This aspect of coaching may be exactly why you love what you do, or it may be the very thing that has you questioning its demands and stress—both during a competition and off the field or outside the gym.  For most of us, there’s probably an in-between or a happy medium; we love that feeling of connection and also realize that it can make our job draining and challenging in ways that we might sometimes want to avoid.  Have you ever thought about why you like coaching?  Have you chosen to coach a certain athlete in a certain sport because you know that she has a shot at greatness and you want to help her reach that level of success?  Might there be a part of you that wants fame and recognition for yourself, and this has shaped your choice of athlete?  Are you living out some lost dream of becoming a star yourself, and does coaching give you another shot at it?

If you are particularly invested in the success of an athlete for a personal reason, you are likely to be impacted in powerful ways by the typical ebbs and flows of that athlete’s performance.  The more you are personally driven within the relationship, the more you have at stake and the more you will be involved, for better or worse, depending on success or failure.  As a former competitive soccer player, watching my girls play soccer is very different for me from watching them perform on stage—something I never pursued, myself.  Noticing the differences in my investment and the emotions involved allows me to be a better parent, whether as a coach or spectator, and to enjoy it all more freely.

Let’s imagine that you are someone’s training partner, heading out to cheer him on at a competition.  It’s possible that your strong feelings of supportive bonding might make your investment in his performance one that leaves you emotionally vulnerable if things do not go well.  And of course, with human nature what it is, there might be a part of you that becomes envious of your partner’s success, which complicates the experience and makes you uncomfortable.  In another scenario, your partner might engage in some kind of unconscious self-sabotage in competition, which frustrates you because you know what he is capable of, and you want him to succeed.

We hear it all the time about Hollywood marriages:  the split purportedly occurred because she couldn’t handle his exploding fame or he couldn’t deal with the fact that her career was taking off while his simmered.  Might there be some truth to this in our relationships with co-workers and others?  Sure, it would be nice if such things were neat and tidy and we only ever experienced pure joy and excitement as friends and colleagues move ahead.  But the reality is that we might struggle with feelings of disappointment, frustration or unfairness—even envy–—whether conscious or not, if we are left behind as our coworker rises through the ranks.  The opposite is sometimes true as well—known as the phenomenon of “Schadenfreude” – in some cases, pleasure can be derived from the troubles or misfortunes of others.  Take note if this is a common phenomenon for you; it’s worth figuring out why.  (See my previous article on our “dark sides” for more on this topic).

For the most part, we want our kids, our friends, our athletes, our partners, to “do well” in their pursuits, to follow their passions, and to gain contentment and happiness doing so.  However, the difficult challenge of being the complex psychological creatures that we are means that our reactions to their engagements might not be as simple as we’d like.   How many former Division I-tennis-player parents out there have been devastated by a child’s poor performance during tryouts for the varsity tennis team?  How many of you have a life partner trying to switch careers who seems to just miss nailing interviews?  How many of us have friends who just can’t seem to shake a failed relationship or lose the fifty pounds they need to lose or get out from under a mountain of financial debt?  The point here isn’t what’s wrong with our kids or our partners or our friends, but rather, what WE bring to our role in these relationships and how that impacts our reactions to these realities.  Are we overly invested in our kids’ success because they have become some kind of narcissistic extension of ourselves?  Are we embarrassed that our partner isn’t more successful?  Might we struggle with our own unconsciously driven self-sabotage that we see so clearly in our friend?  The possibilities are endless with regard to how and what we infuse into the performances and outcomes of those closest to us.

What if we could start examining ourselves, our motives and our hidden agendas more regularly?   We just might discover that what we take away emotionally from our role as parent, coach, friend, or partner to someone has as much to do with what we bring to the table as it does with what the player brings to the performance.  If we need a win to feed our egos, how might that impact our approach and tone?  If we are frustrated by something from our past or feel pressured by echoes of our own parents’ history and needs, how might that affect our relationship with others–perhaps especially to our children–and our capacity to separate ourselves from what they do on the field (or on stage, in school or at a job)?  The more aware we are of our own internal lives, the more able we will be to enjoy and support the performances and pursuits of those closest to us—be they on the playing field, on the stage, at work, wherever.   So go watch, coach, cheer, advise.  See what comes up for you and commit to teasing it all out—for your sake as much as theirs.

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