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One evening I got a call from a young athlete that had tried out for a specific team, and he was struggling to understand why he did not make the team. With great frustration and anger, he detailed for me all the work he did and how angry he was that the work did not seem to make a difference. As is often the case, I dug a bit deeper to understand what was truly fueling his intensity. He went on to describe how many of his friends would be on the team and how sad he was to miss out on those experiences. I replied; “Is there anything else that is hard for you?” He then said; “I know my dad is really disappointed in me. He told me that I needed to work harder to keep improving rather than play video games.”
I have had this type of conversation too many times to count.
Tryouts bring with them fear, anxiety, anger, frustration, joy, relief, and uncertainty.
This blog is not designed to be about the fairness, or lack of it in youth sports, although there might be value in making some statements with regards to this topic. This blog is about the SILENT SCREAMS that often hide behind seemingly normal types of youth sports experiences. For the sake of clarity, I would like to highlight 3 SILENT SCREAMS I have experienced over 18 years.
First, the SCREAM OF REJECTION:
The need to feel accepted is huge for young athletes. This need doesn’t discriminate according to skill and talent level at all. As young people play, they carry an internal “acceptance” module. What this creates is a filter within that is constantly measuring and evaluating, with every action, the curiosity of acceptability. This need is so strong that many young athletes consistently look into the stands, or across the gym or field to read how they are doing from their parents or other loved one's body language.
One story illustrates this: Some years ago I was working with a young hockey goalie. He was tremendously physically skilled, with cat-like reactions, great size and strength, and advanced instincts. But he was also plagued with tremendous anxiety, fear, and a lack of belief in himself. One day I asked him; “Are you afraid of failing?” He said; “NO!” I responded with; “Then why all the anxiety and fear?” He said; “Everyday I am afraid that I will let my dad down. I can tell by looking in the stands if he is satisfied with how I am doing.” He continued; “Somedays I look in the stands, and I see him with his hands over his head, and I know he is mad or disappointed about something. This makes me not want to play at all.”
I have since heard this type of story hundreds of times over the years.
The silent scream connected with the fear of rejection is often anxiety and a lack of belief. It rarely occurs to us that these symptoms may have a connection to us and the information that we are giving both verbally and nonverbally to our young people. Young people regardless of ability are looking to experience acceptance from the important people in their lives. At the core, this means the capacity to accept and positively reinforce the individual regardless of performance. Too often, parents and coaches relate to athletes like they are feelingless machines performing to make them happy and proud. When a player's level of performance dictates the mood and posture in a relationship, then questions begin to form in the mind of an athlete about their acceptability and anxiety and fear strengthen. We must elevate our capacity to disconnect a player's value from the quality of their performance and learn to communicate acceptance and appreciation for attributes that we notice that are worthy of reinforcement. Young people are super sensitive to this and because of this SILENT SCREAM anxiety, fear, and mental dysfunction is at epidemic proportions.
Second, the SCREAM OF INVISIBILITY:
Young people not only want to experience acceptance but also want to be noticed. On every team, there are those that are the most skilled and those that are less skilled. We tend to have preoccupation and unbalanced focus on those that are most skilled. I am not referring to playing time here. As young people grow and play at higher levels, I believe that the best players should play. However, this does not mean that less skilled players have to become invisible. Often, most of the feedback, coaching, and focus goes to the most skilled players. One's level of skill should not dictate the quality of coaching or feedback. Every player deserves to be coached and given the opportunity to progress their craft. Unfortunately, this is not the case for many. Once they have been slotted as a “role” player often, they become invisible. From this experience motivation drops, practice engagement slips, and desire to keep playing decreases with every experience. In this case APATHY SCREAMS! The foundation of this apathy is invisibility. When asked about why an athlete has “lost their motivation” it is hypothesized that they simply have other interests. I am not denying the viability of this argument, however, when young people do not feel or experience evidence that their presence is valued or needed motivation drops significantly, and the SILENT SCREAM OF APATHY OCCURS.
Taking the initiative to focus on the contributions, and assets that every player brings to a team goes a long way to silencing the scream of invisibility.
Third, the SCREAM OF BEING INVINCIBLE:
At first glance you might take a double take when reading the title of this silent scream. Let me attempt to explain this. I think most if not all of us would like to raise confident and self-assured young athletes. In fact, many parents retain my services to teach this to their young athletes. However, my concern is that we are not truly raising CONFIDENT and SELF-ASSURED young athletes but, athletes that feel “special,” “privileged,” “entitled,” and “delusional.”
Confident and self-assured young people understand that struggles, disappointment, and failure will find them. In spite of this, they can stay engaged, find the value in the experience, and turn the moment into learning that elevates their capacity to grow themselves and their skills. All of this without damaging their sense of self or motivation to move ahead. Contrast this with young athletes that have been told they are “special,” “talented," and are "unfortunate" when a moment of failure or disappointment finds them. We make excuses, feel sorry for, and find words to soften the impact of disappointment. The message here is often; “YOU ARE INVINCIBLE.” When young athletes believe that they are invincible, struggle, disappointment, and failure DISRUPT, DISMANTLE, and DESTROY them leading to emotional breakdowns, pouting, crying, and internal disarray. Recently, a young man called me in a total emotional meltdown. His team had just lost a game they were expected to win without much effort. The talent was not at all equally distributed. His team was the favorite. He was so distraught I could barely understand him. After calming him down, I asked why he was so emotional? He said; “I have never experienced such a bad loss." “What makes the loss bad?", I asked” He answered, “Maybe we were not as good as we thought, maybe I am not as good as I thought?” One loss in a season of great moments was enough to have this young man question it all. There are a plethora of young men and women playing youth sports that are emotionally destroyed and deeply discouraged from NATURAL AND NORMAL occurrences in youth sports.
Because we reinforce the message of specialness and entitlement, our young athletes often conclude that they ARE FAILURES WHEN THEY EXPERIENCE FAILURE. This is the SILENT SCREAM OF INVINCIBILITY. This conclusion erodes one's sense of self and leaves them feeling hollow and without the tools to turn those moments into platforms for growth and future accomplishment.
After 18 years of working with young athletes on the mental side of things, I have learned that what presents itself as the problem is rarely the real problem. These three silent screams of young athletes often hide. As a result, creating solutions to transform the scream into growth can be a challenge. However, I have seen many young athletes turn these screams into improved self-awareness, greater confidence, and overall self-mastery. As leaders and parents, we need to look deeper when we see attitudes and actions that are troubling. More often than not we will find a SILENT SCREAM.