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One Mother’s Unsparing Look at Youth Sports and Herself

by Mary Glynn Wojciechowski


Studies have shown that less than 10 percent of high school athletes continue playing their sport in college. While I have enjoyed watching my two kids compete in several sports over these past 15 years I never had any delusions that they would go on to play in college. My only hope was that when they decided to walk away they could do so with confidence and pride in their accomplishments.

For one of my kids, his “Sports Life” ended on a high note, although there were plenty of low points throughout his journey. When he quit, I felt a few pangs of parental nostalgia, but for the most part it was easy to let go. Now, for my second child, the opposite is true. She has decided to quit after hitting a low point. I know there is nothing I can do to compel her to reconsider, and it’s my duty as a parent to respect her decision. Still, letting go this time is more difficult.

My daughter has been involved in sports both recreational and competitive for about 10 years.

She’s small and scrappy, flexible, strong and smart. Despite being smaller than her teammates she has always found a way to shine on the field or the court. It’s been inspiring to watch her.

At first we tried to steer her towards sports that were better for small kids, like gymnastics. She had talent but after several years, her heart was just not in it. She joined a recreational soccer league to play with her friends. By junior high school she was on a travel team, but when friends left the sport for basketball and volleyball she wanted to do the same.

I did not want her to leave soccer but knew that I had to respect her decision. I worried that in volleyball or basketball there was more potential for coaches or other players to judge her unfairly because of her size.

One day it dawned on me that on the outside she was small, but on the inside she was tall, and I had to see her for who she was on the inside.

I told her that pursuing either of these two sports could be a bumpy ride, but if it’s what she wants, then “go for it.”

She faced challenges and disappointments but also enjoyed many good moments. Eventually, she focused on volleyball. Her club allowed her opportunities to play more than just the back row positions of libero and defensive specialist, where the shorter kids usually play. Despite her small stature she had a pretty decent vertical jump, got a good amount of playing time and even got to be a team captain.

Last year, she played on the high school freshman team, and four months ago was trying to decide if she wanted to try out for the sophomore team. We live in a large and affluent school district, and it is not uncommon for kids with solid club backgrounds to get cut from the high school team. We talked about this ahead of time, and I told her that I would not be disappointed if she got cut. I also told her that even if she did not play for school, she could continue playing in her club.

We talked openly about the risk of getting cut, emphasized that being cut would not be “the end of the world” and even had a “plan B” to try some new things if high school volleyball did not work out. At the time, she seemed OK with that. As a parent, I thought we covered all bases. So we’re good. Right? I could not have been more wrong.

After some bad experiences at the training camp and some more at the tryout I am now left with a child who has been stripped of her self-confidence, and unwilling to continue in the sport that she had enjoyed just a few months earlier.

As club tryouts approached she feared not making the cut, and I could not convince her to go to a tryout.

She told me she’s quitting because she just has lost interest. I tried to convince myself that her behavior was truly driven by a lack of interest even though she showed no signs of this before the high school tryout. One day I told her I would still like her to try out for a club, but if she got an offer she would have the right to refuse it. This way she would be walking away on her own terms. Her refusal to even attend the tryout led me to believe that fear played at least a partial role in her decision, and recently, she said that no club would take her because of what happened at high school.

It adds to my sadness to think that her departure will be permanent. Because she is almost 16 it’s not likely that she will take a year off and then decide to come back. Also, it is unlikely that she will find the confidence to try a new sport or hobby.

She is in a downward spiral, but when I look back at my own behavior over the past few months, perhaps I am in a downward spiral too. My initial response to her being cut was one of compassion and encouragement. I said stuff like…“I know it hurts, but you are a really good athlete, and there are still opportunities for you.” When I realized she wasn’t getting any better, my compassion and encouragement turned into tolerance and negotiation. Then I found myself saying stuff like…“I’m sorry about what happened to you, but if you go to this volleyball camp or sign up for a club at school, I’ll give you more driving time.”

When that did not work I spiraled down to disappointment and ultimatums. Now I am saying stuff like… “Why can’t you move on? All of your friends have sports or other things to do. You have no extracurricular activities and your grades aren’t so hot either. If you don’t find another sport or activity soon I’m signing you up for the school track team (a no cut sport)”. I can’t help but wonder. Have I hit “rock bottom” yet or will I soon resort to anger and punishment?

Her departure from volleyball and all other sports has made me very sad, mostly because of the reason that it happened.

We can’t control what happens to us, but we can control how we respond, and so far I am not doing well at controlling my response.

As part of my efforts to turn things around and respond the right way, I decided to write about my feelings with the hope that this would prevent me from acting out.

This might sound crazy but it’s like I’ve got this mock funeral going on in my head. Thankfully my child is alive and healthy, but her “sports life” is over, and I need to bid farewell to my little gymnast/soccer player/basketball player/volleyball player. Looking back on her experiences, there were people to thank and others who hurt her, and I want to free myself from the anger I have felt. So I now offer the following parting words.

To Her Soccer Club Coach

Sometimes at practices you sounded like a Marine drill sergeant, but it was obvious that you cared about every girl on the team. Your criticism was constructive, and you always followed up with praise. You made her strong on the outside and on the inside. She even wrote a paper about you once for English class. I will always remember you fondly.

To Her YMCA Basketball Coaches

Like all good recreational coaches, you made sure all players got equal playing time. You took the time to get to know each player and gave them enough encouragement to meet their individual needs. My daughter was lucky to have you.

To The “Mean” Girl on the Anonymous Social Media Site

About four years ago, you posted a message to my daughter that she was too short to ever be good at basketball or volleyball and that she should stay in soccer. That was hurtful to her and to me as well. She said she is over what you did, and I have not thought about you in a while, but now that she is quitting, what you did is on my mind. But you are just a kid, and I am an adult, so I forgive you. If you ever find yourself feeling guilty about this, you should forgive yourself too. 

To Her Jr. High Volleyball Coaches

She worked really hard, and you gave her lots of encouragement. The hard work paid off, and at times you used her as a positive example for others. That was huge. Her work ethic will ultimately be better thanks to you.

To The “Mean” Girl on the 8th Grade Volleyball Team

You told her that being a libero meant she’s just a “glorified sub” and that you were a better player. From that point forward she did not want to play libero. She said she is over what you did, and I have not thought about you in a while, but now that she is quitting, what you did is on my mind. But you are just a kid, and I’m an adult, so I forgive you. If you ever find yourself feeling guilty about this, you should forgive yourself too. 

To the Volleyball Club that Hosted Summer Camp in 2014

She was entering 8th grade with two years of playing experience. At the beginning of each day, your coach would split the girls up into groups according to grade. You continually put her with the 6th graders, and she had to continually remind you that she was an 8th grader. The first couple times I assumed it was an honest mistake, but your continued placement of her in the younger group at best shows a lack of sensitivity and at worst was just mean. If she belonged with the younger kids because you had concerns about her skill level, then you should have done your job and told her that. She left your camp confused and frustrated.

To the Same Volleyball Club that Rejected Her in 8th Grade

During the tryout, my daughter overheard your coaches talking. One remarked about her high vertical jump. Another replied “Yes, but she still is not worth it, because she’s too small.” I respect your opinion, but she did not need to hear that. Watch what you say to each other when players are within ear-shot.

To the Coaches Who Ran the Last High School Training Camp

One day she got in line to do a setting drill. She was a setter for her club, so she thought she could be a part of the drill. You told her to get back in line with the DS’s. I’m guessing that even though tryouts were a couple weeks away you already had an idea of who you would pick for the team, and it did not include her, so why not let her try out for the position she wanted? It may not have changed the outcome, but at least she would have felt more in control.

To the “Mean” Girl at the Last High School Training Camp

On the last day during a scrimmage you refused to rotate out to let my daughter enter the game. You got away with it, because the coaches were watching from the stands and could not hear what was happening on the sidelines. She got into the game for the last few minutes but did not do well because she focused all her energy on being angry at you.

The fact that she did not do well in that moment is her problem not yours. Your bad behavior was not the cause of her being cut, but it was so cruel and dishonest, and I have been thinking about it a lot.

By the way, congratulations on making the team. My daughter said she has already gotten over it, but you, I fear, are in great danger. When you grow up and have to live in the real word, that kind of behavior will cause you to lose jobs, friends, and opportunities to be happy. But for now, you are still just a kid, so I forgive you. If you ever find yourself feeling guilty about this, you should forgive yourself too. 

To the High School Coach Who Cut Her a Few Weeks Ago

I’m not upset that you cut her. You told her that she’s a real hard worker, but there were just too many kids trying out for DS positions. There is nothing wrong with what you said. The problem is what you did not say. All it would have taken is these few additional words: “If you play volleyball outside of school I encourage you to keep playing.”

She may not have reacted any differently on the outside, but on the inside it would have made a difference. Whether you can see it or not your words and behavior carry a lot of power. Maybe she would still decide to quit anyway, but at least on some level she would have known that you cared. In the future, please be aware that kids who don’t make your cut may still have opportunities outside of school, and how you treat them during your “cut speech” can make or break them.

To the Junior High Coaches Who Let Her Help with Their Recent Training Camp

Thanks for giving her this opportunity. She really liked helping the younger kids and wants to look for a job as a trainer or coach. Your actions have inspired her to be more than she thought she could be.

To Her Last Volleyball Club

She loved you guys. Last year she got an offer from another club where her school friends were going, and she turned it down to stay with you. That says a lot. I wish you didn’t have to sell to another club, and I hope the new owners will continue to provide the same fun and caring environment where many players have a chance to grow and develop. She will always be a better person because of the time she spent with you.

To USA Volleyball

You have a lot of great programs, and I am thankful that my daughter was a part of that. I wish that you could have held your club tryouts at the end of the spring season. Several years ago, my son got cut from his high school soccer team, but a few months earlier he had already been accepted for the next club season. This enabled him to quickly regain his confidence and stay in the game. Perhaps you would lose fewer kids if you did it this way.

To Me, Her Mother, Who Did Not Always Have the Best Attitude

You usually managed to behave yourself in front of coaches and other adults but when alone with your daughter you trash talked. The word “that” seemed to be a focal point of your dialogue:

“That kid only made the team because she’s six feet tall.”

“You are just as good as that kid, but her parents volunteer more than I do. That’s why she made the team.”

“That kid doesn’t even want to play, but her parents made her.”

“That kid stinks. I don’t know why she’s on the team. The coach knows her family. Maybe he feels sorry for her.”

“That ref was awful, and you would have won if not for their bad calls.”

“That club is prejudiced against short kids.”

“The girls from that club are good players, but they are a bunch of “b-----s.”

These statements diverted your energy away from where it belonged, on your daughter, and were disrespectful to members of your community (parents, players, refs, coaches, etc.). It made her seem more like a “victim” than the “victor” you know she can be someday.

It’s common knowledge that there are politics and unfair situations in youth sports, but you were supposed to teach her to honor the game no matter what. You were supposed to teach her to rise above it. Even if life is not always fair, we are never supposed to let ourselves sink to someone else’s level. It’s painful when your kid does not succeed, but those moments gave you a chance to teach her the right way to respond, and sometimes you wasted the chance.

To My Daughter, Whom I love Beyond Measure

Some day you might have a child who wants to abruptly quit their favorite sport or hobby despite obvious interest, talent and opportunity. I think I have shown you what not to do. Even though I am sad about your decision, I should manage my sadness better.

Instead of remembering the bad way that things ended for you I will try to remember the many good things that happened before that. I loved that you worked hard and improved all the time. I especially loved that when you got knocked down you always quickly got back up.

I know that this time is different. You will eventually get back up, but it will not be quickly and your chances to play a sport competitively will probably be gone. Many years from now when you are in your 40s or 50s, you might wind up regretting your decision. Don’t beat yourself up about it. Remember why you as young girl started playing in the first place. Go join some random old lady’s rec league and have fun.

Mary Glynn Wojciechowski is a former sports mom from the Chicago area with 15 years on the bleachers and sidelines. Through those years I ‘ve seen the good the bad and the ugly in youth sports. I have also been the good the bad and the ugly in youth sports. I’m sharing my story of lessons learned to help other parents and players enjoy their youth sports experience to the fullest even after your child leaves a sport.

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