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Hey Coach, you broke my kid…

In all actuality, I saw this day coming… The day that my son, despite all of the hard work, sweat and tears that he has invested in this sport, would make the decision to walk away. And while I’m doing some soul searching myself to see if there is a place that I have failed him, I can’t help but feel anger and disappointment for the coach… he broke my kid. After eight years of playing this sport, five years of which were beyond rec ball and in a competitive environment, he’s ready to throw in the towel. And why, due to feelings of inadequacy.

I say I saw this day coming because my son has had a string of rough coaching experiences, playing for people who barely believed in him. My child, an intellectual prodigy, plays basketball for the love of the game. Fortunately, enough, while he would never profess to be a basketball superstar, his athleticism speaks for itself and his work ethic and determination has fared him well allowing him to become a pretty solid player. Then why would he walk away?

Take a 16-year-old boy with a heart for the game, who works tirelessly to please coaches, and add in the perception that nothing is ever good enough. What do you get? The undeniable feeling of inadequacy.

This mostly started about 5 years ago during 7th grade ball. My son was new to the school system and the coaches already had ‘their guys’. And while I get the political game that must be played in small districts, my son was never given a fair chance by a coach who one, was a baby himself and barely knew the game, and two only focused on the winning and playing time for a select group of players. My son worked so hard that year to prove himself in this new environment, he got a little playing time here and there, but nothing like what he deserved. Despite this deflating experience, and the many nights he came home frustrated and in tears, he never gave up. In fact, he went back for more the next year, just to experience much of the same madness where he’d play second fiddle to players who couldn’t hold a candle to his game. Slowly, these coaches were breaking my son.

Please don’t think for one second, we didn’t recognize what was happening. We reached out to the coaching staff and requested a meeting to no avail, we prayed for our son so hard, we even had others praying for our son, we gave him as much positive affirmation as possible, and even had others to reminded him how special is was. But despite all of these efforts, his spirit was breaking.

After a summer of prepping for high school ball, he decided to go ahead and continue playing for the program. We knew this would be an uphill battle, but we also hoped that the work that he had put in during the off season with training and AAU ball would pay off. Surely they would recognize both how much he had grown as a person (he was well over 6 ft. going into high school) and how much he had grown as a player, and give him his just due. After what felt like much push back, and a desperate attempt to fill holes on the JV and eventually the varsity team, he started to finally gain some of the respect that he deserved. I say ‘some’ because it took a great deal of time before he was actually put on the court before players, who again, couldn’t touch his game. Then once on the floor, with the slightest mistake, he was pulled. Something that is so demoralizing for a player who just wants to play and just wants to please the coach. My son expended so much effort trying to please the coach that he’d cry on Sundays when we’d make him miss practice to attend church, for fear that putting his spiritual priorities over those of the coach’s would cost him playing time.

By this point, we are exhausted from it all. Exhausted from the meetings with the coaches, from the fussing after the games, from the fussing during the game at our kid who never made a mistake another kid didn’t make, but he was one of the few to get yelled at. Exhausted from the praying that seemed to be going nowhere. Exhausted from the negative self-talk that my son would spew based on the negative reinforcement that he had received. Just exhausted… But being the parents that we are, we did not want to give up on his dream. We pushed, we supported, we funded, the family funded, we coached him mentally, constantly reminding him WHO HE IS and WHOSE HE IS, and we watched. We watched as he pushed himself. He sacrificed his social life. He sacrificed time with family. And he hustled, and he continued to grind, and we continued to beam with pride. Parallel to what I was experiencing in my own career, he knew that this was a life lesson. This coach could be an exact illustration of his future boss. The man or woman who would hold his fate, but never believe that he was good enough. He, and we, felt that if he could work through this, he could work through anything that life threw his way.

On the exterior, he seemed like this cool calm and collected kid, while internally his heart had a slow leak that could one day be beyond repair. That day may very well be today.

Wrapping up his sophomore year, we decided to take a leap of faith to pursue an even more competitive AAU team. We found a new team, we met the coaches, he tried out, and he made it. Why? Because he was worth it, of course! But what we found was another coach who liked bits and pieces of his game, and believed in him so long as the stars can shine, and he didn’t make a mistake. It was like high school ball all over again. Here we go again.

Going into Junior year, we were beyond ourselves and considered pulling him from the school, letting him sit a year (state rules), and then try again at a different school for his senior year. We presented our son with the proposition and told him that the choice was his. He decided to continue to play with his friends, wear his school colors with pride, and fight the good fight. 3 days into season prep, he came to us ready to throw in the towel and he wanted to take us up on our proposal. We prayed about it as a family, asked that he think about it over a few days, and let him know that we would ultimately support his decision. Three days later, he decided to stay. And we supported him. A decision that may have ultimately costed him his future in basketball. He played, he even started. But despite the love and support he received from the stands, fellow students, our family and friends, and even the assistant coaching staff, the opinion from the one who he thought mattered most consistently casted a dark shadow over his confidence. And even though we looked this coach in the eye and shared with him our son’s aspirations to play basketball at the next level, we knew that he would never pour into our child the way he poured into some ‘his guys’. It was sickening.

So now here we sit… present day… at a loss…

My son is at a crossroads about what to do next. The most devastating part is that we thought many of our prayers were being answered and he is now in the best position ever to pursue his dream. A new regime is taking over at the high school for the upcoming school year and he is now playing for a very well-connected, AAU coach who truly believes that he has what it takes. To provide the last little bit of backstory… Our son is a 16-year-old who is wrapping up his Junior year of high school. He’ll graduate a year from now as a very fresh 17-year-old, because academics come as 1st nature for him. He comes from a lineage of college athletes and basketball players and coaches. He’s a 6’4’’ thoroughbred who can post up in the paint with the big boys, but can also score. And his DEFENSE…. Whoa baby… don’t come his way! He’s an honor student, who scored a 27 the first time out the gate on his ACT and felt that it wasn’t good enough so he’s going to try again, and maybe even again after that. He’s the epitome of a student-athlete. A young man of character. And for these reasons and so many more, we KNOW THAT HE CAN DO THIS. So, what’s the problem?

As we approach the summer going into his Senior year, what we were hoping to be his last AAU season, the fact that he has only received very little interest from college recruiters is really starting to take a toll on him emotionally. And even though he has been playing some of the best basketball of his career, with and against players in an older age bracket, the doubt that has been casted on his value constantly makes him doubt himself. And rather than continue to push, continue to lift, continue to shoot, continue to give 150%, he’s broken. The feeling of inadequacy that has been brewing deep inside, and growing over the past few years as he’s tried to prove himself but come up short, may win. Coach, you broke my kid….

I’ll be the first to admit that while my kid does many things very well, he’s not perfect. His game is not perfect, but it’s strong. Like any other teenager, he’d rather take a day off here and there and kick it with friends, but he ‘usually’ chooses the right path. We push him to be great because we know what he is capable of. And he pushes himself to that point, and sometimes even further. What we are experiencing is like the trauma of a person who was in a really bad relationship, full of emotional abuse. They escape that relationship and find a more positive, wholesome and fulfilling relationship, but they can’t appreciate it for what it is because of the suffering and bullying they had endured for so long. Despite the love that they experience in this new stage of their life, or the bode of confidence that people constantly express in their craft, they are broken. He is broken.

And now we are left to pick up the pieces. I know that no matter which direction he goes in, he’ll be fine. He’s a very bright kid and basketball is clearly not his only option. But I have to be real that this breaks my heart. Not because he is considering walking away, we all take different paths, but because of the reason behind his decision. His game is not broken, his love for the sport didn’t die, his desire to be great never wavered, but his heart… it’s been slowly breaking for years, piece by piece. And despite my efforts, I couldn’t save it, for his sake.

Coaches… I can’t beg of you enough to consider the impact you have on a vulnerable young mind. As a long-time middle school and high school coach, I am constantly mindful of the feedback and the criticism that I give to a student. While I’m always tough on my student athletes, because I want to them to always perform at their best, there’s a fine balance between criticism and deprecatory behavior. And I also know that you have to reach each child differently. Any good coach, any good leader, knows this.

No, everyone is not going to be ‘the best’. I don’t believe in participation trophies (after a certain age), and I know that not all kids will be the superstar. But I absolutely make it a point to treat each one with the same respect and dignity that they all deserve. And I work to help them achieve their dreams.

So, if you are a coach out there, doing the thankless job of shaping our future, don’t take it lightly. Don’t take advantage of your power. Watch what you say, what you do, how you respond to disappointment. Are you empowering and coaching them up? Or are you making the unfortunate contribution to their eventual brokenness?

Now to go pick up the pieces… Prayers appreciated…

In all transparency, I was really torn about writing and publishing this post. Some parts made me cry, some parts gave me chills from the pride that I felt for everything that my son has proven to be. As most mothers, I love my son unconditionally. I decided to post for a few reasons… first for my village… this is not just my fight, but a mental war on the mind that myself, my spouse, my family and friends, a few coaches along the way, and even our pastor (who is also a friend) has been fighting for years. I want my village to be able to look back on this in a few years and remember the struggle, so that we can celebrate our victory even more! I also decided to proceed because I know that there are a million great coaches out there, we’ve experienced a few (between our SEVERAL CHILDREN). But there is also a breed of coaches who aren’t aware of the devastating effect that their behavior has on our youth. You may have a million wins under your belt, but at what cost. And also, because this was cleansing. Forgiveness is freeing and I needed to let this go, for me and for my son.  And lastly I posted because of my son. I love you son. More than you can even imagine. And I as I cried through writing your story, our story, I know that one day your test will prove to be a great testimony. You are more than enough, no matter which path you chose. Don’t let anyone ever make you feel any less than enough. Remember who you are and whose you are. I believe in you. And I commit to you that I will work tirelessly to see the day again that you believe in yourself, and then refuse to ever relinquish that power again.

Thank you…

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