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
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.