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lessons from the field

I don’t know where my oldest gets his athletic prowess. I guess we lucked out.

He started gymnastics at our park district when he was three years old because I did not like the idea of sitting in the sun, the rain, or the cold for ball games. When he was seven, he was asked to join the newly-formed Boys Team  and he started his “career” in competitive gymnastics. It did sound impressive when I told people that he went to the State Championship. I am not one of those pushy and hyper-critical parents. I am amazed by the gymnastic moves my oldest can do, with ease, and most of the time, with grace. But I will be completely honest: there will be no Olympic medals in the future. He is good, could definitely do better, but not that good.

We attend his meets and hold our breath and watch, ready to comfort him or to cheer him on. It is getting harder and harder to sit in the audience since every event now involves the risk of him falling off or falling down. I don’t think I will be able to watch without having a heart attack as they start doing more and more dangerous “tricks”.

How do parents of Olympic athletes quiet their hearts when it is happening? What happens if something wrong happens to your child’s routine? How do you stop the ache in your heart, fortify it, and find the right words to comfort your heart-broken child? I used to wonder about that.

As my oldest reached the higher level in gymnastics, the routines became harder. Because he grew in height without packing on the pounds, his muscle strength (or lack of) does not allow him to perform as well as before. This became very obvious when he attended his first competition this past season.  Less then half way into his floor event, he fell, sat heavily on his bottom, not once, but twice. I could hear the gasps from the audience even in the noisy gymnasium. I will be brutally honest with you: it was painful to watch. I wanted to turn my head and close my eyes. NOT because I was embarrassed, please believe me when I say this, but because the urge to go to him right away and hug him was so strong that I physically felt ill. I had to sit on my hands to prevent them from flying to my mouth or chest and bite my lips so I didn’t break down and cry.

But he got up and finished his routine. He was not frazzled. Much to my surprise, when he exited the floor, he was neither in tears nor pouting; he walked back to where his team was sitting and fist-bumped his coaches.

THAT was one of the proudest moments I have had as a parent.

He has learned to fail. Or rather, he has learned the ability to not get bogged down by an accident or a mistake and forge ahead. He has learned the ability to remain calm and focus on what is ahead. An ability that I am sorely lacking.

Several days later when I was sure it was safe to touch upon the subject, I asked him with a frankness bordering on admiration,

“What was going through your mind when you fell and sat on the floor? How were you able to get up and continue with the routine? How did you find the strength to be so brave?” I was truly amazed by this young person’s (“My own son!”) will power to remain poised under such duress.

“Well, it’s nothing really. The coach has always told us to NOT think about what has happened and just focus on what’s next in the routine. We just need to focus and finish the routine. I don’t notice the audience when I am doing the routines. I just focus.”

Focus. Grace under fire. I believe these are the things that make athletes such special people. Any athletes, no matter the rankings or the scores. They don’t become broken-hearted by a single setback. They just do it again, and again, and again.

At his second meet when my son once again did not place and I once again agonized over what the right things to say to console and encourage him, he bounded to the bench where I was sitting in just one stride, plopped down, and before I could say, “I am sorry honey…”, declared with a smile, “I have achieved my three goals today.”

“I was telling everybody this. I have three goals for this meet and I reached all three of them:

1. I had fun
2. I did better than last time
3. I was not physically or emotionally scarred permanently.”

I laughed and slapped him on his back.

THAT was another one of the proudest moments I have had as a parent.

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