Parenting, spirituality, and competitive athletes

The last thing I ever thought I would be, as I meditated and yoga-ed my way through pregnancy, was a competitive athlete’s mom. But part of being a conscious, aware, attached, and spiritual parent is listening to the soul's yearnings of your child - and my daughter, and her soul, proclaimed loud and clear: "I want to be a figure skater." Before she ever thought I would strap a pair of blades to her feet she was "skating" across the bare floors of our home in makeshift skates of socks, empty tissue boxes, and anything else that would slide; whether I thought it was safe or not! 

Full of energy as soon as she could move, we listened. We learned quickly that we couldn't contain or control her energy as misdirected and unresolved vigor started to express itself in anger. Instead of fighting her vivaciousness, we decided to help her channel it, and so at the ripe old age of 18 months, we facilitated her entry into ballet. All she wanted to do was dance and move her body. She seemed to have a need to express something beautiful from deep inside; a passionate dancer from the beginning.

As time progressed, she asked to try gymnastics. To our surprise, she excelled; again, she showed some intrinsic motivation beyond her years. My lovey, dovey, airy, zen-mommy side recoiled at the thought of competing because I wanted to teach her about cooperation, support, and building others up, instead of trying to beat them. I kept these thoughts, mostly, to myself and encouraged her to be her best self without harming others. She continued to thrill at her own physical strength and agility, and we encouraged her to enjoy whatever she did to its fullest.

Then one day a beloved cousin took her ice-skating. When she stepped on the ice, if it had been in a movie, you would have heard chimes playing and angels singing, and you would have seen stars twinkling and magic dust sprinkling...this is how much she loved the ice, immediately. We didn't know how much that moment was going to define the next five and a half years (and possibly the rest of our lives).

Since then she has chosen to give up all of her other activities to concentrate on skating. She competes in multiple events every year and faces both heartbreak and joy. She does it, though, because she loves skating. Her dad and I support her dreams and wince when she is in pain. We remind her often that skating is her passion, her dream, her goal; we are here to help her and yet we are also here to guide her and help make sure she is safe, emotionally and physically. We have no attachment to any skating result, no stake in any other outcome than her well-being; which some days seems to be a battle between her and herself.

This is the crux of spiritually parenting a competitive athlete, first helping her remember her essence as a perfect soul, and then allowing all of the motivation to come from her - letting her know that she can stop at any time if it stops serving her. We give advice and support in her decisions, but we empower her to be the driving force. Yes, it costs money. Yes, it takes time. Yes, we enjoy watching her skate. But the moment it is no longer enjoyable for her, the moment she no longer LOVES it; that is the moment she can and should quit without any question. We will never allow her skating to become about us. No score will ever matter to us - even if it is, someday, at the pinnacle of the skating world, the Olympics. The only thing that ever truly matters to us is how she feels about how well she skated when she leaves the ice and how well she processes the result. 

We are still working with her on not placing too much pressure on herself, understanding that even if all participants perform perfectly there will still be a first and a last place, and we have hope that through our example she will understand that winning isn't everything, even in competitions. We consistently remind her that competition with herself and her prior achievements is more satisfying than beating others. We help her to concentrate on her reasons for skating, the personal achievement goals she and her coach have set, the thrills of her jumps and spins, the joy she feels when she accomplishes a precision move, and the knowledge that she is creating beautiful art upon the ice.

She recently had an upsetting performance at a competition. She fell three times within one song and even though she got back up after each time and skated beautifully in between the falls, she came in last place. When she left the ice, immediately after finishing (before knowing the scores), however, she was positively glowing. She was proud of herself for finishing, excited that she had gotten back up three times, and knew she had skated her difficult program well. We reinforced this understanding because, in her practices, she won’t always finish a program run-through after falling, so her getting back up - not one, but three times - was a major accomplishment! She was happy and satisfied that she had done her best, and could handle the results.

When the scores were posted, however, she felt differently. She was sad and disappointed in herself, feeling that she shouldn’t have fallen. We took her outside to allow her to process her feelings away from the other skaters. As she expressed her pain and sadness over the standings she admitted that she, a perfectionist, was most upset with herself and the fact that she hadn’t skated “perfectly.” Many parents and coaches may have said, “get over it!” “stop crying!” or “grow up!” but we didn’t. We hugged her, held space with her, and allowed her her feelings. We lent comfort and support.

Eventually, I told her, “You are entitled to be upset and you are allowed to feel it as long as you want/need, but at some point you have to decide if you want to skate in your other two events today. This is totally up to you. If you still want to skate, you need to find a way to find your composure, because you can’t skate when you are this upset. If you do want to keep skating, today, how long do you think you need to feel this, completely, before you can put it away for the next few hours?” After some discussion, her answer was she wanted five more minutes to be upset and then she would be okay. Thinking it would be easier to compose herself alone with her coach, she released me to walk away. I trusted her judgment and giving her a kiss, left to let her process with her coach.

This autonomy was really important. She took control of her own emotions, her own space, and her own timeline. Had I demanded her to calm herself, it may have prolonged it. Had I invalidated her feelings, she wouldn’t have felt heard. Instead, by giving her license to process her feelings and determine her own timeline, she was able to compose herself and skate again.

She went on to skate her next two programs as perfectly as I have ever seen them, in practice or otherwise. Later, we were able to share with her that she had so many victories that day that had nothing to do with medals or scores. She showed great resilience! Not only did she get up from three falls in her first program of the day, but she “came back” from being extremely upset, nearly inconsolable, and skated beautifully in her second and third programs of the day.

Our interactions that day weren’t about convincing her to continue skating or to give up. They were about allowing her to determine her own path, listening to her feelings, validating her, and being there for her in the ways that she needed us in the moment. In the end, she chose what was best for her and learned something new about herself. She learned that she is tenacious, that she is stronger than she thought, and that she can overcome disappointment. As a result, in the short time since, she has been skating with increasing confidence and joy.

Most importantly, we remind her, daily, that her true beingness cannot ever be changed by what she does or doesn’t do or accomplish. This beingness is her connection and oneness with Divinity, the inherent perfection of her soul. While she may not always skate (or do math, or spell, or create the art project she envisioned, etc.) perfectly, nothing she does or doesn’t do will ever change her essence. Who she is will never change. These are just things that she does; and the things that she does are just that, things: things of expression, things of adventure, things that only have the significance she assigns them. Humans who understand and live from this perspective enjoy a richness of life without attachment to results, without fear. We approach all of her challenges in the same way, whether they are skating, schoolwork, friendships, etc. we always work to help her remember her spiritual essence and find her own way - while being her safe place to discuss, cry, and work out her human feelings.

When parents come at their children's athletics, activities, and dreams from this viewpoint it relieves pressure and opens up joy. It helps children to see their dreams as possible and gives them the chance to try things with hope! "Allowing" children to follow their dreams isn't being "permissive" because they aren't yours to begin with. Think of it more like you are helping them foster their dreams and spinning their story with them!

Emily A. Filmore is the author of the With My Child series of children's books about family bonding. She is the co-author of Conversations with God for Parents with Neale Donald Walsch and Laurie Lankins Farley. (Rainbow Ridge, 2015). And the author of The Marvelous Transformation: Living Well with Autoimmune Disease about her experiences with chronic illness. (Central Recovery Press 2015).