Talking with Teenagers: Sports

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I recently saw a movie called “The Miracle Season.”  If you haven’t seen it yet, I’d highly recommend watching it with the teenagers in your life. It can create some great conversation around not only the plot, but many of the conversations and lines contained therein.  In fact, many sports movies can.  They tug at our heart strings from an underdog kind of place, but also from a place of remembering the messages we heard…or the emotions we felt when we were on the fields and courts of our own childhoods.

What do you remember?  How did you feel when you scored the winning soccer goal?  What about when you missed the what-would-have-been-winning field goal?  What kinds of memories do you have when you think back to PE class?  Were you picked for teams first?  Or last?  Something about the experience of sports touches on our confidence…and our shame in ways that not many other things can.  In fact, right now it is doing the very same thing for the teenager in your life.  

“Man up!” is one of the most common phrases boys hear in their athletic lives.  A girls’ version of that statement might be “Toughen up!”  And, for the girls who don’t, or can’t seem to make themselves, sports often falls by the wayside in their growing up years.  In its place, develops an insecurity around the more sports-oriented areas of life.  Think back on your child’s athletic life thus far.  How do you think he feels?  What do you think she remembers the most?  Teenagers are in the most insecure phase of life any of us go through—even if they’re not acting like it.  In fact, boys often get bigger in the face of their insecurity.  Regardless of their bravado or the lack thereof, we want to be moving toward them with empathy and compassion.  It always helps to put ourselves in their shoes…to not only remember what it felt like for us to be their age, but to imagine what they might be feeling right now.  It also helps to dispel some of that perpetual teenage mantra of “No one understands me!”.

So, spend a few minutes thinking back…about your life and theirs.  And then, in that back door way we talk about every month, start a conversation.  In other words, stay up a little later and talk to them at bedtime, or on a walk, or in some other window of time that feels a little more relational and a little less intense.  Talk about their feelings around sports.  It might even help to wander into a conversation after watching a movie together, or mentioning that you read an article, or something that makes the conversation feel a little more casual.  A few conversation starters might include:

Tell me what PE was like for you when you were little?

What kinds of things do you remember hearing from your PE teacher?  What about from coaches when you were younger?

Did you feel pressure to be a certain kind of way?  To perform a certain kind of way?

Do I ever make you feel pressure?

When do you feel the most confident?  When do you feel the least?  When was it fun for you?  Does it ever bring you joy?

When do you feel the most like you?

You can even share some of your own stories about athletics growing up…especially if they’re ones that include foibles or failures.  Again, even if they don’t act like it at the time, they’re highly aware of their own struggles.  And so your admission of yours helps them feel more accepted in the midst of theirs.  It also continues to strengthen the connection between the two of you, which is still foundational for your son or daughter—even in their teenage years.

-originally published in Parenting Teens magazine