By Josh Cupp
Sports, sports, sports. We cannot get enough. Our parents played, we played and still do, we are binge watching March Madness, MLB coming soon, NBA playoffs around the corner, the Masters—you know who you are, you’re a fan of athletics. As our competitive playing careers come to a close in early adulthood, most of us greatly look forward to watching our kids play the sports we love. When we do this right, sharing athletics with our kids is a beautiful pursuit. Light instruction, gentle cheering from the sidelines, and encouraging words are great places to start on a journey toward keeping competition a fun and positive experience.
Inevitably, it doesn’t always go as planned. Whether it’s wanting athletic success for our children too much or perhaps trying to live through our kids’ endeavors, sometimes we put a little too much pressure on their results and performance. We forget that except for the 1/8th of 1% that are playing youth sports, we are participating merely to learn life lessons, understand the value of hard work, teamwork, and get some good old fashion exercise. Other times as well, the stressors are self-inflicted with kids just wanting to achieve and impress on their own.
Simone Biles, Naomi Osaka and Mardy Fish are just a few world class athletes that have recently reminded us that we need to check in with our kids on their mental and emotional well-being. The physical part of junior sports instruction and training has long received either all or the lion’s share of attention, and frankly, that needs to change. Speaking candidly with kids about their overall satisfaction with playing their respective sports, asking how they feel about performing in pressure situations…is it exciting and exhilarating or does it cause them unwanted anxiety? I can say I was never asked these questions growing up, playing junior sports in the 80s and 90s. I’m not sure these conversations are had all that often today. They should be.
MVP Parent decided to chat with two young athletes. We wanted to check in, and make sure all is well, and to ask the questions we should all start asking.
First up, my kid. Francisco (Ceko) Cupp (FC below). Ceko is an 11-year-old 5th grader at Lake Avenue Elementary School in Saratoga Springs, New York. At a time when many kids start narrowing down which sports to continue with, mine revels in the fact that he still participates in five sports competitively. Baseball is his true love, for now, and that could change at any point. I sat down with him on a Saturday afternoon after a morning that included Little League assessments at 9:30, a quick change of wardrobe in the car, and a basketball game at 10:30. I told him I wanted to ask him a few questions about sports, he agreed provided I fix him a turkey sandwich first. He’s a keen negotiator.
MVP Parent: When you think of all your athletic efforts, how often do you think about the mental component? For example, you’re playing a sport because you always have, do you check in with yourself in a “am I truly enjoying this activity? There isn’t anything else I’d rather be doing right now” type of way?
FC: I do think about how much I am enjoying each activity, sometimes I’d rather be just having a catch with you [me, his dad], not playing on a formal team. Games are way more fun than practice, I think everyone agrees with that. I do really like all my sports. I know that if I didn’t I could tell you and Mom and that would be that.
MVP Parent: I’ve spoken with you about how when I played Little League, though I was very accomplished player with a sizable batting average and a tiny ERA, by the time I was 12, I had tremendous anxiety during my plate appearances and would put far too much pressure on myself. If I were to strike out, the tears would come. That anxiety led to me hanging up the bat and glove for a few years, a move I regretted. I never felt like I could talk about that with a coach or my folks. Have you ever felt that kind of anxiety like I did during my plate appearances, and if so, is that something you feel like you could talk through with me or a coach?
FC: I feel nerves, but I don’t feel a negative anxiety. Because we [Francisco and me] have had talks about how baseball made you feel, I am aware that those moments are hard for some people, but I just like the stage and the chance to crush it. Most of the coaches I have had don’t talk about how we feel in tough moments, if they do, it’s not about how we feel and how the moments affect us personally, it’s more about taking a deep breath so that we perform better.
MVP Parent: Do kids on your teams or your opponents you compete against in individual sports ever talk about how much you’re actually enjoying participating in sports, or how difficult some moments can be when the game is on the line? If they do, are those conversations useful? If those things aren’t talked about do you wish they were?
FC: It’s absolutely NOT talked about. I definitely wish it was talked about because those teammates are going through the same exact experiences and are facing the same fast pitcher and it would be cool to know they are nervous too; it’d make me feel more comfortable. Not only do we not talk about things like that, if I ever did, I feel like my teammates would think less of me or call me scared or soft. When we all talk sports, it’s mostly just about pro teams or players. If we do talk about OUR sports, it’s just to brag about how well we did, and if we had a bad game, we just don’t say anything about it.
MVP Parent: Does thinking or talking about performing your sport down the line, in the future, add to the wonderment and enjoyment of the game or does it cause anxiety and make you feel stress about having to live up to an expectation? For example, like a lot of kids that play baseball, they want to play in the majors or get a college scholarship. We have talked about that a bunch. How does that thought/projection make you feel?
FC: I think I just see it as a goal. Yeah, I would love to play for the Sox, but that’s just more of a fun thing to think about. I don’t see every pitch or AB [at-bat] as a step toward that goal, I am just having fun along the way. I also always have the built-in excuse that if i don’t play in the bigs that I can just blame my poor genetics. (Laughs) [Dad only found that answer moderately amusing.]
Our second athlete is Ellie Davidson (ED), a junior at Torrey Pines High School outside San Diego, California. Ellie excels at lacrosse, but her true love is soccer and she recently committed to Dartmouth and will join the Big Green in the fall of 2023. I got in touch with Ellie through a connection with one of her high school coaches, Pam Kalinoski. Pam was only part of four National Championship teams at University of North Carolina (a graduating class that went 89-0-6) and been a head coach at every level possible including National College Athletic Association (NCAA) Division 1 at the University of San Francisco. PK described Ellie as humble, shy at times and having a relentless work ethic all of the time.
MVP Parent: As your soccer career has transitioned from fun/kid/activity to a fairly conscious, focused, deliberately competitive endeavor, do you feel like you check in with yourself or with the people in your circle regarding your overall enjoyment of your sport? For example, am I feeling it every time I set foot out on the pitch? Is the weight room fun? Am I truly enjoying my coaches and teammates? Am I doing this because I am still head over heels for it or because it’s expected and just part of who I am?
ED: My overall enjoyment of soccer was a question that came up a lot between my parents and I during the recruiting process. That check-in and the subsequent discovery that soccer is my true physical passion and outlet in a very competitive world has been a conscious effort for me, but I have seen peers that have failed to check-in on it and as a result, they’ve gone in a different direction and in some cases, they’re not playing anymore. Don’t get me wrong, I think anyone that says they’re psyched for drills every day at practice is nuts, but when that whistle blows, it still feels like magic for me.
MVP Parent: Big moments on the field, do you feel anxiety and stress in maybe a penalty kick (PK) situation to settle a tie in regulation or is it more, “I love the spotlight with this cool opportunity to shine and put the biscuit in the basket” type of thing, or perhaps somewhere in between?
ED: There IS anxiety there, no question. My anxiety comes from not wanting to let the team down. It is tough because a PK is such a singular moment, either you score or you don’t, that is inherently stressful. Yes, there is stress there. If I am asked to take a PK, I’m on it, no doubt. I think there is a difference between nerves and anxiety, but that line is delicate at times.
MVP Parent: Two-part Q. Do the girls on any of the teams you’ve competed with ever share their thoughts with each other about the stresses you might feel when maybe facing a challenging opponent, playing in a big game or maybe even about the difficulty of balancing academics with athletics? If they do talk about those things, do you find those conversations useful?
ED: My teams have been particularly close. We DO communicate about tough moments or being stressed about schoolwork. Especially club soccer, we practice so much and commit so much time to the team. That common shared experience of balancing school, sports, college recruiting, it’s a lot and to not talk about it with my teammates would make it more challenging than it already is.
MVP Parent: It’s natural as a talented athlete to often think about progressing to the next level in your journey. When you were in junior high wanting to try out for varsity, or wanting to play up a level in club soccer, thinking about scoring a collegiate scholarship…did those thoughts motivate you and add to the wonderment of the athletic experience or at times does that thinking forward cause some measure of anxiety or do you have an innate ability to just stay in the present and enjoy each experience as it unfolds?
ED: Being so competitive, I have always wanted to play up or play against the best competition. I am very familiar with the narrative in this question. I balked at the added commitment of the “next” level, that was more intimidating than the competition. For example, practicing four times per week verses two or three, and wondering how I’d get to academic stuff or other sports. Once I did level up, I always found that anxiety left fairly quickly and I was able to handle the older players or the increased commitment.
“Yes, there is stress there. If I am asked to take a PK, I’m on it, no doubt. I think there is a difference between nerves and anxiety, but that line is delicate at times.” – Ellie Davidson
Two check ins completed. Two quality athletes that have, are, and will continue to achieve some great things on and off the field. There were some great take aways as I button up this very necessary piece on young athletes and their mental well-being.
Both of these athletes have strong support systems and that is a wonderful place to start. A common theme I noticed with both athletes is that neither of them felt unwanted stress from external sources, meaning it didn’t seem like parents or coaches could possibly put more pressure on them that they already place on themselves. I believe that self-imposed pressure to be more manageable than pressure placed by authority figures (parents, coaches, media, fans, etc.). However, all of it is so much easier to navigate if there is a trusted person or persons to speak with to regain that feeling of normalcy and set their worlds right again. That pressure you’re feeling IS normal and other people you’re competing with and against are feeling it too.
I wanted to pick athletes that were different ages and even genders to see if there were some differences there as well. There were. It is widely accepted that females communicate more readily and efficiently than their male counterparts and in this microscopic sample size it does seem like that is the case. Ceko made mention that the boys on his teams wouldn’t dream of chatting with each other about feeling unsettled or overwhelmed in a difficult situation due to a fear of being viewed as inferior or not as tough. Ellie said she experienced just the opposite, as she felt she gained perspective and had her sense of normalcy reset by checking in with her teammates in challenging moments. This difference might be an age thing too, as Ceko is merely 11 and Ellie is a junior prepping to ship off to the Ivy League in 16 months.
A common theme I noticed with both athletes is that neither of them felt unwanted stress from external sources, meaning it didn’t seem like parents or coaches could possibly put more pressure on them that they already place on themselves.
Allocating time to speak specifically about mental health was a unique opportunity. In all my years as an athlete and coach, I am not certain I’ve collectively spent that much time on consciously checking in with others about how much they’re enjoying their athletic endeavors emotionally. That’s a failing. As a coach, I have touched on the mental side of sport and how best to deal with pressure situations in regards to overcoming and performing better, but I have preciously few times ever had that check-in to ensure my kids were happy, fulfilled and doing exactly what it is they were meant to do. I am ready to improve on that.
A huge thank you to Ellie and Ceko for their candid answers.
Josh Cupp is a former NCAA D1 student athlete and head coach and has competed at golf’s highest professional level. In addition to writing, he pitches never-ending batting practice to his best friend and son, Francisco, and peddles wine at the Thirsty Owl in Saratoga Springs, NY. He can be reached at email@example.com.