The car ride home. Every competitive athlete and parent that read that sentence knows exactly what I am talking about. It’s the drive home after a tournament or after practice where parents get to talk to their kids. Kids are a captive audience and parents talk to them about their performance, their effort, and anything else that might be going on. Some parents use the car ride home to help to build their kids up. Some use it to talk about the drama or give their kids an excuse. Some use it to try to help motivate their kids to give more effort. Just the statement “the car ride home” invokes a different feeling for every player and every parent. The car ride home is not always the same but it truly can make or break an athlete. What is the conversation like after a win? Does it change drastically after a loss? Are you talking about the highlight reel, drawing on mistakes that were made, talking about effort, giving an athlete an excuse, bringing up the drama that happened? The approach you choose to take in the car ride home shapes what kind of athlete you have just as much as training and competing does.
Every coach who has ever worked with kids has experienced it. An athlete that tells them that they have the goal of playing at the next level but yet their actions don’t match what they are telling you. Whether it is skipping practices, not being focused while they are at practice, or just a general sense you get from the way the athlete approaches the sport, their actions just don’t match their goals. Sometimes it’s the opposite. Sometimes you will see an athlete frantically overworking themselves as if the weight of the world is on them to succeed with every single touch of the ball.
An extremely difficult subject to broach with parents is whether the goals being set for their athlete are something they want as parents for their kids or something their kids want for themselves. As adults we all know that kids don’t make the best decisions sometimes. As an educator and coach, i see it day in and day out. Kids choosing not to do the work and closing doors on their future. Parents scrambling to do everything they can to help keep those doors open because they know how important it is to be able to choose your path in life and how having those doors open still can be the key to success. As an educator I have given tests in class that kids flat out refuse to take knowing full well that will mean that they fail the class. The parents of these kids are usually at wits end and don’t know what to do to help them anymore. I have also seen the kids that are so overworked and tired and stressed out that they are just begging for a break. The ones that are in all of the AP and Honors classes and are doing hours upon hours of homework each night.
As an educator and coach who really cares about the kids he works with, I have had the conversations with both types of kids. I ask them that inevitable adult question, “what do you want to do after high school”. Interestingly enough, about half of each type of kid will tell me, “I don’t know”. Some have a scripted answer that you can tell they have practiced a million times because they have been asked a million times. A few genuinely know what they want to do, and can go on and on about it, but that definitely isn’t the majority. Think back to when you were in high school. Did you genuinely know what you wanted to do or did you feel some sort of pressure to do something? It’s hard to know what’s out there in the world at such a young age and kids are pushed and pulled in every direction with expectation. As adults all we are trying to do is our best to help to set them up for a happy future. It is on US, however, to also recognize when the path they are going down isn’t something they truly want.
Parents who have more than one kid know that more often than not, those kids are extremely different. As coaches, it’s the same thing. We have athletes of all types. We have some that are just getting their feet wet in sports in general. We have some who are training because their friends all wanted to play and they come in and play together. We have some that play in local tournaments but wouldn’t ever try out for their high school teams. We have some that use our training to help them to make their high school teams. We have some that like the idea that maybe it could open a door for them to go to college and play. We have some that have committed to college and that is enough for them. We have some that want to play all 4 years in college. We have some that want to go on to play professionally as well. We try really hard to let our players know that regardless of what their goals are in the sport, we want to support them in those goals. The hard part, sometimes, is to figure out if their goals are truly theirs or the goals of their parents FOR them.
I have experienced this many times in my career. It’s not that parents don’t mean well. Most of the time they are just doing what they perceive as their best to help their child reach their goals in the sport. They spend a ton of money to travel and pay for club sports and many have some sort of expectation of what their kids should be doing for that money. It’s hard because kids know it too. Sadly, for some, their sport can be that new shiny toy they got for their birthday that got played with and was their favorite for two weeks until all of a sudden it wasn’t anymore. Meanwhile, they are still being pushed to play their sport because it’s so expensive.
Multiple times In my career I have had athletes come to me crying about the sport. One girl committed to college to play but then realized that her dream was no longer to play volleyball, but to become a nurse. Her program would conflict with her sport so she couldn’t play and had to de-commit. It was a terribly hard choice for her because she loved the sport but her passion was helping people and nursing was what she wanted to do. She is now in college and we still support her every step of the way. I have had girls come to me crying saying that there is just too much pressure at home and that they are beginning to hate volleyball because it’s not fun for them on the car rides home anymore. I have had girls who I have noticed were playing like they were hurt and when I have gone to ask them about it they burst out into tears and tell me they are but that they can’t sit out at practice again because their parents will be mad at them. I have watched as parents post more on social media about their kids and their highlights than the kids post about themselves.
As a coach, I care more about a kid’s well being and happiness than anything else. I wouldn’t be doing what I do if I didn’t. Often times, though, that care puts me in an awkward position. Kids have come to me and told me what those car rides home are like, how they are feeling, and where they are at. They have asked me not to say anything to their parents, but that isn’t what is best for them. Betraying their trust, in their best interest, is. Believe me when I say that the conversations with parents about these things are not easy. I have been accused of pitting parents against their kids because when kids tell me one thing, they are telling their parents another so when parents have that conversation with their kids, let’s just say they don’t tell them the same thing they told me.
It always all comes down to this. Are the goals that are set truly the kids goals or are they the parents goals for the kids? Has there been clear communication about those goals? And here is the key, is that communication revisited as those goals change? Let’s be honest, the things a kid wants at 13-14 years old are not the same as the things a kid wants at 17-18 years old. As the goals change it is so incredibly important that parents can be understanding of that. “We wasted all this time and money” is not how that conversation should go if those goals change even if that feels like the reality. If you ever wonder, have a conversation with your kid’s coach. More often than not, a coach can give you some insight as to what they see. Genuine passion for a thing isn’t something you can fake.