Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Unintended Lessons of Competition

As a parent I often watch with one eye covered when Lil Man participates in anything competitive.  I worry about dealing with the failure.  My instinct as a parent is to protect both of my boys from the hard stuff, and I've found that if I don't check myself, I will prevent my offspring from learning valuable lessons that they will need for the rest of their lives.  The irony of this is that I spend the majority of my time encouraging and prodding athletes to compete at  the highest levels they possibly can.  It's this knowledge of what the competitive process can do for a young person that outweighs the parental instinct and has me watching Lil Man compete in a variety of events on almost a weekly basis while the coach and parent personas within me battle it out to see who's agenda will prevail.  This site of this week's lesson came was the school Spelling Bee.

It was good enough for me that Lil Man got selected to participate in the Bee in the first place.  He was sent home with a list of 100+ words to study that could potentially be used in the competition.  Every thing from "jam" to "pictograph" and as we went through the words in practice, I became more and more impressed with the amount of words that he could tick off without even having to think about it.  Of course, being seven, there was a limit to how long he would practice before becoming bored and irritable.  On the eve of the Bee, we only got in fifty words and the parent overruled the coach.  Squeezing out an extra thirty-minutes of spelling practice with a whiny kid just throws too much drama into the equation.  Lil man was insistent that he was ready so the coach just had to sit on his hands and stew, knowing that something might go horribly wrong.

As a rule, I try to sit in the shadows while watching the Lil Man because then I can go through the anxiety of whether or not he'll succeed by myself.  I settled into the back row of the dance room with the Mrs, camera in hand interested to see how things would turn out for my naturally talented speller.  He got through the first two rounds with no problem.  "Jam" and "Nail" were child's play, but "Worm", a nemesis in practice, was his downfall.  As he got to the end of spelling it "W-A-R-M", he knew that he'd made a mistake, and the confident smile disappeared as he sat down.  I thought for sure that as he took the short walk from the row of chairs where his fellow competitors sat to the holding area that there would be tears as he was the first to miss a word.  When he sat down, there was a quiver of his lips downward, but then he pulled it all together and composed himself as he awaited for the competition to end.  The parent wanted to jump from the back row and console him, but this time the coach won and I sat there to watch him figure it out on his own.  In that moment, I forgot all about the fact that he, as he put it, "won 12th place".  He whiffed on a word that he could have gotten if he would have practiced it a few more times, but that didn't matter anymore.  Nor did it matter that he routinely rattled off many of the words that were spelled throughout the rest of the competition.  I was extremely proud at how resilient he had been in a moment of failure.

The coach hoped that Lil Man had learned that with a little more practice, he could've lasted longer into the competition.  When I asked him what he thought of the Bee he said "It was good, I was just a little upset because I know I could've gotten first place.  I knew all those words."  So much for learning the work ethic lesson.  I guess that will have to wait a little longer.  The parent, however is still smiling at how well he handled that moment of expecting so much and dealing with not even coming close.  I know this will serve him well going forward.


  1. Great article Jon! As you know, I suffer from the same feelings you expressed with Dash. It's hard to separate the parent from the coach.

    1. That's part of why I write De, so that I work out my own stuff and then also let other folks know that it ain't perfect all the time

  2. Hey John! I don't know if you remember me, I was a lifeguard at the Santa Monica Swim Center.

    I found a link to an article of yours on LinkedIn, had a minute, and decided to read it. I have to say, I have always had a very high regard for you as a coach. From the tower I could watch you (and the other coaches) work with the kids, encourage them, push them, but not break them. Reading these articles, I have even more respect for you now! I hope all is going well in your life! MK

  3. Thanks for those kind words MK. All is well and I hope all is well with you too