Letting Go

Facing the truth of my role in raising an elite athlete.

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(Author’s note: We’re a little past the year anniversary for this event- a perfect time to share.)

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“I think I may want to quit gymnastics.”

It stopped me dead in my tracks.

“Uh…what?”

It began over a year ago.

We were a month into the lockdown. I’d gone into super mom mode, stocking up for the pending doom, making sure we had all the supplies we needed. I also did my best to turn our garage into a small gym to support our son through the ‘three weeks’ they were supposed to have off from gymnastics training. Several weeks later, when I found myself getting irritated that the garage gym wasn’t being used, his remark caught both my husband and I off guard.

Reacting to our response, he said a bit more tentatively, “I may want to quit.”

Beat.

“OK. Why?”

“It’s not fun anymore.”

“Well, we can understand you’d feel that way now. Zoom workouts aren’t nearly as fun as being in the gym with your buddies.”

“No. I’ve been feeling this way for a long time.”

Another beat.

Our son was twelve years old. He’d been doing gymnastics since the age of four. He’d won multiple state and regional titles, was the top gymnast at a national evaluation at the age of ten, and had been named to the National Development Team three years in a row, earning him the opportunity to train at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado on several occasions. In his last full competition season, he’d placed third at Nationals, missing being named to the US Junior National Team by one spot; only the top 2 in the country earned that prestigious position. When the world shut down he was on his way to redemption- working hard towards the goal of making that National Team.

His announcement sent us reeling. Actually, to be more accurate, it sent me reeling. I was always more invested than my husband. The sport was a wonderful opportunity for me to share a unique experience with our son. And having had a little experience as a gymnast myself, I was able to understand the technicalities much more than my husband.

I immediately felt panicked. We’d invested so much time, money and energy into this sport. Our son’s future was all lined up: keep working hard and hopefully he’d earn a college scholarship. Along the way, maybe he’d even get to represent the US at an International competition. Our entire family made sacrifices. With most of my husband’s income going towards our son’s training, we lived on a limited budget. Extravagances like eating out, family vacations and owning a home were out of the question. And when his school wouldn’t accommodate morning workouts, we chose homeschool. Suddenly, in addition to being his chauffer, cook, launderer, accountant and cheerleader, I was also his teacher. Any discretionary money we had was used to cover the costs of his twenty-six hour weekly workout schedule and all the other costs that came with being a gymnast. My sister even contributed to help our son continue his intense training.

As much as I’d like to believe the panic I was feeling was about these sacrifices, the truth that was revealed over the next several months would prove much deeper. As it turns out, this event was ripe with opportunities for self-growth. I spent much of the next year peeling back the layers that revealed all sorts of insights about myself, letting go, and authenticity.

At the beginning, I wasn’t sure I was equipped to deal with our son’s sudden announcement. I couldn’t let him quit, could I ? Was that even an option after working so hard for so many years? After the initial shock of his statement wore off, we chalked his feelings up (yes, I just did that) to the pandemic. This was such a challenging time for everyone. We were all adjusting to the way our world had been turned upside down and perhaps this was his way of dealing with the newfound challenges of training from home. He agreed that quitting during the lockdown wasn’t a good idea. So he decided that when (if?) the gym reopened, he’d return to training to see how he felt.

After two and a half months out of the gym, an eternity for gymnasts, he was allowed to begin training again. I did my best to try not to show what I was experiencing inside, which was tremendous anxiety about how he was feeling and what he was deciding. But right away it was clear that he was happy to be back in the gym. His pandemic demeanor of sadness disappeared. He was invested and acting like his old self again. Things seemed to return to normal. His training schedule started slowly and ramped up over time. I continued to check in regularly. ‘You having fun?’ ‘Yep.’ OK, I guess it was just a phase. Whew-dodged that bullet!

During this time, I had a sense that there were deeper issues involved for me around his participation in the sport. I get a visual image of a big, heavy sack being held up on a tree, filling with water. And I’m poking it with a stick, knowing at any moment it will burst. So I was grateful for our son’s decision because it allowed me to drop that stick and avoid that sack of issues altogether.

For those unfamiliar, gymnastics is a subjective sport. Athletes are judged on form, technique, and difficulty. To me, gymnastics training techniques were comparable to what one would find in the military. Athletes shake hands with their coaches and line up according to height at the beginning and end of every workout. They stand at attention and are given their assignments. They’re expected to come to training with hair and clothing in place. Coaches are treated with the utmost respect. Likewise, at competitions, judges are saluted both prior to and after an athlete performs a routine. There is a regiment and an expectation of respect and reverie that permeates the gym. This is the culture of the gym that my son was raised in and it definitely taught him all sorts of discipline and grit. But I hadn’t considered how it was also holding him back.

After returning to the gym, his first competition took us to Dallas. While I was nervous about traveling during a pandemic, I felt giving our son the chance to compete was important; not to mention I always enjoyed our trips together. We ended up having a great time and our son finished the competition in second place to the reigning National Champion. Everything seemed to be back on course. Sure, he mentioned that he was really nervous and felt like he was going to puke before pommel, but that didn’t seem too strange- he was competing in a huge venue and having nerves after a long break seemed normal.

Returning home from the competition, his training intensified. He was heading into the end of the season, with States, Regionals and Nationals looming. And as the training increased, I noticed a shift. When I asked him directly, he was still saying that he was enjoying himself, but I sensed something different. I tentatively started to poke that water bag.

Around this time, one of his lingering injuries became more prominent. Gymnasts are always dealing with some sort of pain. My son and I had developed a system. I’d pick him up from workout and he’d give me a quick summary of the day and then we’d do the body check. We’d go through all his pains and he’d rate them from 1-10. Anything over an 8 meant it was time for a doctor’s visit. His knee pain was lingering around a 6 or 7. Until it was a nine. Turns out he’d sprained his ACL. Injuries don’t stop gymnasts from training, so he continued to work around his injury. But I began to wonder if this was a sign. (And if you’re wondering…yes, I can see how truly insane this paragraph may appear to those who aren’t in the gymnastics world.)

Life in the gym for my son was becoming more challenging. He was still working towards his goal of making the US team at Nationals. At least that’s what he was saying aloud. But he was starting to come home seemingly defeated and it had nothing to do with his injury.

My husband and I met with his coach to discuss what we were seeing. Our son’s passion was waning and we were concerned he was thinking about leaving the sport. We were told that when boys hit puberty, many of them will want to quit. They become interested in girls, want to sleep more, play video games and do things that ‘normal’ boys get to do. Because their bodies are growing so much, they hurt a lot more during this period. This was a phase and if we help him push through and keep him in the sport, he’d come out on the other side stronger and more determined. He was a promising athlete. Allowing him to leave now would be a mistake and something he’d regret. But deep inside of myself, I had a sense this wasn’t the case with our son. I was starting to feel the depth of his discontent.

The next several weeks were filled with ups and downs. Some days he’d come home from training completely depleted. This wasn’t the normal ‘being tired after workout’ depleted. It was more of an emptiness, a void. He was saying workouts were going well, but something was off. He also began asking to cut back on his training time and go back to in person school; things he’d never expressed before. But there were also plenty of days he’d come home motivated and excited about a new skill he’d accomplished. I was receiving so many mixed messages.

Hindsight is twenty-twenty. Yes. But in moments of complete, brutal honesty, I can admit that there were times that I knew my son was unhappy and I encouraged him to continue. Writing that, I still cringe.

At the time, I grappled with so many opposing thoughts. How do I best serve him? What responsibility do I have to keep him pursuing an area where he shows talent? If I allow him to walk away, what message does that send him? What is that talent worth if he’s not happy? And what if this is a phase? We’d seen other boys dealing with similar challenges. And has he given us enough reason to justify leaving? (Side note: Our son was giving us many reasons beyond what I’m writing here, but in service to keeping the focus of this story on my experience of what he went through, I’ve purposely eliminated those points.) How long do I encourage him to continue if he still seems so unhappy? And let’s not forget about that big, ever-expanding water bag, filled with all my issues, just waiting to explode!

I couldn’t avoid it any longer. It was time to dive in. I actively began poking hard, allowing all the issues to start bubbling up to the surface for exploration. I was overwhelmed with emotion. What immediately became blatantly clear was that I’d lost all perspective. I began to work diligently to separate my own issues from his. And oof, this was painful.

The logical side of my brain was dwelling on two documentaries I’d watched. “Athlete A” and “The Weight of Gold” affected me deeply. Both of these films deal with the incredible emotional, physical and psychological toll sports have on elite athletes. I also began to question the end game for our son in this sport. I was painfully aware that several men’s college gymnastics programs were losing their funding, whittling down to a mere twelve teams. Is that the future I wanted for our son, and will that future even be a possibility by the time he gets there?

But the emotional, psychological side of my experience was much more troubling. By spending countless hours reflecting on my behavior, thoughts, and feelings, I began to see how my immersion into this world led me further away from some of my core values and authentic self.

I recognized my ego’s role in how I showed up for my son. I was tying my own self-worth to his accomplishments. (Ouch! Yup, that one hurts too.) My ego was so good at deceiving me. It had me believing that I was really happy and proud of him, but the truth was more about how it was making me feel. I recognized this old pattern: relying on external feedback to validate my experience. I was turning to my son’s successes to fill me. I was even aware of how my body shifted on the physical level when he succeeded at a new skill or a competition. It was as if his success actually pumped me up, allowing me to feel more worthy. In those moments, all seemed right in the world, I was more positive, and I experienced a sense of upliftment. On some level, I had a sense that this wasn’t healthy, but wasn’t able (or willing) to dig deeper to explore it further. Until I was.

These were not easy things to acknowledge about myself, and believe me, there were MANY tears shed. I had days (weeks, months) of blaming myself for not doing better. After all, I was a career mom by choice and had made a concerted effort to remain a conscious parent. If I mess up, there’s nobody else to blame but myself. Going down this path of blame brought forward the awareness of a pattern of over-responsibility. This one wasn’t so new to me, so I knew how to move through it: I constantly reminded myself that my son has his own journey, calling situations into his life for his own learning. I am just along for the ride. As painful as this was, it was also helpful as he began to come to the decision to leave the sport.

Just as my son’s ACL injury was healing to the point that he could really get back to training fully, he hurt his finger. Up to this point, he’d always wanted to push through his injuries, but this one was different. Our bodies offer so much wisdom and his seemed to be saying, “It’s time.” Although he found this injury very limiting, he wanted to continue training. More mixed messages. But here’s the thing: as complex a situation this was for me as an adult, it was even more so for him. He was grappling with giving up the only way of life he’d ever known. All his friends, social life, schooling, everything was built around gymnastics. That’s a lot for a kid.

As parents, we found ourselves vacillating. There were days that we decided he should lead the way. We wanted to encourage ownership of his own experience. Other days we’d tell him that he owed it to himself and his team to finish the season. Outwardly, he seemed agreeable to our suggestions. But inwardly, I believe he had his own, unconscious plan.

At first, we weren’t aware of the extent of his finger injury, but we learned that he had a clean tear in the tendon of his finger. He was unable to hang or bear weight. This limited his trainings to minimal activity. Moreover, he lost motivation. He was six weeks out from Nationals. The writing was on the wall. His finger was a metaphor to what was next: setting up a clean tear from the sport.

I posed endless questions to our son, trying to understand what led him (us) to this point. And just when I thought I’d asked every question there is to ask, another one popped up in my head and we’d talk some more. Some of these conversations were gut-wrenching. My son, who up to this point, was a very quiet, inward child was now able to put words to feelings he’d been having for a long time. And what he shared was devastating.

“So I’m going to do this for another five years, putting my body through all of this pain, never feeling like I’m doing good enough, and then what? Maybe get a college scholarship? And even if that happens, then what? Being a gymnast doesn’t lead to many careers. Right, mom?”

(Thinking of those documentaries-)“Uh….” Yeh. He was right.

And then the statement with the truth that trumped all others:

“And mom, it’s just not fun anymore.”

“I thought you really enjoyed competing?”

“My favorite part is when it’s over.”

Another gut punch. Wow.

I always assumed he felt a sense of pride every time he put on his uniform to do practice competitions at the gym.

“Oh, mom. Those are worse than competitions. They’re super scary. I puked before the one we did a few weeks ago.” He’d never told me. Oh my gosh, what had my son been going through all of this time?

There were conversations about how he’d been unhappy for many years, but he didn’t know how to tell us. I pressed him, “You could’ve said ‘no’ to one of the hundreds of times I checked in with you!” There was a long pause. “I didn’t know how to.” As tears burned in my eyes, “You just say ‘no’.” He looked at me with the pain of all the years behind his eyes and I finally got it. He just couldn’t say the words. These feelings probably began when he was ten years old (a time that I was coincidentally (?) going through breast cancer) and he just didn’t have the ability to put words to what he was feeling. He knew he was good at gymnastics and felt a responsibility to keep doing it. He didn’t want to let his coach or his parents (ME!) down. My heart was breaking.

I explored the fear present within myself, the one that’s attached to losing my baby boy. Moving through adolescence with our older son was so challenging; the distance and silence was deafening. If our younger son lets go of gymnastics, how will that affect our relationship? Will we remain close? Is gymnastics the only thing that’s keeping us from growing apart? The longing to stay connected to our children was so powerful. And following this thread even deeper, my perceived loss was bringing up an even more painful one, when we lost our daughter, Hope. Clearly, I had a lot of healing to explore. So many layers to this very intricate situation.

When he’d first brought up being done with gymnastics so many months ago, he cried. But his tears were more about leaving his friends and the uncertainty of moving forward in a new, different life. Now there wasn’t any emotional charge when we discussed him leaving. I’d begun searching for a school to enroll him in post-pandemic and he was excited… EXCITED about going to school! He’d also discovered volleyball and expressed interest in playing, so we began to look into places for him to explore that sport. The pressure of training and competing had gotten to him and he no longer experienced enough joy doing gymnastics to stick with it. Our son knew what he wanted. He was done.

With this newfound interest and confidence, the day came when he was ready to leave. He’d been half-heartedly attending workouts, waiting for the appropriate time to tell his coach. His teammates already knew. They’d been with him through the whole journey and, as his buddies, they understood and wanted him happy. I approached the day with apprehension, worried my son would be a pile of tears upon leaving for the last time. (Or was that me?) In the end, it was a very easy conversation. His coach was prepared. They parted on good terms. There were no tears. He emptied his locker and left the gym he’d grown up in without any fanfare or emotion, much like most of his experience as a gymnast.

Over the last year, I’ve experienced the full range of emotions and I’ve identified many of them as corresponding with the phases of mourning: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. All around gymnastics, my son, his truth, my truth and how to support a child with gifts and talents. My learning, growth and realizations during this time have had as many flips and flops as his floor routine. The mirror has reflected some very ugly truths back at me, but I’m grateful for the opportunity to explore and (hopefully) improve myself as a mom, wife, daughter, sister and friend.

In the time since leaving gymnastics, we’ve noticed a profound shift in our son. He laughs a lot more, expresses himself with such clarity, and is moving through puberty with a renewed sense of energy and excitement. His relationship with his brother is flourishing as he enjoys so much more time to be a ‘normal’ kid. He’s no longer in physical pain. (No more body check-ins!) He is fun and funny and happy and light. It’s almost like he was freed of an invisible net that had been holding him down. His attitude, energy and presence don’t even slightly resemble the boy he was a few months ago. From this vantage point, I see how vacant and unhappy he really was as a gymnast and that’s left a pain I’ll have to contend with for a while.

I recently watched a video of him from a competition. I’d anticipated feeling sadness, but I was surprised at what I felt as I watched him complete each event. From this new perspective, the thing that stood out to me the most was how unhappy he looked. It’s almost as if I was seeing a kid being squished down into his little body. He was a shell of himself, cavernous, following the rules of what he was taught: salute, perform, salute. Nowhere on that video was I able to see the bright, happy, free child that I’ve come to know since he left the sport. Instead, he was a boy who seemed oppressed and unable to express himself. What a tremendous lesson.

Even with all of this knowledge, I still found his transition out of the sport challenging. As I meet new people, I have to resist a pattern to describe him as I had for so many years- by his success as an athlete. In the past, I’d used his talents to set him apart, make him ‘special.’ That’s really arrogant, now that I think about it. His talents made him no better than anybody else, but my holding it that way fed into my own validation. My total immersion into this world of gymnastics also skewed my expectations of how he looks. Just allowing his body to return to normal was a challenge. It was weeks before I was able to shift my mindset away from his need to keep the physical form that training 28 hours a week afforded him. I kept thinking he needed to continue doing x, y or z to stay in shape. I had to re-train my mind to accept that his less chiseled, ‘normal’ body was actually good. Staying healthy and fit was our newfound goal, one that can be kept by his joy in riding bikes, playing volleyball, and surfing.

So no US Team for our son, and honestly, that doesn’t bother him one bit. As it turns out, it never really was that important to him. In fact, when he meets new friends, he doesn’t even share that he was a gymnast. He has already compartmentalized that part of his life and put it behind him.

Our family has moved through this time with grace. The love we share, along with the skills I’d learned while studying Spiritual Psychology, were paramount in our healing. My intention in sharing my experience (besides being tremendously and selfishly cathartic) is the thought that someone may see a bit of themselves or their children in us. And perhaps this will help with their journey.

So here’s my main takeaways: First, the mere ability to excel or show extraordinary talent does not go hand in hand with whether there is pleasure in doing these things. Or put more simply, just because you’re good at something it doesn’t mean you gotta do it. There’s an innate trap laid before us as parents because naturally, we really want to foster our children’s abilities. The problem arises when we get so sucked in by their talents and our desire to witness them excel, that we overlook what their hearts are trying to express through words that they just don’t have yet. So we must work hard to distinguish between genuine pride and elements that are contributing to our own self-worth and validation. Tricky indeed.

Next I learned that getting sucked into our kid’s world is a convenient way to avoid dealing with our issues. I can now recognize how I abandoned myself during this time. I wasn’t living authentically, speaking my truth, and trusting my intuition. Since leaving the gym world, I was surprised to find the amount of freedom I was experiencing. The visual that comes forward for me is surfacing after being under water for a long time; popping my head out of the water, looking around and being thrilled and excited by what I can see from this new vantage point. I’ve re-gained my voice, authenticity and connection with my intuition. A voice inside myself recently exclaimed, “You are unstuck!”

I have also identified an opportunity my breast cancer provided in relation to this situation. (Not so coincidental after all!) What better metaphor for letting go of my boys then releasing the part of me that physically nourished them? As it turns out, cancer wasn’t’ there to kill me, but to nudge me along in my process of letting go. A profound awareness that I’m grateful for.

And finally, I’ve anchored my understand that each of us is here fulfilling our own spiritual curriculum, calling these experiences towards us for our learning. Luckily, my son’s awareness, courage, and wisdom led him to speak his truth. His combination of strength and grace as a gymnast transferred to how he shows up in the rest of his life. What a wonderful model that was for me. I need only turn to him and his beautiful, smiling face to see this was absolutely the best decision he could make (for us both!).

And the learning continues. This event has led me to a deeper question: how do we measure success? Is it through external circumstances and events or is there a way to feel that same sort of pride and satisfaction without that external validation? But that, dear reader, we’ll save for another day. For now I’ll continue to do my very best to show up in my loving authenticity, questioning and learning as I go.

Of course, the true hero in all of this is our son. It’s a testament to his character and courage that despite his talent and the pressure he felt from his parents and coaches, he was able to identify his truth and speak it aloud. Leaving the sport was not easy. But he has come through the other side and is flourishing.

Summer’s starting; the first summer free of trainings. Our son is sprinting ahead with such joy and delight. He’s growing up so fast, nothing can stop that. But my fear of losing our special relationship has subsided. As it turns out, this ride we’ve been on together has brought us even closer. Sure, there will be days ahead where I’ll get plenty of eye rolls and “Oh, mom’s” but one thing is certain: he is living his best life. And the next thing that he’s going to be really great at is just around the corner- even if that’s just being a kid.

In loving,

Sarah

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