Klessinger: Your kids may let you know how much to push

Updated: December 23, 2020

Photo: Maryland high school wrestling coach John Klessinger and his wife Kristel (second from left) are the proud parents of son Mason and daughter Ellie, who are both high school athletes.

By John Klessinger

As a parent of two teenage athletes, one a junior in high school and the other in eighth grade, there is the constant dilemma of pushing them too much or not enough. I haven’t found the balance. And, to be honest, I don’t believe there is a proper balance. For me, it has been an ongoing series of trials and errors. I do know I have done both — pushed too much and not enough.

When my son was six years old, my wife and I got him into wrestling. I waited for the day since he was born to get him involved. Although at that point, I was a high school coach for 14 years and a competitor since grade school, my son wrestling was like starting my career all over. I was excited. Probably excited was an understatement. I was elated. I envisioned him doing things I never did.

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Within weeks, I took over his youth team practices. I made it a point to be tougher on him than the other kids. I was critical of his six-year-old technique. But I also was conscious that I wasn’t becoming “that” parent; among the crazy ones that we read about in the news. However, I had a mission for him. As the season went on, I began taking him and his friends on his team to school on Sundays to get extra work. He was winning a lot, and it all seemed to be going as planned.

When I watched him wrestle or my daughter play lacrosse, I felt something I never felt coaching someone else’s child. I felt tightness in my chest and stomach. I tried to keep my cool, but it was difficult. For the first time, I learned how parents can become irrational and act in bizarre ways. I felt it. If it wasn’t for my experience being on the other side, one as a high school teacher and coach, I am confident I would have allowed my emotions to take over and do something I would regret.

When my daughter was in middle school playing club lacrosse, I would watch from the sidelines, analyzing every move. I would yell, “Run,” if I thought she wasn’t hustling. I could see her from a distance glance over at me with a look of frustration. If she dropped the ball, I would say out loud, “Ellie, come on!” When she came off the field after a game disappointed, I would try to be patient, but couldn’t help myself in my critique of her play, always leading to tears and anger.

Over the years, I would be in our back yard practicing with both of my kids in lacrosse, soccer, field hockey and wrestling. Those times were sometimes their choice and other times my requirement. I noticed the days they wanted to practice was always more productive. The days I “forced” them to practice were a crapshoot. Some good and others a waste of their and my time.

As both of my kids have gotten older, the need to train more has increased. The skill level rises as young athletes mature physically and mentally. They can no longer just show up, practice for one or two days a week and perform at a high level.

Then the “balance” comes into play. Do I push them or back off? I have learned from my mistakes when they were younger.

At this point — and I have made it clear to both of my children —they are the ones who have to decide where they want to go. If they tell me they want to play college field hockey or play on a national level lacrosse team, I will direct and help them. I will push them in the way I believe they need, not like a drill instructor but with reason and experience of my own athletic and coaching knowledge.

I tell my son two days is not enough. You have to do more to play at the level you desire. You have to do the work on your own when no one is watching. “Mason, go into the shed and grab equipment and get stronger.”

My daughter, who has spent the last 14 months recovering from a torn ACL and reconstructive surgery, is a more sensitive kind of push. The last 14 months have been laced with extreme ups and downs. Excitement about progression then disappointment from continued limitations. It has taken a psychological toll on her and us. We become caught in the middle — pushing her to do more and worrying that we are not challenging her enough.

But it comes down to the same question for both of them: where do you want to go? Recently, my daughter came to my car dejected after field hockey practice. She still has to sit out of specific drills because of her knee. Her recovery and 100 percent return to play was delayed due to a second surgery in June. We talked on the car ride home.

I said again, “What you do at this point is your decision. Do you still want to be a good player and try to play in college or just have fun with it and let go of any expectations?” For the record, for any athlete, having fun and letting go of expectations will lead to great success when combined with a strong work ethic, dedication, and commitment.

I told her, “Ellie, you don’t have to play at all if you do not want to.”

She emphatically said, “Dad, I wouldn’t be so upset if I didn’t want to play. I can’t do things the other girls are doing. I want to get better, and I don’t want to keep falling behind.”

At that moment, I had a decision to make as her parent. Do I push her or back off? For a second, I thought about my response. She made the decision for me by what she already said. I said, “OK, are you doing all you can right now? Have you been putting in the time?” She agreed she wasn’t and could do more.

When a person is given a choice to be pushed or not, it opens up a new communication level that will be more productive in the long run. If a child has not expressed the desire to excel, pushing your child at this point builds resentment and, more often than not, leads to the child not wanting to play altogether. I learned this from my son when he said he didn’t want to wrestle after that first year. Whether six or 16 years old, he wasn’t given a choice.

My son loves playing lacrosse. I told him if he just wants to play lacrosse and have fun with his friends, that is OK. But he’s demonstrated his desire to excel. Therefore, I regularly remind him of what he needs to do.

Or if my daughter decided to stop playing field hockey or lacrosse, I would remind her why she played before but let her choose the outcome.

The balance can change from day to day or month to month. Some days it’s clear they are just tired. Other times, it needs to be stressed that to get where you want to go, you sacrifice and do things you do not want to do.

At the end of the day, I want to guide my kids, not be their coach. I want them to experience the feeling of giving all they got and succeeding. I also want them to learn the consequences of their decisions.

Along the way, they must experience failure, disappointment, and regret. If they skate through their teenage years without adversity, I failed as a parent. Me pushing them served no purpose if they haven’t grown and acquired skills to help them later in life.

 (John Klessinger is a teacher and coach at South River in Maryland. You can follow him on Instagram @coachkless and like his Facebook page “Coach Kless”.)