19 Sep Just Let The Kids Play
When our kids start to play sports, there’s nothing that makes us happier than seeing them win their first game, score their first goal, or lift their first trophy. But we also hate seeing them lose a game, make mistakes, or cry. We do our best to support them through all these ups and downs. Personally, my favourite memory is of my dad… who would literally topple off bleachers at the finish line out of pure excitement when I raced. Watching the old camcorder videos he took is hard, half the time I’m not even in the frame. It still makes me laugh every time, and I have found that I now do the same when I try to film Jacob on the ice.
The purpose of this post is to talk about the huge part of sports that goes far beyond that win, that loss, or that trophy. It’s everything outside of the game itself, from the interactions with teammates and coaches to traveling with others and finding yourself through it all. Putting a massive focus on only the game itself overshadows so much that is just as important for our kids, regardless of the level they make it to. Hence the title: “just let the kids play”.
Looking back at my life, I have to say that my parents gave me absolutely everything they thought would help me become successful; not only as an athlete but as a person and a career woman. I was given the chance to play a multitude of sports, go to great schools, and learn how to play a variety of instruments. I am eternally grateful for their support, their love, and their belief in me. I wouldn’t be half the person I am today without them.
Both my mom and dad supported me through my ski career, though my dad was more of a lurking-in-the-shadows type whereas my mom was front and centre. They were there through all the early mornings, the -35C blisteringly cold days that are an ever-so-present reality in Quebec winters, and the long drives on the road. I’m sure there were other things they could do but instead they sacrificed their time for me. I was very lucky. That being said, there is one thing I wish my mom would have done differently when it came to my ski career: I wish she had been less intense about it all, especially when I was young. There are so many innumerable things she did incredibly well… the point of this post isn’t to take away from any of those. Instead, it’s to talk about the one thing I would choose to do differently now that I have kids of my own.
To put it into perspective: my mom had been an incredibly successful ski racer herself, having won many races back in Poland as a young lady. She had the chance to go to the Olympics twice but missed both, once due to illness and then again later when the government decided not to send any ski racers to the games. She knew what the world of ski racing was, and I truly believe she had the best intentions for me throughout my career. She wanted me to be the best and to her, being who she was would in her mind make me a more successful competitor. In that way, she wasn’t wrong. I had a hugely successful career by any standards, but in the end there was a cost with some of the sacrifices I had to make along the way.
It started from the a very young age, when I was around 7 year old. First, there was the aspect of training. When I was skiing, it was the only thing I was expected to focus on. No time to loiter around the lodge or wait for friends at the bottom of the hill. Once our team started holding training camps and going away on overnights for races (around 10-11), I wasn’t allowed to room with teammates. My mom would travel with me to all my camps and races and have me room with her to make sure I was focused, well rested, and prepared. The same went for dinners or team activities outside of skiing or dryland. To her, anything other than training and racing was frivolous and unnecessary. There was also an aspect of over-protectiveness, to shield me from anything that might distract me or hurt me or my chances for success.
I remember being at the Whistler Cup, an international ski racing competition for young kids (I was 12) and usually our first glimpse at racers from other parts of the world. I wasn’t allowed to go to most extra-curricular events outside of opening and closing ceremonies. None of this was done outright to prevent me from having fun, it was just the way my mom saw skiing and reflected her own views on the sport.
At the end of the day, everything was about skiing and her intensity came through with her actions. She was right there with me and didn’t just sit and expect me to hold up my side of the deal. She was the mom who hiked up to the finish line on race day to measure the snow temperature and prep my skis with the right wax. She spent hours upon hours on my skis, making sure they were perfect. And I hadn’t even hit my teens.
This all came from a place of love and reflected how passionate she was (and still is) about life in general. She wanted to give me everything I needed to succeed as a ski racer, and in that way she definitely did. I won a lot as a kid and all the way through my teens. But that came with a cost…
- I struggled a lot with feeling included with my team(s). So much happens on the chairlift, on the hill, off the hill, at hotels, at dinner, and in hotel rooms. I, for the most part, wasn’t there to be a part of it and so I often felt left out of the stories or jokes. I remember feeling sad watching my teammates go off together to do activities, to go to dinners, while I sat in my hotel room.
- I missed out on developing my own comfort zone in social situations, especially when it came to long trips, training camps, and rooming with others. I had spent so many years being shadowed by my mom and living in a hotel room with her that I found myself struggling to find my way on my own. I had no idea how to act or what was expected of me. I had gotten so used to being in my own bubble that being outside of that bubble was disconcerting and uncomfortable, regardless of what I tried to do.
- I got the feeling that others around me either found what my mom did made them uncomfortable, or resentful, or frustrated, and that this spilled over into how they felt about me. She traveled with me to all my training camps. She came to every single one of my races. Always present, always intense. I know it made my teammates often feel uncomfortable. Often it made it hard for me to continue loving the sport, because I felt as though I was singled out and missing out on all the other stuff that made the sport so great.
One of the memories I laugh at now was when I was around 8-10 years old, back at Ski Morin Heights. My friend Michael and I used to leave one ski at the top of the mountain and ski down the hill on the other… just for the fun of it.
One time my mom found our skis at the top of the hill and berated me for messing around and not focusing on my training. Fast forward 5-7 years… when my coach at the time told my mom that my “messing around” on one ski was probably one of the best things I could’ve done at such a young age. Yep, that one still cracks me up. But it was who she was. The sport wasn’t there to have fun or to socialize. I was there to train, to race, to get better, and to win.
I’m sure that skiing being an individual sport magnified all of this. But in the end, once I made the national team at 17 and my mom could no longer travel with me the way she had before, I was thrown into an unknown world that made me incredibly uncomfortable. I felt out of place. I didn’t know the etiquette of rooming with other girls, of traveling without my mom, and of being in social situations in general. I was socially stunted. Granted, I struggled a great deal that entire time with my own self-worth and confidence, neither of which I ever had much of, mostly as a result of bullying back in middle school (which will be left for another post). I wanted so badly to feel like a part of the team. I wanted to feel comfortable, I wanted to know how to act and what to say. But those years when everyone was figuring it out together had long gone. Instead, I would still be the first to jump on any rooms that had single occupancy when we traveled. I would feel most comfortable when I was in a place I knew, from skiing gates to working out to reading alone in my room. I had my friends and there were still a lot of good times but for the most part I still found myself looking at others and admiring their ability to mingle so seamlessly with each other. I couldn’t understand how they could look so comfortable while all I felt was unbearable anxiety.
Even today, fifteen years after I made that jump to the national team, I often still feel the same way. I struggle with long one-on-one conversations. If given the option, I will still prefer to travel in a group of three or more than have someone stuck alone with me (unless it’s my husband, unfortunately he has no choice… but he’s my best friend and one of the few people I am always comfortable to be around). I struggle a lot with anxiety in social situations, even with my closest friends. But I keep trying to find ways to quell that anxiety, hoping that some day it’ll work.
It would be unfair of me to place the blame uniquely on my mom and the decisions that she took with my ski career from the youngest age. Maybe it’s a lot of who I was always going to be anyway. I also know a big part also stemmed from being bullied at an age when I was most vulnerable. But looking back, I still truly do wish that she had given me more of a chance to just be a kid. I wish I could’ve roomed with teammates. I wish I hadn’t been reprimanded for finding ways to have fun while still keeping my head in the game. I remember the few times I did get to room with my team in my early teens. Sure, it was raucous and I probably didn’t sleep as much as I should have. But the memories that came from those days were worth it. I remember end of year parties as a kid… running around the lodge at the mountain with friends, feeling more free than ever. So many of those memories were just as great, if not better, than winning a race. I wanted more than anything to have fun not only on the hill but also with everyone around me. In my mind, the winning would still come if I kept working hard. I still try to apply the same mindset today.
In the end, my mom was the absolute best person in so many ways and I know I wouldn’t have become the skier I was if it hadn’t been for her. To this day she will always be frank and honest will me, calling me out on my BS when it calls for it and celebrating my successes when they happen. I will still always thank her for giving her all, including waking up at ridiculously early hours to drive me to a race three hours away, prepping my skis for hours after coming home, and basically taking all the free time she had and throwing it into my career. I hope to have half that energy with my own kids today. I now understand how exhausting it can be to be a sports parent. But I also know that I will do this one thing differently: regardless of the sports my kids choose to play, I will be be there with expectations but will never put the sport above everything else. I won’t interfere with their travel as a team. If parents can join, which is usually the case, I will happily accompany them… but will stay in my own hotel room, alone. If my kids are screwing around on the ice/hill and/or are not paying attention to their coach(es) or being disrespectful in general, they will hear about it from me… but otherwise I’ll let them blow off steam and socialize in their own way, whether it’s on chairlift rides up the hill or between drills on the ice. If they put in their full effort and work hard, then the reward of success will come regardless of the level they finish at in the end. And if they do ever make it to the elites I will celebrate with them. But I won’t forsake everything that comes with the game for the sport and success it can bring.
This is the other side of sports. This is what goes beyond the game. Sports give us the chance to not only push our limits and discover perseverance, determination, teamwork, and grit but also to develop our social and interactive skills. The best memories aren’t only found in the wins, but also in the random stories from long bus rides, silly restaurant conversations, and general shenanigans that are bound to happen along the way. They give us the chance to feel a connection that goes beyond anything found in a classroom. And everything that we learn as athletes will one day trickle down and be applicable in our lives as adults.
My two cents? Give your kids a chance to be kids. Help teach them the importance of hard work, of commitment, of success, and of failure. But let them find themselves at the same time. So much of their confidence and their individuality will stem not only from the sport they play and how they play it, but also from the friendships they forge and their interactions with teammates and coaches along the way. Support them, cheer them on, be there to catch them when they fall and hoist them high when they succeed. But just let them play.
Author’s note: Before posting this, I talked with my mom for awhile and let her know I had written a post talking about my childhood and upbringing in the ski racing world. I wanted to make sure she was OK with me speaking frankly about it all. She was incredible on so many levels and was happy to hear that I was looking back through my experiences and thinking about what I would definitely do with my kids and what I would do differently. Then she opened up and did something she had never done before: she gave me her side of the story without holding anything back. It was an extremely cathartic experience for me. Writing this blog has at times brought back difficult memories, but it has given me the chance to talk more openly about it all… especially with my parents. That, in of itself, has made this entire process worth it. Thanks for reading and I hope this may one day touch someone else the way it has touched me.
About the Author:
Sophie Splawinski is a 32-year old retired professional athlete from Montreal, Quebec. She grew up racing in the Laurentians and in 2001, at the age of 17, was selected to the Canadian Alpine Ski Team. Her tenure with the team lasted 5 years, with two top-15 results on the World Cup circuit and numerous accolades at European and North American levels. Her retirement came after narrowly missing the 2006 Torino Olympics. Afterwards, she returned to school and completed a BSc. and MSc. in Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences at McGill University. Today, she works as an aviation meteorologist with Environment Canada and is a happily married mother of two boys. She set out to write this blog to discuss her past as an elite athlete and how it has shaped her parenting today, with the hope that it may reach other parents and athletes as they navigate the world of sports.