Anti-Sports Mommy.

by Jennifer Sey



Reading the recently released Until It Hurts: America's Obsession with Youth Sports and How It Harms Our Kids, by Mark Hyman, I felt like I was reading the “B” side to my own memoir, Chalked Up. It was the he said to my she said soliloquy on the pressures inside elite level childhood athletics. While it offered little new insight into why my mom did the things she did back then (she became obsessed with my gymnastics which led us down a rocky road), the book reminded me that living my life for me, rather than through my children, is probably a good thing. Sounds obvious, I know, but a girl needs a reminder every now and again.


I often feel guilty about the fact that I actually have my own aspirations despite my choice to be a mom. I’m not around all that much, at least not as compared to my mother’s consistent presence during my youth. I work full time; I don’t cart my kids to and from school everyday; I certainly don’t sit through 6 hour sports practices watching their every move. I wouldn’t dream of splitting my family apart, moving to some out of the way town because there just so happens to be a world class training facility there (my mom and I moved to Allentown, Pennsylvania away from my dad and our home in New Jersey so that I could practice with the best). As an adult, I’m awed by the sacrifices my mother made for me. But I have no interest in going down that path. Hence, the guilt. It’s screwy I know. My mom’s compulsive commitment went awry and yet the parenting standard I fall back on is that. And since I don’t measure up, I succumb to self-condemnation from time to time.


In my head, I recognize that I do a lot for my kids. I work hard to support the family. We have dinner together every night. We read Lemony Snicket. We spend weekends going to the park, throwing a baseball or seeing whatever God awful cartoon movie they fancy. And sometimes we just hang around. We talk and I give them endless hugs and I love you’s. But I do my own thing. I work long days when I need to. I write when there is a quiet moment, often telling them to go entertain themselves – “I’m not a human television set” is a popular refrain I hear myself spewing. Life things outside of my boys matter to me. And this causes involuntary angst. What the head knows (“I’m a good mom!”), the heart doesn’t always believe.


As a grandmother going thru raising my grand-children I have had the benefit of getting a second chance to make things right. What I've learned is that you need to take your cues from the kids; combine that with your gut and common sense; any guilt you may have you have given to yourself or allowed someone to give to you. You have the option of accepting the guilt or not. I strongly believe kids should be kids; they need time to themselves just as we do, to do what they want for themselves. I have allowed each one to pick one activity to join a year. This gives them the opportunity to experiment and find their passion. If they don't like the choice, there's always next year. So far they're happy, healthy, well adjusted kids who feel empowered in their life. I do not live my life for or through them. I have made my choices to go through mommyhood again and have never regretted any of the choices I have made or the paths that we've gone together. Together we have learned, experienced and enjoyed and yes made mistakes too. That's part of life and as long as we all learn from each experience there's no time for guilt and/or regret! Oh yeah, I grew up next-door to your mom and Aunt Jill (my dear friend for 55+ years) so I know from where you're coming!


I agree with the comments of many of the mothers here. I think the most important thing is to support your child and their passions. Organized sports can offer kids a lot, especially around teamwork and trying your best. Yes, parents can get crazy. But for those kids and eventually adults ... who have been exposed to being on a team, I think you see differences in terms of how they chip in and operate in the workplace. If we as parents can do our best to not get so out of control in the youth years, sports is a great thing. Sometimes kids don't know what they like until they're exposed to it too ... so as a parent I also think it is important to have them try lots of things and then make the decision themselves.


Jen, I appreciate what you've written. My two boys are involved in baseball. We watch, we encourage, and then we go home, with a it's only a game attitude--leaving the stressed out, nutso dads at the field.

And I think your view goes in line with mine. Be true to yourself first. Have your own life and interets. In doing so, you will show your kids how they can be true to themselves too. Follow what you love. Support what your kids love. And in the end, all will come full circle. Don't you think?


Jen, there is an undercurrent in your piece that I've always wondered about myself . . . as a former gym mom.

Would I have become so involved if I had had sons instead of daughters or would the 'Flip Side' be true? My husband didn't have much use for 'girl's sports' and groused about the nerve of USA Gymnastics scheduling meets that conflicted with football season.

ON a big football Sunday one of the dads always showed up in a camper with beer on hand and they would form a relay line from the gym to the camper. The guy in the gym would yell "Tell Harry his kid's up next!" Harry would dutifully run in and watch his daughter's routine for the minute it took and then he became post guy untili the nest guy's daughter had her turn.

All of the time (and some of these meets were 6 hours to watch your daughter for less than 5 minutes) the mom's would sit dutifully in the stands watching the good, the bad and the ugly.

The more intense moms would be writing down every score in the competition and would know the finish line up before it was announced. The 'mean' ones would even approach a gymnast and announce "nice score on vault - too bad you won't even get a ribbon for it." It was way too much for me most meets.

Our gym did not allow moms to sit and watch workouts. I think it was a blessing. I handed over a duckling and got a swan. Every day observation is like watching grass grow and invites criticism and comparisons which are only added pressure to an already grueling day for these young athletes.

Luckily our head coach was not one of those to use "I can take your kid to the Olympics some day." He was honest in saying that a college scholarship would be the best thing to hope for in the end. Over the years injuries ruled that out.

I confess that, after many injuries my daughter wanted to quit and I asked her for one more year so she could get the full ride to UCLA or Berkeley. Her reply still rings in my ears, "Mom, it's not one more year - it's 5 if I get a scholarship and I can't do it anymore." It was the 2x4 wake up.

Still, I wonder if I'd have been as invested if it were baseball or football and a son instead of a daughter. Have you put mulled this thought around over the years?

Don't be so hard on yourself. You and your husband do what's best for your gorgeous and talented sons. . . . and, you're right. They're gonna resent something you do so you might as well choose what it is yourself.



Hi Jen,

I really enjoy reading your articles!
This one of course is particularly touching me as my 9-year old child is actually into sports, lots of them, and more specifically, one that you know too well: gymnastics.
I do have my own aspirations in a completely different area: horses. I also have a full-time job. And, while I would certainly not want to become obsessed with my daughter’s sport, I find it difficult not to be impressed when I watch her with such focus, determination, talent, etc. at such a young age. I think I have been able so far to draw the line between supporting her aspirations, and not living through her. But, without a doubt, I can see how parents would turn this into an obsession. Even at this low level of competition, I already see many parents who are too much after the “mean judges” or the “bad coach”. These parents literally live at the gymnastics, they play the role of their girl’s chauffeur, and, if they had another center of attention before their daughter went into gymnastics, their world now fully revolves around their daughter’s.
As you say, there is this tipping point between support and obsession/pressure. I believe it is true teamwork as parents to stay balanced and raise a flag early enough before going downhill.

Back to the title of your article, I cannot be an anti-sports mommy; I was not much into competition myself, but still having passions and enjoying a few sports fully, pushing myself since I was a perfectionist, but not necessarily measuring myself to others. Since sports are so important to me, I have let my child try and practice various sports. Now, here is my problem: I think I have a child who is addicted to her sport, who loves competing, and mainly hearing people cheering and clapping when she receives medals. She’s been like that even before competing in gymnastics, when she started doing ski races, back when she was 4.
With that said, I still want to give her the support I didn’t get from my parents in my passion. I want to support her dreams as a gymnast, and still keep “her feet on the ground” so she accepts that she might not go as far as she dreams of (being an Elite gymnast and making it to the Olympic Games). I want her to keep her childhood dreams, but I know that helping her to live her dreams will bring huge challenges to our family. I understand that doing a sport at such a level requires sacrifices and I cannot just avoid becoming an obsessive supportive parent by simply being an anti-sports mommy.

I didn’t practice gymnastics beside what we do at school, so when I enrolled my daughter to this recreational gymnastics class when she was little, I didn’t have any idea of what we would be facing today, after a few years: our little one is addicted, she is very driven, wants to be the best of her team, the best in competitions, the best during workouts. And when she has a weak moment, she gets frustrated and upset. I had discussions with her about simply doing her best, that there will always be someone somewhere who will do something better than her, but my monologues don’t change anything; she might just be wired differently than me.
How can I support or encourage her without her adding this support to the pressure she’s put on herself on her own? Since I am working full time, I rarely see her training during the week. When I get this opportunity, I get excited for her to see progress; how could I convene this without her turning it into an additional pressure? If I don’t say anything, what will she think of the type of support I bring to her? I was lucky to watch her make her first double front (in the pit); it was so great to see her face glowing when she looked at me, with that look “I made it!”

As you say, your sons do not seem particularly interested in competition, or organized sports. You are lucky in some way! Now, imagine that one of the 2 was clearly interested in a sport where he had obvious talents and where he would want to compete (or have tournaments or what not); what would you do?