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Youth Sports and Life Lessons for Parents: The Art of Active Listening

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For millions of households, March Madness has a double meaning.  On the one hand, it means from March 15 to early April, college basketball season is winding down with two weeks of frenzied fun culminating in the joy of triumph or painful disappoinment in defeat. The second meaning, at least for families such as mine, is that these same two weeks mark the final stages for a contemporaneous, possibly more emotional event:  college acceptance, rejection or placement on the wait-listed limbo-land.

I have observed that waiting to hear from colleges is akin to waiting to hear if your child made the travel or Varsity teams. In both cases, the parent is a helpless bystander, emotionally vested and rationalizing all the reasons why your child should easily be selected. The parent is anxious to weigh in on any and all matters surrounding these events in an effort do demonstrate support.  I remember when my son came home in tears when he learned that he did not make the "A" travel team for basketball, or the select baseball travel league.  I recall with equal clarity the time my daughter did not make the Varsity volleyball team while her friends did. These were times I would have  wanted to react to show my mutual support and disappointment. But I learned early on with thanks to youth sports, that a good sport parent  and a good parent are one in the same.  Youth sports taught me self control and the art of silent support and the power of active listening.

When a team wins, parent responses are easy. High fives all around, everyone wants to talk about the game winning plays. When a team loses, the parent/player behavior is much different. Instead of hosting post-game commentary or pushing kids to talk about "lessons learned" during the ride home, I was coached by my husband to be silent and to let the kids tell me when and if they wanted to talk.  This was very hard at first, but when my kids did open up, I realized that being supportive with my silence  and giving them time, space and emotional control, was absolutely the right thing  to do.  During these moments, I would  "actively listen", which is to say, I would listen without interrupting or questioning.   I would acknowledge their feelings  and thoughts.  This served to reinforce the trusted bond the continues to define my relationship with my kids today.   Remarkably, after they finished talking, their attention shifted to other priorities- friends, homework, whatever- game over-- now lets move on.

My kids conditioned my behavior: the less I spoke, the more they talked, the more I listened. the more they confided.  This cycle carried forward to other aspect of their lives including college applications and admissions. My daughter returned home from school recently quite upset.  She learned that a classmate with a lower GPA was accepted at a school where my daughter, with higher GPA was waitlisted.  Frustrated and tearful over the admissions process, she questioned her hard work and achievement as wasted effort. No response from me as the shadow of deja vu entered the room.

Time passes and my daughter receives word of her acceptance in another top college also on her "A" list. All is well again with the world as she agonizes over when to post her good news on Facebook. The next few days are filled with daughter initiated college planning activities, campus day visits in late April and the like and I am reminded once again of the power of silent support and active listening.

Thank you, youth sports, for helping me learn to be a good parent in the game of life.