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Heather McKenzie (Informatics Nurse): Days As Athlete Over, It's Time To Pay It Forward

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Being the mother of an athlete is a challenging yet rewarding role. So MomsTEAM has designated May as Sports Moms Month and is celebrating by asking some of our favorite sports moms to share their wisdom by responding to a series of questions.

So far this month we have heard from a fascinating range of sports moms, from a mom of an Olympic athlete to moms who were themselves Olympic athletes, from a mom of two former minor league baseball players to a Minnesota hockey mom and author.

Today, we hear from Heather McKenzie, a nurse, sports mom and cheer coach from Union Bridge, Maryland:

MomsTEAM: Were you an athlete and what sports did you play as a youth (under 19)?

McKenzie: Growing up in a middle class suburban neighborhood there was a never a shortage of things to do. The kids on my street were always out, from sun up to sun down, playing games like kickball, softball, run down and flashlight tag. We were self-directed, we set the rules, we picked the teams, we refereed our games and we learned how to settle our disputes without the help of parents. Heather McKenzie

As we grew up together we began playing organized sports, which for me included softball, basketball and swim team. We were always coached by someone we knew, which included our parents and teachers from our school.  I remember those days fondly, they were fun, they were long and we lost many games.

As I entered high school more sports opportunities became available. I remember during my freshman summer, a couple of my older neighborhood friends taking me to a meet-up to play with the senior girls on the field hockey team. Field hockey and lacrosse were the new sports the neighborhood girls wanted to play, and I did too. Needless to say I was "schooled" by the older girls that day, but I was well prepared for the tryouts and made the junior varsity team later that fall.

I have always said that the many years spent playing together in the neighborhood and on organized teams allowed us to become well-rounded athletes and enabled us to transition to high school sports. We came to know each other strengths and weaknesses and self-selected positions because experience had taught us well. No one had to tell us what we already knew about ourselves in relation to our cohort; we knew who had an aggressive offensive attack and who had dogged defensiveness that could wear out even the fiercest opponent. The youth sports experience paid off and during my senior year of high school I was team captain of the women's field hockey state championship team.

MomsTEAM: What is the most rewarding aspect of being a sports mom?

McKenzie: Now, as a sports mom to four young children, I find great joy when they learn a new skill or find a new friend in a teammate. Today's world is not like the one I grew up in and living in a rural area on a small farm, my children do not have access to the same experiences that I had growing up in a neighborhood. There is no sun up to sun down play outside, for it has been replaced with virtual games played inside. There is no such thing as playing every game possible to see if "just this one time" you can win against your best friend who is the fastest runner or your neighbor who has the longest throw. So when I see my children making connections with other kids on the field I know that it is more than just the sport at play, they are building relationships.

momsTEAM: What lesson has your sports-active child taught you?

McKenzie:  Even though my sports career is over, I continue to learn, but now through the lens of a sports mom. My children have taught me the lessons of yielding, and going with my parental instinct based on each child's unique needs. My oldest son does not like change and therefore requires additional prodding to try a new activity. At first I believed I was pushing him into sports, but later found that his school grades improved and he was having fun, as evidenced by the big smile that came across his face the other day as he was running to steal home!  Heather McKenzie's kids

My youngest son is impulsive and has difficulty maintaining attention. I have learned from him that he is different than his brother and that his accomplishments occur in bite sizes. Just the other day I was giving him a high five because he was able to maintain focus, be in the ready position and stop a ground ball without his coach or his mom yelling his name to be ready (I am so afraid he is going to be injured). The practice of finding focus has been very beneficial to him in school as well.

With my oldest daughter she is teaching me about the wonderful differences between boys and girls.  I have found a new appreciation for my own gender. Her ability to focus and perform athletic skills in perfect form is fun to watch, especially when she smiles like it is no effort. She is only five and I often wonder where these skills will take her.

My youngest daughter is just a toddler, but I am even learning from her as well: the power of setting an example through action. She is watching her siblings, day in and day out at practices and at games.  She is learning the value of practicing, and I amazed to see how she tries to mimic their activities. Whether she is trying to throw a ball or jumping up and down like her sister in cheer I am always reminded that her siblings are setting the example.

momsTEAM: What is the most important lesson your child is learning from his/her sport?

McKenzie: As I juggle the schedules of three separate sports teams and the personalities of three different individuals with different motivators, my hope is that my children will come away from the youth sports experience with the following;

  • Power of focus and intention: The power of focus will enable them to keep their attention on the task at hand now so they can enjoy the fruits of their labor later. I want my children to learn the power of intention to play the game with a pure heart and mind - striving to do their best.
  • Steps to resiliency: Learning the steps to resiliency is needed so that they know how to bounce back physically, mentally and emotionally when life does not always pan out the way they planned.
  • Commitment and dedication: For commitment, I want them to learn that, when playing on a team, they are promising to their teammates that they will be there to play the game. This is the foundation to building trust in relationships. Dedication is when they are fully present, in both body and mind, to fulfill their commitment, and it reinforces the power of intention to play the game with a pure heart; and
  • Respect for the diversity: Respecting diversity allows them to acknowledge differences between their teammates and build upon them.

I believe these are important life lessons that will support their success in all that they do later on in life.  When all of these character traits are combined, it leads to integrity, which is consistency in actions and values. Consistency and repetition are keys to success whether playing a sport, studying for an exam, or building a new product for a company.

MomsTEAM: If you could "flip a switch" and change one thing about the culture of youth sports what would it be?

McKenzie: As I am striving to teach these life lessons through sports, it is discouraging to see the increase in pressure, competition and early specialization. It is sending mixed messages to my children, increases their frustration, and has a negative impact on how they view sports. I have purposely enrolled them in recreation league play, but noticed that elite/all-star philosophies are finding their way even into the recreation sports teams.

MomsTEAM: Here's a chance to brag a little: what have you done to make sports better for kids?

McKenzie: I have never been one to give up easily (resiliency at its best), and believe that I can be a part of the solution by setting an example to other parents. I am starting to volunteer my time with the local recreation council, and agreed to volunteer as a cheer coach for the 8U instructional team. I believe our children deserve OUR very best. So I am taking the time to become certified in cheer coaching, cheer safety, cardiopulmonary resuscitation and first aid.

The Internet and the library are fabulous; there are tons of online training and videos to watch. I just cannot in good conscience rely on luck and hope that I am safe or teaching them the right techniques, and I just don't want to "get through the season".  As a coach, I want to ensure that I come to the practices with a pure heart in the best interest of the children.

I also believe in engaging the parents to assist in the development of these important life lessons. I believe the key is keeping parents informed of the program philosophy and procedures every step of the way. As a result, I helped develop a parent handbook for the cheer organization and hope to eventually expand the booklet to include an entire section devoted to health and safety, which could be utilized by other sport programs. My youth sport days were very good to me and now it is my turn to pay it forward.

Heather N. McKenzie is a married mother of four children working full-time during the day as an informatics nurse on a health information technology project for a research organization.  As a sports mom by night, she has over 9 years of child-rearing experience, and is fascinated by the amount of new knowledge acquired on a daily basis as a result of parenting.  Her children's sports interests include karate, soccer, football, baseball, basketball, tumbling and cheerleading. She is currently volunteering for the West Carroll (MD) Recreation Council as the Union Bridge Town Council Liaison and Facebook page administrator and will be the 8U Cheer Coach this fall for the West Carroll Veterans Sideline Cheer team.  Heather's personal interests include leadership studies, new technologies, gardening and any physical activity that takes her outdoors.  You can follow Heather on Twitter at WC_Mom

Want to know what veteran sports moms are saying about their experience and read more blogs in momsTEAM's May is Sports Moms Month series? Click here.