An Ode to the Gymnastics Mom

Taking a much needed break from the cancer blogs to write about a new season. Nope, I’m not talking about Fall or Winter, but gymnastics competition season.

My younger son is a competitive gymnast. Although he trains year round, his current competition season has just begun. So around this time of year I start to get that feeling. Ugh. I recognize it right away- a feeling in the pit of my stomach that starts very small in October and grows exponentially through the end of his season in May. I’ve dubbed this with several names based on the affects it has on my body: my seasonal diet, mommy nerves, and gymnastics tummy. Just one of the wonderful reminders that I’m a gym mom.

I’m not sure if moms experience this with their kids in every activity. I certainly don’t have the same feelings with my older son as a musical theater performer. I mean, I guess kids compete for different roles in a show, and watching him on stage can be a little stressful, but it doesn’t create nearly the same level of nerves and tension that I experience with gymnastics.

This is my son’s sixth competitive season, so it’s not like it’s a new experience. At the beginning, I was surprised by the amount of stress I felt at these competitions. Having been a competitive gymnast myself, (but not nearly as capable as my son), I had a sense of what the sport was about. But in my new role as mom to a gymnast, I had no idea what I was getting myself into!

I confess to watching a few episodes of “Dance Moms” several years ago. In my experience, Gym Moms (and Dads) don’t go that far, but we are a batty bunch and there has been quite a learning line on how to navigate the competitive waters and parent an athlete.

I love to watch my son. He is a beautiful combination of grace and strength. I find something so compelling about watching him grapple with new skills and take on the challenge of perfecting them. His determination and strong will are so admirable. Not to mention, he just looks really cool doing this stuff. There’s just something about watching a person do something they love that draws me in and affects me so deeply. It’s not unusual for me to be moved to tears watching ice skating, a great number from a musical, a piano or violin soloist, or anyone who is immersed in their passion. I see such beauty in their talent and it tugs at my heartstrings. And even though my son’s just eleven years old, his love for the sport is overwhelmingly evident. So I try to stay out of the coaches way, while watching from a distance. But come competition season, things get a little more tense.

Gymnastics is considered a competitive team sport. But in its essence, the gymnast gets one opportunity to present his routine to a judge who determines the score. And that score influences both the team and individual results. One chance- that’s it. So many hours of training, but when it comes down to it, they get a single shot at a competition. ONE. He takes one mis step, places his hand off by a millimeter, loses focus for an instant, and that could be the difference between doing well and doing poorly. This creates a tremendous amount of pressure for us parents at competitions; comparatively, the boys seem to handle it much better!

I’ve often wondered what I look like at a competition? Remember Aly Raisman’s parents at the last Olympics? They were doing every move with her as she competed. Yeh, it’s kinda like that for me. Only worse. I had a horrible mom moment at one competition when my son fell off one of his stronger events. I had a reflexive reaction as the word “Shit!” exploded out of my mouth. And it was loud. Really loud. And I’m not even a curser! I was so embarrassed and quickly apologized to the other parents around me. Oof. Not a proud moment for me at all.

And my craziness extends beyond the gym during competition season. I become hyper vigilant about germs. Any sign of an illness within fifty feet of my son and I become the germ police. I encourage A LOT of hand washing. I use homeopathic remedies to boost his immune system. And I freak out (mostly silently, but sometimes aloud) if I see other kids around my son who are sick. I try to keep the paranoia to a minimum, but one illness can put him at a disadvantage or take him out of competition.

And we certainly can’t have that.

Right about now you’re thinking I’m nuts, right? Wait, it gets worse.

During the last competition season, my son’s coach approached me to give me a little coaching. “You need to enjoy his competitions more. When I look over at you, your face is all red and you look so worried.” Uh. Yeh. (I guess that answers the question of what I look like during competitions. And btw hot flash + competition = red face/ very unpleasant!) But I got his point and made a concerted effort to let go and try to enjoy these competitions. I’m certainly making progress, but wow, it’s hard. I’m aware of the skills to look out for- the one’s he’s concerned about. And I want him to succeed. Is that so bad?

And that’s one of the hardest parts for me. The nature of competition is that someone wins, right? Our kids are part of a team, true, but they compete for individual awards. So when my son began competing years ago, I found myself feeling threatened. And I’m embarrassed to admit that these feelings expressed themselves in very unattractive ways. I mean, I didn’t go all crazy mom, yelling at the judges like I’ve seen with some baseball and soccer moms on the news. But I found myself creating adversaries with some of the other parents (mostly in my head, but some played out in reality) for the sole reason that their child was more talented than mine. I know, it’s horrible; I’m presently burying my head in shame. And what’s worse is that I was painfully aware of the bad feelings inside that were provoking this behavior. I judged myself, beat myself up, and continued to question why I was having this experience.

Luckily, my education has offered me the skills to examine my feelings and behavior. And after a great deal of introspection over the past several years, I got really clear and painfully honest with myself. The truth is that the feelings I experience have very little to do with my son and gymnastics, but are more a reflection of the way I’m holding on to and judging my own inadequacies. Ugh, take a moment to let that settle.

Sure, my son is not the only one making an investment in the sport. We’ve done a lot to accommodate his passion and the entire family has made sacrifices. The choice to homeschool him was not an easy one. (That’s a whole other blog!) The financial commitment is tremendous; without support from my sister, much of his training would be impossible. And then there’s the time commitment, driving him to and from every workout. He’s at the gym twice a day most days, about twenty-six hours a week. And some competitions have us traveling. If I weren’t a stay at home mom, none of this would be possible.

And as his mother, witnessing him coming home sore, swollen, and exhausted is tough; not to mention the numerous injuries and doctor’s visits. And trying to discern which injury requires a doctor’s visit and which cold symptom should keep him out of the gym for a workout has taken quite a bit of learning. My desire has always been to support him in his passion, but there are days that he’s just beaten down physically or emotionally and it’s hard to witness without questioning what this is doing to him in the long run. So I’ve had to learn that there are just bad workout days (weeks or even months) and my job is to support him through those times. And separate. I have to separate my feelings from the whole situation and look at it as objectively as possible. Some days I’m better at that than others

But the truth is, all of this wouldn’t be causing so much upset in me unless it was triggering something deeper. And here’s the awareness that’s most painful for me to acknowledge: I am attaching my own worth to our boy’s accomplishments. Ouch! Even though I’ve been working with this awareness for a while, it still hurts to admit and share it aloud and openly. There’s so much shame and pain involved in this truth. It ties in with some very core issues about my own self-worth.

I can see how this misinterpretation evolved. I chose to stay home with the boys, leaving my career as a Casting Director. I don’t regret that for a second, but by doing this, the BOYS became my career. And there’s no yearly progress review or bonus from supervisors marking my success in my career as a mom. So I began to judge how well I was doing at my job as a mom by basing it on how well the boys were doing. Were they happy and successful? It seems that’s a HUGE trap for us stay at home moms. When the boys are doing well, my self-worth was in tact, but if they’re doing poorly, I internalize it and it surfaces as my own failure.

It has taken a lot of work to shift away from this way of thinking. I’ve had to change the hardwiring I’ve created in my head that has led to these misinterpretations. I work with a lot of self-forgiveness and releasing of judgments. And mostly, I remind myself that these beautiful children have their own experience that has absolutely nothing to do with me. They call into their lives the experiences they need to evolve on their own Spiritual journey. And I’m merely here to love them through it as best I can.

I’ve apologized to those parents who were affected by my behavior several years ago. I’ve even shared some of my learning with them. It seems we agree that as parents of gymnasts we want all the boys to do well. We just want our own child to do better. So yes, I cheer for all the boys on the team and I genuinely want them to do great! I also genuinely want my kid to do better. That’s just the plain old truth.

Gymnastics has offered my son so much. He is learning discipline, respect, the meaning of hard work, social and leadership skills, and determination. He has a great group of friends. He has an amazingly healthy, strong body and is laying the ground work that will lead him to find success in whatever he chooses to do with his future. And most importantly, he LOVES the sport.

The sport has presented me with many gifts as well. In addition to providing me with experiences and opportunities to deepen my learning, I’ve also made some amazing friends. We share a common bond, going through all the trials and tribulations of learning how to parent an athlete together. And I would imagine most of us are experiencing a slew of similar emotions revolving around the sport. These parents have not only stood by me at competitions when I’m feeling upset or worried, but they were the first ones to jump into action when I received my cancer diagnosis. And they’ve remained supportive through my entire treatment. These families and coaches have become part of my family and I’m so grateful.

So while my son is gaining so much by participating in this sport, he is unknowingly helping his mom evolve too. As he flips and twists, I am going through my own type of emotional and spiritual acrobatics, doing my best to find my center and live a life of purpose and alignment.

There will be many ups and downs in my son’s gymnastics career. With any luck, we can both stick our landings!

In loving,

Sarah

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