Sometimes the Magic Works: Reflections on Sports and Parents


Sometimes the Magic Works: Reflections on Sports and Parents

By Kate Mayer Mangan, Guest Contributor

My nine-year old son told me recently that he was glad I didn’t understand his sport. He plays tennis; I swam. And he’s right that I have no idea what he’s doing on the court. I try, but I’m still learning the most elemental basics—when a serve counts, how they keep score—and I couldn’t give him a technique tip if my life depended on it.

“Why do you say that?” I asked him, though I had a sickening hunch. He explained that I’m always correcting his brother, who swims. “But when you watch me play, you just sit there with your coffee and you can’t tell me anything to do better!” he said gleefully.

He had a point. Even though I know that my knowledge is outdated and that I should keep my mouth shut, sometimes I can’t help myself. His comment bothered me because an overbearing parent can ruin a kid’s experience. Consider this comment: “I was an age group swimmer . . . Did really well, Jr. Olympics back in the 70s. Had a dysfunctional relationship with the sport being pushed into it (my father decided he was smarter than my coaches) and ruined my love for the sport and my relationship with him.” The commenter is not alone. Athletes report that their least favorite part of sports is the car ride home with their parents. Least favorite! Worse than losing, worse than injury, worse than disappointing themselves or their teammates.

I don’t want to drive my kids out of sports because, more than any victory, I want to give my children tools to live well. The awful truth is that life can be hard. People you love die and get sick. Dreams are denied, relationships fail. Even when we are trudging along with relatively few problems, there are bills to pay, problems to solve, jobs to keep. Through all of that, sports can provide a portal to joy. Whether through community, the sheer pleasure of movement, the memories of good times, the resilience, the discipline, sports make life better.

Sport has definitely made my life better. I went to the pool during one my toughest times: the first day I left the house alone after having a baby. He’d been born very sick and was hospitalized for weeks; I could barely walk with various physical problems, had postpartum depression, and was completely overwhelmed. That first day out, I wasn’t healthy enough to swim and managed only to sit in the hot tub by the pool. Even so, inhaling the chlorine and squinting at the turquoise water summoned a forgotten strength, unearthed a core I could lean on.

The place reminded me that I knew how to get out of bed every day and do something hard, something I didn’t necessarily want to do. I’d done that thousands of times. I knew, too, that the pain wouldn’t be the end of the story. In fact, in sport (and in parenting, it turns out), pain is often the precursor to greatness. Perhaps most importantly, the place reminded me that my people, my parents, unwaveringly showed up for me year after year, race after race, no matter what.

My mom always had a hug, a snack, and a dry towel. She was like I am with tennis: she didn’t really know whether I swam well or why. She just loved watching. What I remember about my dad, who did understand the sport, is not his advice on technique or strategy. I remember something he always said. He said it after heartbreaking losses and after breathtaking victories. He said it after swims I wanted only to forget and after swims I wanted to remember forever. He said it after I broke records and after my records got broken. He said it so often that my sister and I would roll our eyes and shake our heads.

After every single meet, no matter the results, he would smile and quote the movie Little Big Man: “Sometimes the magic works; sometimes it doesn’t. Let’s eat.” And then we ate—pancakes, pizza, burgers at the Owl Cafe, shakes, pasta, bagels, Frontier Sweet Rolls—and laughed and everything was fine.

My parents showed me that I didn’t have to earn their support. Whether I swam well or not, they were always there, offering the same things, voting for my dreams, voting for me. They built a tower of irrefutable evidence that I had champions, no matter what life delivered or how I have performed. And that has mattered.

From now on, whether I understand the sport or not, whether I have suggestions for improvement or not, my plan is to show up. With a snack and with my dad’s saying on my lips. Because a memory of their mom critiquing their performance won’t help my kids through a tough time in twenty years. But a memory of a smile from the stands on a day the magic didn’t work, that just might.

Kate Mayer Mangan was an NCAA Division III collegiate swimmer, is a current Masters swimmer and serves as a club-team board member for her son’s club. She is a practicing attorney for the University of California whose freelance writing has appeared in, among other publications, The Huffington Post, the literary magazine Honeyguide, and Women Lawyers’ Journal.

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1 year ago

Thanks so much for this story, Kate. Your kids are blessed to have such a supportive and WISE mother.

Mike Mangan
Mike Mangan
1 year ago

Great article, Kate — loved it!!!

1 year ago

Beautiful article!!!

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