Most people probably assume that a coach would rather die than see a single athlete give up the sport that he or she coaches. Not true. There’s a natural lifespan to most athletic careers. Of course some have a very long lifespan. Take U.S. swimmer Yoshi Oyakawa, the 1952 Olympic gold medalist in the 100-meter backstroke. Just this past March, after aging up to the 75-79 age group, he swam the 50-yard backstroke in 33.37 seconds. If I didn’t have such good self esteem, hearing that would make me want to quit swimming and take up golf. He’s unbelievable.
A more normal competitive lifespan sees athletes through age-group, then high school and maybe even college and beyond with the competitions. But not always. Sometimes the lifespan is shorter, but you always hope that the primary reason someone decides to move on from a particular sport is because they found something else that excited them more in life. Take our daughter, for example. Blessed with equal dollops of talent for swimming and ballet, we knew she’d eventually have to make a choice as to which one she’d pursue. Little Miss Coach was a very good backstroker as a youngster. After one particularly good meet, when she sliced her way down a 50-meter pool into the 10-and-under national rankings that year, I said to her, “Holy cow, honey, what did you do different this time that it looked so fast?” She grinned and said, “I did it to the Radetzky March.”
That’s when we realized her days in swimming were numbered. (Even better was when I told one of her ballet teachers about her humming Johann Strauss’s Radetzky March to herself during that race, and he replied, “Well, yes, of course. She was harnessing her creative energy to resolve the challenge she had been presented with.” Seriously, that is exactly what he said. When she complains now about some of the fluffernutters teaching and directing her, I just hum the Radetzky March.)
Sometimes college athletes take a break, maybe for studies abroad or to act in a university play. Sometimes they return to swimming, but often they simply move on. Fortunately, though, they move on with happy memories of their time in the sport. And they probably still get in the pool every now and then.
What you don’t want to see are the kids who give it up because they burned out and now hate the sport. Usually when you encounter athletes like that, there’s a rabid adult right behind them – either a parent or a coach -- who made them feel like a failure for not achieving specific goals. And it’s not just limited to swimming either. We’ve seen this kind of self-loathing, adult-induced burnout in all kinds of sports, ballet and music. You want to take all the fun and future out of an activity for kids? Saddle them with adults’ ambitions on their way to those finish lines or curtain calls.
But if you want them to enjoy the journey, then step back and be amazed as they move on.