At 10 years old, I signed up for the local swim team somewhat begrudgingly, but willingly, lured by the chance to splash around with friends and eat donuts on the weekends. The practices were harmless enough. Competing, though, was a whole different story.
On swim meet day, I was sick with anxiety. I was terrified of coming in last, of having a false start, or of making an embarrassing mistake. Tearfully, I begged my parents to let me stay home, to tell the coach I was ill and couldn’t compete. When that didn’t work, I prayed earnestly for a thunderstorm, power outage, or national disaster. That didn’t work either.
There was no pressure on me to excel. My parents continually told me that placing wasn’t important, and that there was zero shame in being last. I should be proud of myself for finishing and trying my best. It was just for fun.
But the anxious feelings persisted. No amount of pep-talking or rationalizing could diminish that ferocious pit in my stomach. I felt like a misfit amongst all of the kids who were having fun, munching on sweets, playing card games, and jamming to the tapes in their walkmans.
I resented having to go through so much stress for something so seemingly insignificant. Therefore, I made a promise to my future children long before they were conceived or even contemplated. I shouted my declaration to my parents in defiance and anger: I will never, ever make my kids compete in a sport if they don’t want to!
I grew older, and my feelings about the subject remained unchanged. When I got married, and my husband and I began pondering what our future kids would be like, I told him about the promise I’d made. As someone who loves sports and absolutely thrives on competition, he couldn’t relate, but thankfully he sympathized. We both hoped our kids would inherit his positive attitude toward performance and competition. Should they inherit my anxiety, though, it would be OK. My promise was a gift I could give them if they needed it. It would let them off the hook.
“How many more days until the swim meet?” a small voice asks from the back seat of the car.
“Eight days,” I say, trying to sound nonchalant. “Are you worried about the meet, honey?”
I already know the answer. In the rearview mirror, I can see her brimming eyes and quivering chin.
“I don’t want to go,” she says, barely above a whisper. “What if I come in last?”
I feel the pit forming in my stomach, the same one I know she feels. I had hoped we wouldn’t get to this place. She’d signed up for the team willingly, and was having fun practicing with her friends each afternoon. But the signs have been there since she was tiny. She is a worrier, an over-thinker, and prone to anxiety in new situations. Just like her mom.
“Daddy and I don’t care if you come in last. We love you to pieces no matter what. It’s just for fun.” But as the words are tumbling out of my mouth, I know they won’t help.
Suddenly it dawns on me what I need to do.
I tell her that I felt the exact same way about the swim meets when I was a kid. I talk about how my stomach ached, how I begged to go home, how angry I was at my parents for making me stay. I tell her about the promise I made. Then I tell her I need to break it.
“Why would you make me do something you hated?” she asks with surprise and indignation.
“Because I think it made me brave.”
There is a gift I can give her, but it isn’t to let her off the hook. It’s to empathize with her, and talk to her honestly as someone who’s shared those exact same fears. It’s to explain why it’s not just about swimming or any other sport—it’s about taking the necessary steps to prevent anxiety from ruling her life.
We talk about how every time I finished a race and returned to my towel, I disproved the voice in my head that told me a swim meet was the end of the world. I let her know that even though I was last sometimes (OK, a lot), I survived.
If I had gotten down off of that starting block, there might be other, more important things I’d have backed away from, too. If I’d been allowed to go home, I might not be brave enough today to board an airplane, to walk into rooms full of unfamiliar people, or to try something new and intimidating. I might not be brave enough to look at my daughter’s pleading, tear-streaked face and tell her she has to dive in.