The Moment This Dad Realized Youth Sports Were Over, Forever

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While I knew this moment was coming, it came sooner than expected and I was not yet prepared for it.  It happened suddenly, at 6:30 a.m. on Tuesday Feb. 22 as I was walking downstairs to make breakfast for my high school senior son. And like a ton of bricks falling on my head – it was fast and furious.

I just woke him up for school, and being the “over-thinker” I am, my mind raced ahead to 5 p.m., when his varsity hockey team started playoffs.  A tidal wave of emotions ensued as I realized today might be the last day I ever watch my son play hockey, and this might be the last morning I ever wake him up for hockey. 

Now, I know you are thinking I didn’t wake him for hockey because he has school first – but in a nostalgic way I did. You see, when he started playing hockey at age six, he loved to skate, and he loved to play. But he also loved to sleep.

Author’s son stepping off the ice for the final time. (Courtesy Chris Manderioli)

In the early years waking my son early to skate was challenging

Getting up at 6 a.m. every Sunday for games was a challenge of epic proportions.  I would carry him downstairs and let him sleep on the floor a few extra minutes.  I got him half-dressed in his equipment while he remained half-asleep, because according to his logic, dressing at home gave him about 4 minutes and 11 seconds of extra sleep.

When it was time to really wake him up, I served him my version of “The Breakfast of Champions.”

For anyone age 40 or older, you probably just flashed back to the classic Jim Belushi Olympic Training skit where his was donuts and a cigarette. My version was ice cream. Yes, I fed my 6-year-old ice cream for breakfast every Sunday morning for three months to wake him up for hockey – Don’t judge me. 

Some might think what I just described is crazy and didn’t teach him anything. But he wanted this so bad, and at age 6 he couldn’t do it on his own. A big part of parenting is teaching your kids how to be self-sufficient, but another part is doing everything in your power to help your kids achieve what they want.    

I will never forget my son’s first season of hockey

I will never forget that first season. He was the youngest and smallest kid on the team, and we played in the biggest rink around that can seat a thousand people. In that cavernous and quiet rink at the crack of dawn he snapped out of his slumber, and suddenly was alive, free, and full of joy out on the ice. After games he would tell me, “I love feeling the cold, fresh air on my face whenever I skate fast.”  

Often, he would look for me to make sure I was watching and he would wave until I saw him and waved back. Other parents would comment, “I think your son just waved to you…In the middle of the game…That’s hysterical”.

By the time I was halfway down the steps this morning, the thought of today being the end of 12 years of hockey made all the memories come flooding back. All the teams, practices, games, championships, tournaments, long car rides. All the different jerseys, coaches, teammates, and parent friendships forged while standing together in cold ice rinks. It all flashed before my eyes.

But those memories are all centered around one thing: Me watching him play.

And that feeling can come to a parent from anything really, not just sports. My daughter spent years singing, acting, and doing musical theater. We built similar memories with car rides to practices, shows, singing lessons, and helping her work hard to succeed.

She and I bonded over music. We would sing in the car, and I helped her practice lines for her shows. When she was on stage, the glow on her face brought me immense joy and satisfaction. I miss everything about that.

One of my favorite memories is hearing her sing in the shower at the top of her lungs. She doesn’t do it much these days. When she was home from college recently, I asked her why. She said it’s not a habit anymore, and added, “I don’t want to bother my roommates and I’m not practicing for anything.” It makes sense, but it still makes me sad. 

But last Christmas break I heard her singing one random morning.  She doesn’t know this, but I dropped everything, ran to the stairs, sat down and listened. It was wonderful.

It is our loss when our kids stop participating in their activities

I am now realizing that when parents say we are sad for our kids because “Insert Any Activity here” is about to be over, it might be more about us coming to terms with our own loss. The loss of the joy we got from watching them do what they do, and the loss of how our kids activities shaped who WE had become during those formidable years. 

My son and I often deconstructed his games, discussing the good and the bad. I never held back telling him what he did wrong or if he played poorly. If he made mistakes, he needed to know to learn. But he also needed the positive reinforcement of hearing about what he did well.  

This was a kid after all, who, once in the middle of a third-grade all-star baseball game yelled to me from left field after making a nice catch. Between pitches for the next batter he yelled in my direction “Dad, did you see that?” A bit surprised he was yelling to me in the middle of the game, I nodded emphatically and gave him a big thumbs up. Next pitch. He yells again. “Are you proud of me?!?” “Of course!” I yelled back.

A dad who was standing with me still brings up this hilarious story 10-years later. From that day forward, I always made sure he knew I was proud of him. But he also knew that it came with three caveats – he worked hard, had a good attitude, and was a good teammate.

When he finally came downstairs and began eating breakfast, I felt a nervous energy. I am always fidgety – but this was worse. In recent weeks we had discussed that the end was coming. But I wanted no part of talking about it today.  I wandered the kitchen aimlessly hoping to physically distract myself and asked him some random questions that were clearly forced. I’m not sure he noticed because he was half-asleep (Remember how he likes his sleep?) but I noticed, so I stopped talking.

He then asked me how I would feel if they lost the game tonight. I bumbled through how I was proud of what he achieved in making it this far, and I will just enjoy watching him play hard and doing his best. He then offered me his take.

“Obviously I want to win, I always do and it’s the playoffs,” he said. “I had a good, fun season. I achieved what I wanted with my role on the team, and I played in every game.” He paused and continued, “But it has been a long season and I am a bit tired. I think no matter what happens, I am happy, and I am content.” 

My son was content with what he had accomplished during the season

BOOM – mind blown – Maybe the most grown up and mature thing my 17-year- old (who regularly acts like an 11-year-old) has ever said in his life. What the heck am I so distraught about? If he is content, shouldn’t I be too? 

Three and a half months earlier, his 10-year soccer career saw its final game when the varsity team lost in the state semifinals. But there was no time to process that ending, because he walked off the field, got in his car, and drove straight to hockey tryouts. He had a one-hour break between sports, and the excitement of hockey overshadowed soccer’s ending.

With three varsity sports and three senior nights, I felt like it would all take forever, and this panic moment would come in June when spring volleyball ended. 

But volleyball has not consumed his life – or our life – the way hockey and soccer have. They were the serious sports with summer camps, off season trainings, travel teams, bigger commitments, bigger costs, and a higher level of play.  Volleyball has been a fun and carefree outlet; and while he absolutely loves it, there has been no lifelong blood, sweat, and tears – or money – shed for it. 

So maybe it does make sense the feelings are triggered now. From skating lessons at age 5 until now, hockey has been in his life. That is 75% of his time on earth. I heard it a thousand times over the years from parents of older kids, “It goes by so fast” they would say. I always smiled, nodded, and sort of brushed it off because I never felt it. But the thing is, when you are knee deep in it you don’t feel it. You think you have forever.

If you have experienced your own “Wow, it went by so fast” moment then you get it

But this morning’s emotions showed no mercy in reminding me that nothing lasts forever. Every parent, at some point will have this feeling when their kids’ activities come to an end. If your “Wow, it went by so fast” moment has already come, you understand. If not, trust me it will come – and you will remember reading this. 

As he put on his varsity jacket to leave for school, I held the door open for him. He was one foot out but stopped, turned back, and gave me a hug. It was a long hug.  “Thank you for everything you have done for me for hockey, and for all my sports,” he said. 

Oh No – here come those bricks again…As he pulled away to leave, I tried to say “You’re welcome” but it was one of those moments where your mouth doesn’t work, and a mumbling sound came out. I quickly shut the door so he wouldn’t see the look in my eyes. 

I am sure he knew why I shut the door fast, but I felt bad that I had not replied to his heartfelt words. So, I gathered myself and re-opened the door. He was in the driveway now but turned around and looked back again. “You’re Welcome!” I shouted.

He smiled. I smiled back. I was content…for now. But I’m no fool. I have been down this road before when my daughter graduated high school. This is just the beginning of the end. And I know there are a lot more bricks waiting for me in the months ahead.

More Great Reading:

The 15 Powerful Lessons Teens Learn From Sports



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