I’ve spent a lot of the time since becoming a mom looking at what my identity is and should be. I’m a big believer that in order to understand where you are now you have to look backwards at where you’ve been and I guess in this case, who you’ve been. A long time ago, really it feels like a lifetime ago now, I was a 16 year old that had spent the previous years rotating between being on a soccer field or in an arena. My identity as a teenager was entirely wrapped around being an athlete, it was all I did and it was all I knew. I spent every summer playing soccer and playing 3 on 3 hockey, I spent my winters playing hockey and indoor soccer. I never deviated from the path I was on which really kept me out of any rebellious teenage behaviour because I truly did not have time (luckily for my parents!)
Over the years I, like many other kids, bumped my head and thought nothing of it. I remember so clearly one game I played when I was maybe 12 or 13 I got hit from behind and hit my chin off the lip of the boards and immediately my arms went numb. I sat on the bench after, didn’t say a word and went out for my next shift right on schedule. Now looking back I think how ridiculously dumb but it truly wasn’t even something I gave a second thought to. Nobody else thought concussions were a big deal so why should I?
Fast forward from there to when I was 16 playing in a hockey tournament in Pittsburgh when everything came to a screeching halt. I got hit square in the chest and fell straight back onto my head and that was it. I never played another game of hockey after that moment. Everything that my identity was got flipped upside down at such a precarious age it threw me off for a long, long time. After that hit I suffered from post-concussive syndrome, which at the time was hardly a thing anyone knew anything about. I was told by doctors that I would play again in 2-3 weeks and it wasn’t until a high school teacher alerted my parents that I was behaving strangely that someone gave it a second look. It turns out I had been suffering from mild to severe concussions for years due to a physical predisposition and finally something had to give. This was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back (except it was my brain).
After a lot of tears, countless doctor’s appointments, concussion tests and evaluations later I got chewed up and spit out, nobody had any answers for me except I wouldn’t be an athlete anymore – that time was over. So, all of a sudden I had all of this time that until then had been non-existent. I didn’t have practices on weeknights I didn’t have weekend tournaments… what was I supposed to be doing? Who was I supposed to be now? I filled that time with a very real crisis that happened entirely behind a mostly smiling face. I was suffering trying to scramble and figure out what to do with myself. The year after getting hurt I remember so desperately craving that competitive atmosphere that I ran for my high school’s student council. I didn’t care that much about being on student council I just very badly needed to compete in something. I was completely and utterly lost.
I was under no illusion that I was going to be a professional athlete or that playing sports was all I was going to do but it was all I knew and the decision for it to end wasn’t mine, it was made for me by injury. I hadn’t invested any time throughout my childhood and into my teen years developing any other interests or discovering passions. I fought against the effects concussion had on me for years and it beat me down at every chance. All I was trying to do was continue on the same path I was on before just without the playing sports part and it wasn’t for many years after that I came to terms with the fact that who I was before that hit, to a large degree, no longer existed. The way I learned wasn’t the same anymore, the way I absorbed information wasn’t the same, the way I socialized wasn’t the same…everything was different.
Very little was known then about how concussion and repeated head injuries can impact a person long-term and really even short-term. We know a lot more now – for goodness sake Will Smith even starred in a film CALLED concussion. They have concussion protocols, tons of professionals studying the effects with a wide variety of treatment plans that never existed when I was younger. When I got hurt the message I basically got was “sit in a dark room and hope for the best?”. I had to figure out all of the changes my mind went through on my own and it took nearly a decade to rehabilitate myself to accommodate for those changes.
One of the questions we often get asked is ‘what sport do you think the twins will play?’. Initially my thoughts are “oh I can’t wait to sit in an arena and watch them play Timbits hockey or go to weekend soccer tournaments”, and that’s still true, but there’s absolutely a part of my mind that’s distracted. I’m distracted by the fact that I don’t necessarily want a sport to become who they are. When your identity as a young person gets woven into something that in all likelihood can and will be temporary it can be a very tricky thing.
I know firsthand what it’s like to be 16 and all of a sudden be wandering through life trying to figure out who you are because everything you thought you were was now gone. It’s terrifying and I suffered from depression over it for a long while. I’m not the first and only but I do think that it’s a conversation that needs to be had more often, especially with youth entering into sports. Some kids grow up and achieve absolute greatness in sport – but the odds are truly stacked against them.
I worked at a hockey school for many years and I remember this one particular instance where I was coaching 4-5 year olds how to skate. Let me tell you, 4 year olds are terrible skaters. Put them on ice in a body weight’s worth of equipment and they’re tipping all over the place. After a full day of coaching one of the parents approached me and asked if I had any specific pointers for their child and how they can improve so they can get into rep hockey early. I was blown away to the point where I almost laughed at them – why on earth are you thinking about making sure they’re in a competitive sport when they’re FOUR and the only thing you should be worried about is the fact that they’re having fun. This kid’s identity and what was going to be important to him was already being decided for him and that was a very real awakening moment for me. We aren’t yet at the point of parenting where we have to learn to juggle the interests and passions of our kids and I have to believe there’s a fine balance between leaning in and encouraging vs wrapping their whole life around something and making it who they are before they even know themselves. How do you find balance between making your kids interested in what you’re interested in and letting them pursue their own things?
I was not a kid pushed into sports by my parents. I would say it was more so something I automatically did it was so woven into the fabric of who I was. I started playing soccer soon after I started walking and never stopped. I never thought twice before registering every year. I never even considered doing anything else and maybe that ultimately became the problem.
This is not to say that having athletics be such a huge part of my youth was a waste (although there were definitely times that I thought so). I took so much away from those years that I didn’t even realize until I was an adult. The team mentality you develop where you rely on those around you to achieve success was a skill I use literally everyday. The discipline it takes to be a young athlete is second to none because you are constantly put in the position of having to decide to put your sport first. The will to constantly be in a state of improvement is also so crucial and an excellent life-skill.
I am and always will be a huge advocate for having team sport be a part of every kid’s life I think it’s hard to find anything more enriching. That said, it can’t be all there is because once it’s gone it leaves a massive hole that a kid is left scrambling trying to fill.