Pressure is a Privilege

I went to the U.S Open for the first time in about 20 years last week. The kids and I had a few days to kill in the city before Labor Day weekend. These are kids who had been nonstop activitying all summer, and would have been thrilled doing absolutely nothing. But I’m terrible at doing nothing, and have an inconvenient fear that my kids doing nothing for even a little bit makes me a terrible mother. Thanks to Stubhub, I maintained a positive standing in the parent department, and we spent an amazing, not-totally-but-almost-fight-free day at Arthur Ashe, and watched two amazing matches, and then some. But the best part about the day was from that point, the kids (well, Frank) were really into the rest of the tournament, which saved me from having to watch at least a few Yankees games… but more importantly provided some teaching moments about sportsmanship.

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A couple weeks ago at tennis camp, Frank finally broke his racket. This was after repeatedly banging it on the court when he was upset with his play. Despite his consistent temper in sports, this particular behavior was a new and very unfortunate development. We warned him several times he would break the racket and have to pay for it. So now, he will not get allowance until the middle of December, when the racket will be paid back. He can then decide whether he wants to earn money to actually buy a new one. Only time will tell if this lesson is an effective one, but it certainly can’t be the only one.

Frank doesn’t like when he gets upset; he feels out of control. “I can’t help it, Momma!” So much of my parenting strategies are derived from empathy, because most of the time I have felt their feelings at some point in my life. But the pain Frank feels from his self-inflicted pressure to be perfect isn’t something I’ve experienced. So while I absolutely feel his pain, as any parent does, empathy doesn’t work, and sympathy only gets me so far until such point where I lose my shit. And so I have to try other means to make a dent.

The McEnroe insanity was fun to watch as a kid, but I thank God that guy only sits in the announcers’ box these days. The grace displayed by both the winners and losers throughout the 2019 U.S. Open, both on and off the court, was beautiful. The losers didn’t just lose a match, but money, and in most cases I imagine they suffered a slide in their standing. And yet just like the winners, they smiled, they hugged, they congratulated, and they thanked opponents for loving the sport as much as they did (at least in public; I’d imagine more negative emotion played out privately.) They all clearly get that “pressure is a privilege.”

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Peter saw this quote on a plaque as one of the losing players we’d been watching walked off the court. He rewound and paused the TV, and showed it to Frank. Asked him what he thought it meant. “Pressure is good because you learn from it? And then you do better next time?” Frank offered. Yes. Partly. But Billie Jean King meant something deeper. And it gets to the heart of why my 12-year-old feels the pain he does when he doesn’t live up to his standards. His standards are far too high, and often misplaced – a Sunday morning family rally, for example. Argh!!! But this quote made me realize I’d much rather a kid who sometimes wears the weight of the world on his shoulders, than one who doesn’t care.

Pressure happens when you feel you have something to live up to. Unless it’s completely unreasonable pressure, you feel this way because you’ve previously shown an ability to do whatever it is you’re doing, and because the outcome carries some significance, and so expectations exist, whether from a coach, a boss, a colleague, a parent, a teacher, or yourself. While it can feel like a terrible burden, it is in fact a privilege. Internalizing this as a privilege rather than a burden, and therefore handling pressure more gracefully comes more naturally for some than for others. Frank is clearly someone for whom this internalization doesn’t come easily. And we are working hard on that.

There have been times when I’ve looked at other parents on the sidelines in envy. Those without anxiety, not fearing what a loss might mean for the rest of the day. The parents of the kids who can simply shrug off a strikeout, a double fault, a missed catch. Some of these kids are simply more natural at handling pressure, and my envy is founded. But if they just don’t feel the pressure at all, if they don’t have that fire, that drive to perform, then I’d much rather be where I am, wincing at an overthrow right along with my kid. Because pressure is a privilege. And this is where Frank is right: he is learning from it, even if that learning is more incremental than I’d like. And it is indeed making him better. And it will continue to make him better. A better tennis player, a better athlete, a better student, a better dad, a better husband, a better employee, a better colleague, a better leader.

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