McDermand: Letting your kids fail may be their greatest lesson

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Bryan McDermand has coached and played volleyball at various levels over the last two decades. He coaches beach volleyball year-round and is the founder of Before College Consulting, an organization to help families find the best college for them while minimizing debt. 

My dad let me fail. It was the turning point in my life and how I approached achieving goals.

Before I had any interest in volleyball, basketball was my favorite sport. I’d watch replays of Chicago Bulls games, put a laundry basket on top of the box TV (something kids today could never imagine after having flat screen all their lives) and mimic Michael Jordan’s and Scottie Pippen’s moves as I’d shoot a rubber ball into the basket. One of my favorite childhood gifts was a Bulls hoop (metal rim and all) that hung on my door. I spent countless hours making games up and dreaming of playing at the next level.

I went to a small K-though-8 school. We had 13 boys total in the class. The fifth grade was the first year we were able to play and my dad ended up being the volunteer coach. I was undersized but was one of those weird kids who liked playing defense and what I lacked in talent I made up for in hustle. Realistically I was probably our fifth best player, but that made me a starter and I was pleased with my role. I worked hard when we were in season, but didn’t put much time into my craft outside of competition.

I remember it vividly: Burger King drive-thru, York Street in Elmhurst. Our sixth-grade season was approaching and my dad was trying to get me to understand that I needed to practice more if I wanted to keep up with my peers. I don’t remember exactly what my response was. I know I wasn’t accepting it, and I never forgot his response:

“If you don’t start working on your game, you’ll be lucky to make your high school team.”

I bawled my eyes out. How could he say that to me? Does he not believe in me? I was crushed.

I played three more years at my junior high. I started all three years. Our team had success. I went to high school, and proceed to get cut.

Not once, but twice.

I remember sitting in that room after the second cut when I had to accept what he had told me five years before. Because the thing is, my dad believes in me as much as anyone on this planet. But he also understood that the pond only gets bigger as you get older. He knew I was undersized and while I was doing well for my school, things would be much more competitive at the next level.

It’s not what he told me that I’m thankful for. I’m thankful that when I said “I don’t want to do that,” he didn’t force it on me. He recognized that I wasn’t interested in letting him teach me a lesson. Sometimes, you have to let your kids figuratively touch the hot stove.

I cannot imagine how he felt watching me cry in that car. I know he was genuinely sorry when I got cut. It had to be so tough for him not to step in to protect me from myself. But I am so appreciative that he let me carve my own path. For not saying “These are your goals? Get in the car, we’re going to practice dribbling/shooting.”

There is a small part of me that will always wonder what I could have done if I worked harder. But the truth is, that work ethic wasn’t natural to me. Once that happened, and I began to take volleyball more seriously, I always had that fire lit under me. I knew I never wanted to wonder ‘What if?’ again.

I had a successful volleyball career overall, but I certainly fell short of some goals. My college team never won a national championship. I never made an AVP/NVL main draw. I lost far more tournaments than I won. But unlike with basketball, I have peace of mind. I walked away from competing knowing that I left it all on the court. I took care of my body, I trained maniacally, and I made the most with what I had.

You may watch your kids push back when you try to guide them to the goals they’ve set forth. You may know they need to put more work in, and you may be right. It’s great to try and show them the path, but do them a favor:

When it’s clear they aren’t interested in the work, let them make that choice. Let them own their youth sports experience – the good AND the bad. They may not get as far as they’re capable, but they’ll reap what they sow, and hopefully failures will help give them perspective as they move on to college, careers, and anything else they choose to focus on as they enter adulthood.

Some of you may think athletes need to be pushed to greatness. I’ll concur that having guidance makes a huge difference. That being said, I’ve worked with national champions, All-Americans, scholarship athletes, main-draw regulars, and the one thing they all had in common was they were self-driven.

I may have taught volleyball, but the effort was all on their end.

I’ll push my younger athletes to be the best they can be. Ultimately, how seriously they decide to take the sport is up to them.

Let your kids fail. It may be the key to their success down the road.

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