Connecting With Your Teen Athlete
My mother would say (not entirely approvingly) that I build “castles in the sky”. Totally true. Before I had kids I totally romanticized how close we’d be. In my idealized life view, we’d settle in for dinner and they would tell me all about what they did at school, what was happening with their friends, and openly discuss anything that was bothering them. The reality was not quite that…When my boys were young, I’d ask how their day was. “Fine.” What did you learn at school? “Nothing”. I tried being more specific, asking who they sat next to at lunch or what they were studying in social studies. “I don’t know his name” or “social stuff” were typical responses. Instead, our bonding came through playing ball in the yard, building things, and reading books. It wasn’t exactly what I imagined, but it was mostly fantastic. Then, they became teenagers.
I actually love having teenagers. They can feed and bathe themselves, hold conversations about substantial topics, and (at some point) can even drive themselves to practice. However, there are tricky spots. Teenagers are often snarky, can get weirdly angry over the smallest issue, and wipe out food supplies at an alarming rate. My boys still aren’t so excited about talking to me about what’s going on with their friends and they definitely won’t talk to me about the girls in their lives. Playing ball in the yard has become dangerous (for me) and they don’t want to build Legos. I still have the same desire to be close to them, so what’s the best way to navigate the new reality?
As I’ve researched ways to connect with your teenager, it occurred to me that what the “experts” were saying was just to update what we were doing when they were younger. We did active things, built projects, and had parties themed with what interested them. The trick now is figuring out what that means with my particular teenagers. I came across a couple of great general articles on connecting with teenagers that got me on a good path (10 Easy Ways to Connect to Your Teen, 20 Ways to Connect to Your Teen). Most of those are general, so I’ve tried to overlay some of the concepts with ideas that cater specifically to athletes.
Meet Them Where They Are
Obviously, we all respond better to things that we are interested in. If you can incorporate your teen’s interests into standard family activities, they may surprise you with their willingness to participate. Our family has always been big on playing games – card games, board games, athletic games. Competition helps us bond, I guess! If you need extra incentive to get your athlete interested, there is quite an assortment of soccer board games available from a variety of retailers. GoSports even has a Magna Soccer version of an air hockey table. We haven’t tried it yet, but it’s now on my Christmas list.
Video games can be a serious point of contention in our house, as screen time is generally something that I’m arguing against. However, I have to admit that we’ve had a lot of fun over the years playing video games as a family. I am terrible at EA FIFA, or anything else that requires complex hand-eye coordination. Admittedly, the main bonding that happens during these games comes from the rest of the family teasing me. I am generally competitive, but I’m also willing to sacrifice my video game ‘honor’ to achieve some family unity. Let’s not tell them, though…
If collecting is something that your kid could get into, soccer trading cards or Panini FIFA sticker books can also be good bonding activities. The Panini books and stickers are on kiosks all over Europe. I’ve rarely seen them in stores in the States, but there are a variety of online purchase options.
Family Date Night
You have likely watched a bazillion football games in your parenting life, but how many have you actually watched with your player? Going to a MLS game can be a great experience, but watching one at home can also be outstanding. Order pizza and let them explain the nuances of what’s happening. I didn’t play the game as a kid. I’ve learned a lot over the years, and my love of the game has grown as I’ve become more educated on the intricacies and strategies. They also love teaching me something.
If you can’t possibly watch one more game, try creating a standing family date night. Our family started a tradition a few years ago that has stuck: #PhonelessFriday. Every Friday night, we try out a local restaurant. (During COVID, we’ve modified to take-out, but the same concept applies!) No one is allowed to even bring a phone. It’s amazing how good the conversation can be when no one is distracted.
Cooking together can not only be more cost effective, but even more fun. Explore a typical menu that players in Brazil or Barcelona eat on a routine basis. Let them pick the country and even make the grocery list together.
Build or Create Something Together
A few years ago, my youngest son and I decorated his room with a Houston Dynamo. We painted orange stripes, searched out banners and posters, etc. In the search for orange memorabilia, we even learned about (and incorporated!) some Dutch memorabilia. We learned about Johann Cruyff’s playing history and his post-play charitable work. He is still one of Luke’s role models.
Building yard games can be relatively quick and fun. Make a team-themed ladderball set or build and paint cornhole boards with their favorite MLS team. We’ve done both. Not only were they fun projects, but we’ve enjoyed them for several years now.
Turn Your House Into the Playground
It is absolutely normal for teenagers to want to be with their friends. Athletic kids want to be where there are sports to be played. Creating an environment where there are things to do with their friends can drive the gatherings to your house. You’ll know their friends and have a much closer view of what’s going on in their world. Can you let them turn your yard into a soccer field? Work with them to paint the lines, set up goals, etc. For inside activities, turn your dining room into a ping pong tournament. Buying a relatively cheap, small foosball table can also be the source of many hours of friends (and family!) competition.
The Bottom Line
Bonding with your teenage athlete can be a lot of work. It is also a lot of fun, and is well worth the effort. Let us know what works with your family!