Plotting a path forward

Plotting a path forward

1/14/2021

By Greg Bach

Navigating new stages in one’s athletic journey – like the end of a high school sports career – can pose plenty of challenges for teens accustomed to the comforting rhythms that accompany a season wrapped in structure.

“It’s a huge point in a young person’s life,” says Melinda Harrison, a former Olympic swimmer for Team Canada and author of Personal Next: What We Can Learn from Elite Athletes About Navigating Career Transition.

Harrison, an All-American swimmer at the University of Michigan and the first female swimmer to be inducted into the school’s Hall of Honor, spoke with more than 100 elite athletes and high achievers on how they successfully managed major life transitions.

And since most teen athletes won’t have a college scholarship awaiting them at the conclusion of their high school sports careers, how they plot their path forward is one of the first all-important life transitions they’ll face.

“That athlete is definitely going to go through a feeling of loss,” Harrison says. “For the high school athlete my biggest concern is their life has been programmed by other people and once their seasons end they are not really sure how to program their life because they’ve been in a system where daily choices are set up by someone else.”

Harrison points to parents and the key role they can play in helping steer their teens through these challenging moments.

“There are lots of things that parents can do to help,” she says. “First of all, when that child finishes their high school sport encourage them to start making their own decisions. They can encourage them to start to think about how they want their life to look, because once they get to college they are going to get freedom like they have never had before. And if they don’t have a level of self-regulation then there could be some issues.”

JOYFUL JOURNEY

In the summer leading into Harrison’s freshman year of high school she won a swim-a-thon at her local swim club in Ontario, Canada.

The prize was a trip to a week-long camp.

And it changed the course of her life.

“I came home to my parents, who had never considered sending their child away to high school or a boarding school, and I told them I wanted to go down to Pine Crest in Fort Lauderdale, Florida that was well known for its swimming and diving teams,” she says. “And they were looking at me like I was out of my mind.”

They eventually green-lighted the move south, and Harrison learned quickly the importance of working hard, staying positive throughout the process, and the immense value that can be grabbed from those experiences that are draped in failure and disappointment.

“I look at failure as an opportunity for growth,” she says. “I didn’t do what I wanted to do, so what do I need to do to correct that issue? And great coaches and great teachers help you understand that.”

VALUE OF VULNERABILITY

Harrison sees what has become problematic across the youth sports landscape: kids bailing on sports as soon as performances don’t go as hoped and frustration settles in.  

“The concern I have is the instant gratification,” she says. “They are afraid to fail.”

Like all great athletes, Harrison encountered plenty of rocky patches on her journey.

But she didn’t allow them to push her away from a sport she loved.  

“When I first went to Pine Crest my skill level was terrible,” she says. “I was just a rotten swimmer. I was swimming with National Team members, and they would just laugh at me wondering what I was doing down there, but I just kept working on the skills.”

And she never backed down from seeking answers and embracing feedback from coaches.

“I was vulnerable enough to say that I didn’t know all the answers,” she says. “Kids sometimes want to get out of sports because they don’t want to show that they don’t know all the answers and we need to change that mindset.”

Part of managing those mindsets is through those coach-athlete interactions that can be mighty impactful in so many ways.

“When a child comes up to you and says, ‘how do you think I did?’ a great coach is going to say ‘tell me how you think you did. I want to hear what your perspective is,’” Harrison says.  

And how parents converse with their child in that setting is equally important. Harrison says: “I like parents to respond with ‘what did you think? Tell me your thoughts. What do you think you could do better?’ Recognize that they did a good job. ‘You really put a lot of effort into that race and that was fantastic, but tell me what you think you did well and what you think you can learn?’ Because that’s going to carry them and teach them to think for themselves.”

You can follow Melinda Harrison on INSTAGRAM and TWITTER.

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