The journey of an athlete parent- from Fiery Mother to Fairy Mother

“I love your mother. She is my favourite mother on the circuit.”

This is what Balan sir, one of my favourite coaches always told me as a junior. When I would ask him the reason for it he would say, “She is the fiercest of them all. No excuses, no nonsense kind of person. You win because she is around. You should be grateful to her.” I agreed with him then, but as I grew older and my mother grew with me she lost the fierceness slowly and steadily. I saw this change in her as I got my first knee injury at 17. When my mother saw me in those crutches helpless and hopeless something inside her switched. She became softer on my losses. When I would call her from my tournaments from all over the world the only question she asked me was, “Is your body ok?”. 

Balan sir would ask her this when he noticed this change in her too, ” Why have you become so soft on her? Where is my favourite mother?” My mother would just smile and let it go. As an active athlete at that time I never sat down with my mother to speak about how she felt after my surgery. To tell you the truth nobody asked my parents this question. The onus, the attention, the limelight, the struggle was all me and mine.

My parents were supposed to just deal with it, because they were parents. They were presumed to be stronger mentally, wiser and more able to deal with it. I lived like that too as an athlete, oblivious to the mental struggle and fatigue of my parents. 

As an athlete I have seen parents of my team mates very closely. I have seen a mother beat a reporter black and blue because he was unkind to her daughter. I have seen a parent run from one part of the stadium to the other while his daughter played on the court. I have seen my fellow team mate getting kicked by a parent because he was sitting too close to him and this particular parent had the habit of doing shadows of the shot his daughter was playing on the court. He was incapable of controlling his movements while he saw his daughter play. I have seen a parent punish her kid by making her do 2000 skipping rope jumps before her final, tiring her to the extent that she would lose the final due to being over tired. I have seen parents fight, abuse, scold, slap, spit on their children, other parents, other athletes, and officials. 

And yet I don’t think anybody had ever asked them, ” Are you feeling ok? Would you like to talk about it?”

To be a parent is tough, period! To be a parent of an athlete is just tougher especially in India. When your kid chooses to be an athlete he or she is one amongst 1000s. My parents had no precedence on how to raise an athlete. Nobody in my mother’s family or my father’s had been an athlete through the generations of their families. Nobody was raising an athlete amongst our relatives or my parent’s immediate friends. An athlete’s life especially the formative years are the toughest. Every day is about losing and winning, but more importantly dealing with the emotions that come with it. The pressure to perform, the envy and the jealousy, the question on sports or academics, marriage, jobs, future, finance, safety are immense. A parent of an athlete unlike any other profession has to deal with this much earlier at the age of 9 and 10. How is a parent supposed to deal with these magnitude of emotions and questions with no precedence? My mother dealt with it by mellowing down from being a parent who would listen to no excuse at all, to being a parent who was fine with accommodating an excuse. 

I am a parent today to a 1 and half year old. I know how tough it is now. Every small fall of his makes me squirm and leaves me feeling guilty of how I could have avoided his fall. I can understand now a little more better of what my mother would have gone through to see me on the hospital bed uncertain about my playing career, not once but twice.

Recently, I had a young badminton player and her parent come to me asking for help. They told me that the girl was already working with a psychologist and was on medication for anxiety and was having behavioural problems. The mother told me about how competitive it is amongst the parents, the coaches, the athletes themselves. How social media exposure was making it very difficult for her to understand her daughter and widening the gap between them. She told me that the daughter had help now and it was helping her. All she wanted me to do was to share my experiences with her and help her daughter feel a little less anxious about her own future. I did my best, but at the end I asked the mother, “How are you dealing with this? Are you ok?” 

Her eyes welled up, but she would not let that tear drop while the daughter was watching. 

In sports, we need to build communities and support systems for parents of an athlete. We need us parents to be open and secure enough to ask for help. It is extremely difficult for an athlete to make it big in India, it is as difficult a journey for a parent to help them get there.

I love my mother, fiery or fairy. But I miss my fiery mother, and regret the fact that somehow I might have been responsible for it. 

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