The Moment This Dad Realized Youth Sports Were Ending, Forever

This morning I realized we had reached the beginning of the end. While I knew this moment was coming, it came sooner than expected, and I was unprepared for it.  It happened suddenly at 6:30 a.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 22, as I walked downstairs to make breakfast for my high school senior son. And like a ton of bricks falling on my head — it was fast and furious.

I just woke him up for school, and being the “over-thinker” I am, my mind raced to 5 p.m. when his varsity hockey team started playoffs. A tidal wave of emotions ensued as I realized today might be the last day I ever watch my son play hockey, and this might be the last morning I ever wake him up for hockey. 

I know you think I didn’t wake him for hockey because he has school first — but I did nostalgically. He loved to skate and play when he started playing hockey at age six. But he also loved to sleep.

Stepping off ice last time
The author’s son stepping off the ice for the final time. (Courtesy Chris Manderioli)

In the early years waking my son early to skate was challenging

Getting up at 6 a.m. every Sunday for games was a challenge of epic proportions. I would carry him downstairs and let him sleep on the floor for a few extra minutes. I got him half-dressed in his equipment while he remained half-asleep because, according to his logic, dressing at home gave him about 4 minutes and 11 seconds of extra sleep.

When it was time to wake him up, I served him my version of “The Breakfast of Champions.”

For anyone age 40 or older, you probably just flashed back to the classic Jim Belushi Olympic Training skit where he was donuts and a cigarette. My version was ice cream. Yes, I fed my 6-year-old ice cream for breakfast every Sunday morning for three months to wake him up for hockey. Don’t judge me. 

Some might think what I just described is crazy and didn’t teach him anything. But he wanted this so bad, and at age 6 he couldn’t do it alone. A big part of parenting is teaching your kids how to be self-sufficient, but another part is doing everything in your power to help your kids achieve what they want.    

I will never forget my son’s first season of hockey

I will never forget that first season. He was the youngest and smallest kid on the team, and we played in the biggest rink around that can seat a thousand people. In that cavernous and quiet rink, he snapped out of his slumber at dawn and suddenly was alive, free, and full of joy out on the ice. After games, he would tell me, “I love feeling the cold, fresh air on my face whenever I skate fast.”  

He often looked for me to ensure I was watching, and he would wave until I saw him and waved back. Other parents would comment, “I think your son just waved to you…In the middle of the game…That’s hysterical.”

By the time I was halfway down the steps this morning, the thought of today being the end of 12 years of hockey made all the memories come flooding back. All the teams, practices, games, championships, tournaments, long car rides. All the different jerseys, coaches, teammates, and parent friendships forged while standing together in ice rinks. It all flashed before my eyes.

But those memories are all centered around one thing: Me watching him play.

And that feeling can come to a parent from anything, not just sports. My daughter spent years singing, acting, and doing musical theater. We built similar memories with car rides to practices, shows, singing lessons, and helping her work hard to succeed.

She and I bonded over music. We would sing in the car, and I helped her practice lines for her shows. When she was on stage, the glow on her face brought me immense joy and satisfaction. I miss everything about that.

One of my favorite memories is hearing her sing at the top of her lungs in the shower. She doesn’t do it much these days. When she was home from college recently, I asked her why. She said it’s not a habit anymore and added, “I don’t want to bother my roommates, and I’m not practicing for anything.” It makes sense, but it still makes me sad. 

But last Christmas break, I heard her singing one random morning. She doesn’t know this, but I dropped everything, ran to the stairs, sat down, and listened. It was wonderful.

It is our loss when our kids stop participating in their activities

I now realize that when parents say they are sad for our kids because “Insert Any Activity here” is about to be over, it might be more about coming to terms with our loss. The loss of the joy we got from watching them do what they do and of how our kid’s activities shaped who WE had become during those formidable years. 

My son and I often deconstructed his games, discussing the good and the bad. I never held back from telling him what he did wrong or if he played poorly. If he made mistakes, he needed to know to learn. But he also needed the positive reinforcement of hearing about what he did well.  

This kid, after all, once in the middle of a third-grade all-star baseball game, yelled to me from left field after making a nice catch. Between pitches to the next batter, he yelled in my direction, “Dad, did you see that?” Surprised he was yelling at me in the middle of the game, I nodded emphatically and gave him a big thumbs up. Next pitch. He yells again. “Are you proud of me?!?” “Of course!” I yelled back.

A dad standing with me still brings up this hilarious story 10 years later. From that day forward, I always ensured he knew I was proud of him. But he also knew it came with three caveats — he worked hard, had a good attitude, and was a good teammate.

When he finally came downstairs and began eating breakfast, I felt a nervous energy. I am always fidgety — but this was worse. In recent weeks, we had discussed that the end was coming. But I wanted no part of talking about it today. I wandered the kitchen aimlessly, hoping to distract myself physically, and asked him random questions that were forced. I’m not sure he noticed because he was half-asleep. (Remember how he likes his sleep?) but I noticed, so I stopped talking.

He then asked me how I would feel if they lost the game tonight. I bumbled through how I was proud of what he achieved in making it this far, and I will enjoy watching him play hard and do his best. He then offered me his take.

“I want to win, I always do, and it’s the playoffs,” he said. “I had a good, fun season. I achieved what I wanted with my role on the team, and I played in every game.” He paused and continued, “But it has been a long season, and I am tired. I think no matter what happens, I am happy and content.” 

My son was content with what he had accomplished during the season

BOOM — mind was blown — Maybe the most grown-up and mature thing my 17-year-old (who regularly acts like an 11-year-old) has ever said. What the heck am I so distraught about? If he is content, shouldn’t I be too? 

Three and a half months earlier, his 10-year soccer career saw its final game when the varsity team lost in the state semifinals. But there was no time to process that ending because he walked off the field, got in his car, and drove straight to hockey tryouts. He had a one-hour break between sports, and the excitement of hockey overshadowed soccer’s ending.

With three varsity sports and three senior nights, I felt like it would all take forever, and this panic moment would come in June when spring volleyball ended. 

But volleyball has not consumed his or our life — the way hockey and soccer have. They were the serious sports with summer camps, off-season training, travel teams, bigger commitments, higher costs, and a higher level of play.  Volleyball has been a fun and carefree outlet; while he loves it, there has been no lifelong blood, sweat, or tears — or money — shed for it. 

So maybe it does make sense the feelings are triggered now. From skating lessons at age five until now, hockey has been in his life. That is 75% of his time on earth. I heard it a thousand times from parents of older kids, “It goes by so fast,” they would say. I always smiled, nodded, and brushed it off because I never felt it. But the thing is, when you are knee-deep in it, you don’t feel it. You think you have forever.

If you have experienced your own “Wow, it went by so fast” moment then you get it

But this morning’s emotions showed no mercy, reminding me that nothing lasts forever. Every parent, at some point, will have this feeling when their kids’ activities end. You understand if your “Wow, it went by so fast” moment has already come. If not, trust me, it will come — and you will remember reading this. 

As he put on his varsity jacket to leave for school, I opened the door. He was one foot out but stopped, turned back, and hugged me. It was a long hug. “Thank you for everything you have done for me for hockey and all my sports,” he said. 

Oh No — here come those bricks again…As he pulled away to leave, I tried to say, “You’re welcome,” but it was one of those moments where your mouth didn’t work, and a mumbling sound came out. I quickly shut the door so he wouldn’t see the look in my eyes. 

I am sure he knew why I shut the door fast, but I felt terrible that I had not replied to his heartfelt words. So, I gathered myself and re-opened the door. He was in the driveway now but turned around and looked back again. “You’re welcome!” I shouted.

He smiled. I smiled back. I was content…for now. But I’m no fool. I have been down this road before when my daughter graduated high school. This is just the beginning of the end. And I know many more bricks await me in the months ahead.

More Great Reading:

The 15 Powerful Lessons Teens Learn From Sports

About Chris Manderioli

Chris Manderioli is a married father of two active children, currently a college sophomore daughter and a high school senior son. His athlete son had the family running all year round from one sport to the next throughout his youth, while his creative daughter entertained the family with involvement in the Arts through singing, dancing, and performing in musical theater during her youth.

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