She Realized Her Kids Needed a Mom More than a Coach

She encouraged her daughters to become track stars, but was she imposing her own dreams on them?

Posted in , Feb 26, 2020

Tonya and her daughter Kennedi enjoy a walk together

I grew up playing sports. Both my parents played multiple sports in high school, and my dad went to college on a football scholarship. I played softball as a child and excelled on my high school field hockey and track teams. My husband, Kenny, was playing professional basketball overseas when we met. He now works in education and coaches youth and high school basketball.

Kenny and I weren’t surprised when our daughters, Kennedi and Kassadi, showed early athletic promise. Watching them outrun other kids on the playground, I knew they were destined for greatness on the track. Kennedi, our older daughter, was competing in the Junior Olympics track and field championships by age seven. Kassadi wasn’t far behind.

By the time Kennedi started middle school, our family life revolved around practices, track meets, plus regional and national championships. I had visions of college scholarships, maybe even the Olympics.

I did not envision sitting in a pediatric orthopedist’s office almost two years ago, staring at an MRI image as the doctor calmly explained that Kennedi’s posterior cruciate ligament—the thick tissue stabilizing the back of her knee—was torn. Her season was over.

“Immediate surgery might be necessary,” the doctor said. “I’ve almost never seen this kind of injury in a child. It’s a complicated repair, and recovery can take a long time. She might not regain full athletic function.”

Kennedi was 13 years old. The day before, at a regional Junior Olympics qualifying event, she’d misjudged her long jump landing and ended up sprawled in the sand pit, screaming in pain.

This was not supposed to happen. Sports weren’t just part of my family life. They were part of my prayer life. Athletic accomplishment was God’s gift to my family. Part of our story. The story was supposed to end at the Olympics. Not in the operating room.

The doctor kept talking, but I had a hard time following the words. Why, God? How could you do this to my child?

I didn’t set out to become a track mom. Kenny and I weren’t thinking Olympics when we signed the girls up for track. We knew they were fast, but we had an open mind.

Still, I couldn’t help noticing at the first practice that Kennedi was especially good at sprints and the long jump. By the time the season ended, I was crushed when she didn’t qualify for the regional Junior Olympics. She was only six years old.

The next year, she qualified and made it into the national finals. I began to think we might have a future track star on our hands. Kenny and I talked about it, prayed about it and decided to make track a household priority. That meant committing to a full schedule of practices, extra workouts, meets and faraway championships.

We didn’t ask the girls if that’s what they wanted. Of course they did! Who wouldn’t want to use a God-given talent to the fullest? Plus, they kept winning, and every kid likes to win.

Slowly but surely, track took over our lives. Weekends, even some Sunday mornings, were devoted to training. We stopped taking vacations so the girls wouldn’t miss any practices. I would make time to visit local attractions wherever we traveled for meets and call that vacation.

We missed birthdays, family cookouts, Wednesday night Bible studies and youth group meetings. We spent thousands of dollars on meet fees, equipment, training and travel expenses. I even restricted the time the girls could spend swimming with their friends, which would sap the energy they needed for competition.

When the kids were little and played soccer, I used to shake my head at the parents who hollered and criticized from the sidelines. But when a track championship was on the line and I could tell one of my girls wasn’t giving her all, what else was I supposed to do?

“Let’s go, baby!” I’d shout at Kennedi if she started falling behind. “Faster! Move those legs!”

If the girls lost, the car ride home was no fun. “Where was the effort on that last sprint, Kassadi?” I’d demand. “Kennedi, you were faster in practice last week. What happened?”

Point by point, we went over every mistake and missed opportunity.

Standards were just as high at home. If practice was canceled because of rain, I took the girls out the next day for a makeup workout. During the summer, between track seasons, I supervised more workouts.

I bought some used hurdles from a yard sale and started hauling them to the track in the back of our SUV. If the gate to the track was locked, I tossed the hurdles over the fence and the girls and I followed.

The reward was posting victory photos on social media.

“Love your two beautiful winners!” people gushed in comments. I got a rush with each dose of praise. Our family looked just as I wanted in those photos: Kenny and me smiling, our arms around our beloved medal-winning daughters. We were happy, fit, accomplished. Living proof of God’s abundant goodness.

Where did Kennedi’s injury fit into all of that? She was in terrible pain. Her season was over. She might require career-altering surgery.

To our immense relief, the surgeon we consulted said intensive physical therapy would probably be enough to return Kennedi to competition. The injury had likely been caused when Kennedi, trying to squeeze out a bit more distance on a jump, extended her leg too far and bent it backward on impact. Going for the win had torn her knee ligament.

There was more good news when I discovered that some of the country’s best physical therapists were at my nearby alma mater, the University of Delaware, which has a top-ranked physical therapy program.

Kennedi was assigned to a senior therapist named Greg Seymour, and the two of them clicked right away. Kennedi seemed hopeful.

My feelings were more mixed. I kept thinking about her extending her leg that extra distance. The more I thought about it, the more I wondered whether Kennedi had been trying so hard because she feared what would happen on the car ride home if she failed to make finals.

Was I partly to blame for her injury?

For the first time in years, our family life did not revolve around track and field. Track season was over, and there were no more practices to run off to. Kassadi reveled in the freedom.

Three days a week, Kennedi and I made the 45-minute drive to the university for therapy. I knew better than to coach from the sidelines. Greg was an expert. My heart cried out every time Kennedi winced through a stretch or an exercise. I became her biggest cheerleader.

One day, I worked up the courage to ask if she thought I’d been too hard on her when she was competing.

“Yes!” Kennedi said. “Remember that movie we watched about kid athletes?” She meant Trophy Kids, a documentary about overbearing sideline parents that she and Kassadi and I had watched on Netflix at the start of the last season. The girls told me I was just like the parents in that movie.

“Well, at least I never cursed at you.”

“No, but you treat me differently when I win and when I lose,” Kennedi said. “I wish you were the same even if I have a bad day on the track. I feel like you don’t accept me just for who I am.”

That stung. Bad. But I couldn’t object. In my heart, I knew what she said was true.

In fact, if I were totally honest, I would have to admit that my girls were happiest when track season was over. They enjoyed doing well, and they definitely loved hanging out with their friends at meets. But training? Stressing over meets? Not so much. I probably cared more about the medals than they did.

Or maybe it was more accurate to say I cared about winning differently. Somehow I’d begun basing my own self-worth on my girls’ accomplishments. My constant criticism had bent them into thinking the same way. On their own, they would have kept things in perspective.

My prayers changed. I was already praying every day for Kennedi to heal. Now I added a new request: Lord, please heal my heart so I can accept my daughters as the people you created them to be. Help me seek my satisfaction in you, not in their accomplishments.

The following summer, we tried something different: an actual family vacation. We spent a week in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. We relaxed on the sand, played in the water (no swimming restrictions), ate great food and visited family and my husband’s old college on the way there and back. It was the best time we’d had together in years.

Kennedi was cleared to compete that fall. She joined the volleyball practice team at her high school, then moved to the indoor track team. We’re back to a hectic family schedule.

Not everything is the same, though. We seldom miss church or youth group anymore, even if that means skipping practice or a meet. And I don’t critique the girls’ performance. At least, I try not to. I’m learning to trust that if my daughters decide not to run track in college, that simply means God has something even more wonderful in store.

It’s their story—God’s story—not mine. My job is simple: Worship God, love and support my daughters. If I do that, we’re guaranteed to win.

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