As he straightened up, he glanced over at the scoreboard, to confirm what he already knew. From my stance on the side of the gym, I could see his shoulders shudder, a breath drawn into his chest and held tightly. He quickly shook his opponent’s hand, the one who would leave with the medal he himself had been working for all day.
He walked towards the other coach, and his shoulders shook again. This time though, he couldn’t hold his breath in his chest and it shook his body when it came out.
Before he even turned to come back to his coach, I could tell he was crying. His whole body was silently crying. He went to his coach. He listened. He nodded. But he couldn’t stop the free flow of tears down his face.
I had a flashback to a few years prior, when I overheard a Dad kindly, and lovingly tell his son, “You can lose. You can be frustrated, even mad. But you cannot cry.”
My heart felt clenched by a fist. My mind raced. He would come to me next. He would leave his coach and come to me. I had to do this right. I wanted to hug him,hold him, tell him we would go home and watch movies and it would be OK. I wanted to take away his hurt.
But I wanted to do this right. His Dad, always measured, said over my shoulder, “He’ll be fine.”
He started across the mat, and in a moment of clarity I realized, he was experiencing something he needed to.
He wasn’t having a meltdown. He wasn’t crying tears in a fit. He wasn’t “being a baby”.
He was experiencing loss. And in a world where many will live their entire lives, never putting enough on the line to cry if they lose it, I was proud of him.
After weeks of hard work, focus, and determination, his 60 pound, seven year old body was feeling loss, hard and brutal.
And on that Sunday, in that gym, we let him cry.
I don’t know if it was right. That’s the thing about parenting, we don’t ever really know if we are doing it right.
But in a time when kids are given trophies for losing, told “good job” for barely showing up, and insulated from facing hurt and disappointment, he had stepped up to a line where he knew he risked losing it all and went after it anyway.
And he failed. And it sucked. And he was crying. And we were proud.
And next week he’ll step up again.