My oldest child played nearly every sport a boy can. My middle child was a dancer who performed at innumerable school sporting events. My youngest child is a dancer and high school volleyball player. I am Head of School for an academy with 35 athletic teams. Needless to say, I have spent countless hours watching youth sporting events. Fortunately for me, I thoroughly enjoy watching students compete. I am less enamored, however, with how parents behave while watching their children compete. I am blessed to work at a school where parent behavior is almost always exemplary. Through the years, however, I have seen my fair share of parents screaming at the officials, belittling kids, and trash talking the other team. What possesses otherwise reasonable adults to lose their composure while watching their kids compete? Perhaps the rising cost of college tuition drives hopes for an athletic scholarship. Living vicariously through our kids is always a temptation. Whatever the case, here are some suggestions for keeping the right perspective on youth sports.
Let kids make their own choices. Pushing kids to play a sport is generally a bad idea. Pushing them to practice harder or more frequently than they want can become counterproductive over time. If you as a parent are working harder at a sport than your son or daughter, perhaps it’s time to reevaluate how you’re both spending your time and money. Throwing a lot of cash at camps, trainers, and private lessons can backfire, especially for younger children. If they ask for extra help, and you aren’t sacrificing college savings to give them some, then great. Otherwise, pressuring them to perform at unrealistically high levels can generate resentment if children don’t feel like they are living up to parents’ lofty expectations.
Make it about the process not the outcome. Ok, I have to say this. Your kid is not going pro. However good you think he is, he isn’t going pro. He’s big and athletic for his age? Guess what, he’s still not going pro. He’s better than all the other kids? Nope, he’s still not going pro. Why do I say this? Statistics my friend. Nationwide, less than .04% of high school athletes get a chance at a professional career in any sport. That’s one in 2500. You have a similar chance of getting struck by lightning. When you clear your mind of thoughts of a pro career, suddenly your approach to parenting a sports-playing child becomes much healthier. Take the pressure of your children and stop trying to live out your dreams of a pro career through them. Encourage children to work hard, play fair, and be good teammates in practice, in the game, or on the bench. If they get better each practice, each game, and each season, then that is success worthy of celebration.
Yelling at the officials accomplishes nothing. I spend many years coaching baseball when my son was young. One season I volunteered as an assistant coach for a 10-year-old team with a head coach who had worked as an SEC baseball official for several years. In a playoff game, an umpire made a terrible call that cost our team a couple of runs and eventually the game. I voiced my displeasure to the official from the dugout, at which point the head coach looked at me and said, “Matt, if he were any better, he’d be an umpire somewhere else.” That statement put things in perspective for me. Youth officials are amateurs who have families and full-time jobs that usually have nothing to do with sports. They receive only a modest amount of training, supervision, and compensation. They typically officiate for fun because they enjoy watching young people compete and helping teach them the game. So cut the refs some slack, set a good example, and keep your opinions of the officiating to yourself.
Belittling your kids makes them worse not better. I see a frightening number of parents trying to coach their kids from the stands, yelling advice and criticizing mistakes. I’ve never seen a kid who likes this or performs better as a result. We as parents feel frustration and maybe embarrassment when our kids don’t do well in a game. The truth is, this is our problem not our kid’s problem. Here is a little piece of advice that I have heard from many parents wiser than me: Don’t talk to your son or daughter about his performance in games. If you know a sport well and you are asked for help, give only what is asked. Otherwise, play the role of a supportive parent. Offers encouragement, perspective, and calm. When the game is over, talk about where you’re going to dinner. Don’t rehash their performances, especially the mistakes. Let the coaches handle correction.
Let the coaches do the coaching. Believe it or not, your child’s coaches probably know your child’s abilities better than you. Coaches are not perfect, obviously. They are subject to prejudices and politics, first impressions and hot tempers, just like the rest of us. But when it comes to your child, you are not remotely objective. Coaches are more likely than you to know what position is best, what playing time is best, what offense to run, when to call a time out, and what best to say to encourage, motivate, or correct your child. So, for the love of all that is decent in the world, don’t complain to your coach about positions or playing time. You don’t have to like all your coaches or everything they decide. If a coach is inappropriately hot-tempered, profane, or belittling, by all means confront that sort of childish behavior. But remember that for the rest of your children’s lives, they will have classmates, teachers, professors, bosses, colleagues, and neighbors that they don’t particularly like. They need to learn to live with and learn from people they may not like. We parents need to model this for our kids.
Play multiple sports. The popularity of club sports has made players more skilled at earlier ages by extending the playing season. School season, club season, private lessons, camps, and off-season training mean that many teenagers play their sport almost all year. Much of this is driven by economics. Parents are willing to pay big money to see their kids improve and many coaches are eager to turn a profit. Yet, the rise in overuse injuries suggests that such intense dedication to a single sport exacts a physical toll on young bodies. According to recent studies cited by USA Today (September 5, 2018), more than 3.5 million under age 14 receive medical treatment for sports related injuries each year. High School students account for nearly 2 million injuries, 500,000 doctor visits, and 30,000 hospitalizations. Of equal but overlooked importance is the mental fatigue associated with playing a single sport all year. Kids need down time, yet often their schedules are too busy for proper sleep, a healthy diet, or adequate time to decompress. Kids can use the mental break that comes from getting away from their primary sport, meeting new people, learning new skills, and developing a broader base of fitness. A 2017 study by the American Orthopedic Society for Sports Medicine found that early specialization in a sport did NOT increase an athlete’s chances of playing that sport at the high school, collegiate, or professional level (www.sportsmed.org; July 2017).
Let the kids play. As badly as I want to see my team win, in my calmer moments I realize that a youth athletic competition is a low stakes affair. The outcome isn’t going to have a particularly profound or lasting impact on either the winners or the losers. For that reason, sports should be fun. There are too many seriously important things in life to take something that should be fun and treat it too seriously. I think it is easy for parents and coaches to suck the life out of sports for our children and strip from them the pure and simple joy of competition for its own sake.