Watching kids’ sports from the sidelines is pure pleasure for most parents who have active, sports-loving children. Some moms and dads coach teams or shuttle their young sports enthusiasts to practices and games hassle-free, with little or no accompanying drama.
But we’ve all heard — or read — about that small group of parents who carry the obsession for perfection too far:
- At a youth football game, a player’s father brandished a .357 Magnum during a dispute over his son’s playing time.
- A soccer mom, angered over being accidentally dropped from the team e-mail list, was arrested for slamming a metal folding chair across the face of her daughter’s coach. The woman was charged with second-degree reckless endangerment.
- After a hockey practice, a coach was beaten to death by a father who was upset about rough play in a scrimmage. The assailant was convicted of involuntary manslaughter.
The good news? These kinds of incidents are not the norm. In fact, the majority of parents are able to channel their genuine concerns and good intentions in a way that heightens the value of their children’s sport experiences.
How can you become a successful sport parent? There’s no set formula, but the following guidelines will increase the chances of producing favorable results.
1. Set a good example
What kids see has greater impact on them than what they hear. In other words, kids are tuned into observational learning. They will do many things their parents do, and physical activity is no exception.
Active parents produce active children. If children see their mom and dad participating in and enjoying sports, then it’s going to be more natural for them to want to pursue those activities. On the other hand, if parents are couch potatoes.…
2. Let kids help to decide when they’re ready for sports
Children who are forced into sports before they are ready often have bad experiences. When kids indicate an interest, parents should start looking at programs. By involving children in the decision-making process, the kids feel a sense of ownership in the outcome. This creates a greater sense of commitment: “I’m doing it because I want to do it, not because I’m made to do it.”
3. Give priority to your child’s interests
Most kids develop a sense of their personal interests at an early age. And although parents might prefer their child be active in sports, it’s possible the child would, for example, rather play a musical instrument. Parents should allow their children to have a say in deciding which activities they embrace. Remember that youth sports are about what participation can do for kids, and not what parents get out of it.
4. Don’t use sports as a baby-sitter
Some parents erroneously believe their involvement merely consists of getting their child signed up and driving them to and from practices and games. But that’s just part of it. Parents not only have a right but a responsibility to oversee their child’s sport participation.
5. Emphasize enjoyment rather than winning
Research on young athletes’ motives for playing sports has consistently shown that their primary objective is to have fun. Studies also indicate that the main reason why youngsters drop out of sports is because it’s no longer any fun for them. Simply stated, children want to play sports to have a good time. When the enjoyment disappears, so do they.
6. Focus on skill development
Physical growth and development happen at different rates in youngsters. The kids need to understand this. It is particularly important that children whose skill is lagging not view this as a permanent condition. Parents who praise self-improvement efforts can help their kids derive pleasure from their progress over time. This creates many worthwhile experiences in sports — even for athletes who never will be stars.
7. Give kids an opportunity for early success
Properly structured learning situations are designed to ensure some degree of initial success. And when children perform sport skills correctly, they should be given ample amounts of verbal praise or nonverbal forms of reinforcement— a smile, a pat on the back, a high-five. In other words, catch the young athlete doing something right. In addition, liberally reinforce effort and achievement. Remember, whether kids show it or not, it’s the positive things you say and do that stick with them.
8. Maintain open lines of communication
Tell your children what you expect, such as giving maximum effort, listening to the coach, having fun — and ask what they are thinking. Make it very clear you want to know how they feel about what’s happening in practices and games. This type of two-way communication is essential.
9. Evaluate your child’s coach
Parents should talk to the coach, regularly go to games and occasionally attend a practice. Additionally, they should ask themselves the following questions:
- Are the young athletes treated with respect?
- Are they being taught?
- Are they given a chance to perform?
- Are they made to feel that what they’re doing is a fun activity?
If not, it may be necessary to find another team for your child.
10. Think safety first
Everyone involved in youth sports should continuously seek practical ways to minimize the risk of injury. Here are some safety tips for young sports enthusiasts:
- Have a preseason medical checkup, which can detect medical problems early and prevent new ones.
- Be in the proper physical condition before playing a sport.
- Learn the rules and the importance of following them.
- Wear the appropriate clothing for the activity.
- Have all the necessary protective equipment, and make sure it fits correctly.
- Make sure the facilities and playing surfaces are safe.
- Always warm up before playing and cool down afterward.
11. Be alert for signs of pain or injury
Kids might not say they are hurt because they believe it will disappoint parents or coaches. Consequently, adults must look for the symptoms of injuries common to the sport. Early detection is important. At the first sign of pain, get the young athlete out of the action and get the pain checked out. An injured athlete should not return to play until the symptoms of injury have completely disappeared.
12. Don’t live your dreams through your children
All parents identify with their children to some extent and want them to do well. This is natural and healthy. But sometimes parents overidentify, and the child becomes an extension of themselves. Parents who are “winners” or “losers” through their children are experiencing “frustrated-jock syndrome,” which places extreme pressure on children. In such cases, the young athlete must excel or else the parent’s self-image is threatened. Don’t define your own self-worth in terms of how good your children are.
Frank L. Smoll, Ph.D., is a sport psychologist at the University of Washington. To see a preview of his Mastery Approach to Parenting in Sports DVD, visit Youth Enrichment in Sports.