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From the Sidelines: Parents and Youth Sports

Tips for staying grounded in the high-stakes world of youth sports

Gina Rich

Published on: November 28, 2022

Young girl playing soccer

On a breezy fall morning, I strolled onto the soccer field to meet my daughter, whose team had just finished a close game. Immediately, I noticed her expression was downcast. “One of the other team’s goals was my fault,” she said.

Her gloomy demeanor stirred something prickly inside me, an angst I didn’t want to feel at that moment. I rushed to find some comforting words. “Oh honey, I’m sure that’s not true! It couldn’t possibly have been all your fault.”

But on the car ride home, my daughter’s mood remained sour, and I felt sad, too.

In the world of youth sports, the highs and lows can feel particularly intense, for kids and parents alike. When our kids score a goal or snag that first-place medal, we get a “dopamine hit” — a rush of happy feelings — says Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist specializing in children and adolescents and the author of the upcoming book “Autonomy-Supportive Parenting: Reduce Parental Burnout and Raise Competent, Confident Children”.

On the flip side, watching our children struggle can hit us hard emotionally. If our kids lose the championship game or flub a key play, we feel their distress. “We then have a lot of trouble tolerating our child’s discomfort,” says Edlynn. “Then we rescue them to help ourselves feel better.”

Sometimes we feel so invested in our children’s athletic endeavors that our emotions get the better of us. I’ve seen adults yelling and stomping around on the sideline, seemingly more enraged about the outcome of a game than the kids who are actually playing in it. And after my daughter broke her arm during a game this past spring and couldn’t play for months, I felt intense grief.

As parenting culture focuses more on empathy, it’s no surprise that we’re affected by our children’s emotions. But this emphasis on understanding our kids’ feelings has a downside. “It can blur our own emotional boundaries, where we identify too strongly with how our kids are feeling and we take it on as our emotions to fix, too,” says Edlynn.

Empathy isn’t the only reason why today’s youth sports landscape can feel like a high-stakes, ultracompetitive environment. Parental involvement in kids’ extracurricular activities has increased a lot over the past few decades, says Elizabeth Budd, Ph.D., an evergreen assistant professor in the Department of Counseling Psychology and Human Services at the University of Oregon. At the same time, recreational community leagues have dwindled while the popularity of private, competitive travel teams has soared. Whether spending money on specialized gear, shuttling kids to and from practices, or devoting weekends to out-of-town tournaments, parents are pouring a lot of time and resources into children’s sports experiences.

And don’t underestimate the pressure of keeping up with others in your social circle. If most other families are signing up for the competitive gymnastics program, for instance, the implicit message is “To be part of the community, we should also be doing it,” says Edlynn.

Amidst these challenges, how can parents keep things in perspective while giving young athletes the support they need?

Align your support with the goal.

When we sign our kids up for tae kwon do lessons or the school basketball team, it’s usually not because we expect our children to become professional athletes. Rather, it’s because we know that active play benefits kids physically and emotionally. And kids who enjoy physical activity are much more likely to seek out and continue to practice it into adulthood, says Budd. So, whichever sports our kids may be involved in, we should remember that the ultimate goal is to nurture a lifelong commitment to physical activity.

As parents, we can provide both instrumental support — with things such as helping our kids get to practice and making sure their uniforms are ready — and emotional support, such as offering encouragement and showing up to their events. Though, according to Budd, it’s important that “none of that is about being hard on your children for their performance,” nor does it have anything to do with the outcome of a game.

Follow your child’s lead.

Parents have their own ideas about what sports their children should choose — often the same activities they themselves enjoyed while growing up. However, “Pushing kids to play a particular sport or practice a particular physical activity they don’t enjoy does more harm than good,” says Budd.

I swam competitively during middle school and hoped my daughters would gravitate toward the water. So far, though, they seem more interested in land-based sports — and that’s okay.

“Research is clear about how intrinsic motivation — a desire that comes from within oneself — to be active is a much stronger predictor of sustained activity over time compared with extrinsic motivation [such as pressure from parents or coaches],” says Budd. Trust your kids to show you what they enjoy.

Be mindful of how you connect.

While we can’t control what happens on the soccer field or the tennis court, we can be aware of our own behavior. Edlynn suggests being mindful of how we interact with kids after the excitement of a sports event.

If, for example, “We give them a lot of attention when they do well at their soccer game, and we’re not quite as connected when they have a bad game,” our kids will pick up on that, Edlynn explains. To counter this, try focusing on the elements of sports that have nothing to do with performance, such as the social aspects or skills learned. Regardless of the final score, one parent I know asks his daughter the same question after every game: “Did you have fun?”

Stay cognizant of what they — and you — are giving up.

Even if your child lives and breathes hockey or would gladly practice gymnastics for 20 hours a week, it’s important to balance sports with the rest of their life. Consider whether your child’s sports schedule allows for downtime, opportunities for fun and adequate sleep, Edlynn suggests.

Recognize, too, that whatever sport your child chooses will involve tradeoffs. For my daughter, that might mean a tournament with her soccer team instead of a family dinner, or an early game instead of a lazy Saturday morning after a sleepover. We’ve talked periodically about what she’s giving up — and the sacrifices we’re making as a family — to ensure that she can participate in the sport she loves.

For now, my daughter is enjoying her experience. And though I still feel the highs and lows along with her, I’m working to make sure my own emotions don’t get in the way of everything she’s learning.

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