Youth sports have been the most influential component of my life since I was five years old. I played youth sports, competed as a college athlete, coached competitive youth teams, and I am the parent of three children who play sports throughout the year. My husband and I are college coaches now, and we both spend a lot of time in sporting arenas recruiting from youth teams. I am a self-described sports fanatic and I have watched a shift in youth sports through the course of time. Arguably the most notable change has been parent involvement and influence on the young athlete.
The shift in sports parents has been remarkable, since I first started my involvement in youth sports nearly 30 years ago. Back in the early 80’s it was not uncommon to find a parent on the sidelines of a sport who had never competed, and who was clueless about the rules. There were contentious situations when a competitive parent would yell at a ref because they didn’t understand, but the pressure on the kids playing was not nearly the insanity it is today. When I played, the passion and the drive for the sport most often came from the players competing, but I am seeing an increasing presence of parents who are definitely the driving force behind the involvement of their children.
I have seen children implode because of pressures put on them by their parents, and it is easy to identify that “crazy parent” on practically any sideline. I know better than to try to influence every parent and every athlete that I may encounter, either with my own children, or along the recruiting trail, but I do think that some of the things that my husband and I do will help our kids to be lifelong athletes, and responsible “teammates” when they are done competing.
We are a sporting family. We often have family games in the basement or at a local park, and those games give us a chance to teach, on a microcosmic level, some of the important life lessons that are so invaluable in youth sports. I truly believe that the more a child sees a parent competing and handling success and failure, the more they too will glean some positive attributes.
There are so many wonderful things about youth sports, hence a lifelong involvement. Some of the positive aspects include: learning self-confidence, learning how to win, learning how to lose, learning that life is not always fair, learning how to work with others, learning how to respect authority (coaches and refs), learning to push yourself to achieve personal goals, learning to be a part of something bigger by encouraging teammates and sacrificing yourself for the good of the whole team. We also believe in loyalty, and making an impact where you are, rather than trying to manage or control an experience by moving our kids from team to team or coach to coach.
The most effective way to encourage a child’s acquisition of those positive traits happens in the car and at home both before and after a game or practice. We have regular discussions with our kids about what a good individual goal might be for a practice or a game. Most often the goals include a consistent and intense work ethic. We make a point to then ask each kid how they did with working hard when the practice or game is done. We point out the times we saw them skate hard, or run their fastest after a ball. They light up when they realize that we encourage the small things. We try hard not to focus on the goals scored or the games won, because confidence comes with achieving those more attainable goals, and success often comes from achieving those smaller goals first.
Let the coaches coach…and the refs ref
Despite the high level at which both my husband and I competed, we defer to other parents and volunteer coaches to teach our kids. They can learn something valuable from every type of coach they encounter, and we feel that it is important to let some of those life lessons simply happen without our influence. We talk regularly about how important it is to listen to the direction of a coach and to make an impact on an individual level by being coachable. The same goes for refs. We encourage our kids to respect the refs, even when their calls are wrong, because that is part of the game, and we hope our kids learn to go forward, changing to a more positive mindset of playing in the next moment. To enhance our perspective about the importance of coaches and refs, we tell our kids to thank coaches regularly, after many practices and games, and to shake the hand of a ref after every game.
We really want our kids to be good sports, and as competitive as they all are, we insist that their focus often shift to the successes of their teammates. As a parent, I often pick out a player on the kids’ teams that I will make an effort to encourage during the game, and I will talk at length with our kids about how their teammates had their own individual successes throughout a practice or game. There is nothing quite like the challenge of competing in a team sport, and in order to do it well, there MUST be an emphasis on the successes of the players around our kids.
The best we can do for our kids is to be an example of a calm and encouraging coach when they see us coaching from the sidelines, and to translate that positive encouragement into our parenting. Both my husband and I value the players we coach as individuals, and when our kids see that, it helps them to have an equal amount of respect for their own teammates and coaches. It is hard, and we come across situations regularly where we have to reevaluate our approach, but the effort is so worthwhile.
It is a challenge to influence every aspect of a child’s involvement in youth sports, and that is why it is increasingly important to educate all the parents, coaches and volunteers who keep the youth sports engine running. Sites like ResponsibleSports.com offer invaluable resources to a parent invested in the success of their athlete. The success to which I am referring is simply gaining some of those positive attributes that can be gained by competing, not just getting a scholarship or winning every game. Youth sports are too important to be too singularly focused on that longterm goal of being a professional athlete. Our goal is to raise professional people who have gained many of their strengths competing in youth sports.