“The only way to prove that you’re a good sport is to lose.” – Ernie Banks
It is that time of year when children, ages 6 to 18, spring youth sports and club seasons are wrapping up. So as I reflect on past seasons and prepare for seasons to come, I am provided lots of opportunities to consider both the benefits and challenges to us parents who have kids involved in sports. Just the juggling act of time and the finances involved in this “pay to play” type arena is enough of a stretch but ohhhh, the rewards and the enormous amounts of structured, fun family time can’t be beat! Not to mention all the learning opportunities on and off the field or court.
Yet…besides being the financier, courier and just general all around “utility” parent…how does this kind of involvement make us feel? As it turns out – I am a former coach, educator with a background in Special Education/Emotional and Behavioral Management, and mom of three who have been involved in everything from t-ball, basketball, soccer, indoor and beach volleyball ranging from recreational to elite travel teams and most recently a signed college recruit. So while I am not an “expert” I certainly feel I have had plenty of experiences and opportunity to gain insight in this arena! As a parent, we make big commitments and sacrifices to our child’s sporting efforts. We are the ones investing time, money, carpooling, attending games, buying equipment, paying for travel, hotels and tournament registrations, not to mention the personal sacrifices as a family! Can I tell you how many Easter dinners or family functions we have missed over the years! You name it…we are or have done it…so with this kind of commitment, it’s easy to feel overly involved in our child’s sport, because in a very real sense, we are!
Yet, self-awareness is the foundation from which good sports parenting decisions come. It is our goal to keep the child’s needs on the front burner, and ours on the back. Additionally, understanding your own feelings and thoughts about competition, character development, styles of coaching and realistic expectations become a key step towards communicating with your child about sports in an appropriate, healthy manner. The challenge of being a sports parent, is to maximize what we can control and know to let go what we can’t, all the while encouraging their end goal!
With that in mind, it is important to remember that since it is his or her experience; they are the one practicing and competing, and ultimately winning or losing out there. Your job is to support and help them have fun, compete hard, and develop character through this sporting experiences. Below are tips to help you do just that.
On the Sideline
Your child can pick your voice out over everything else when they compete. Despite coaches shouting instructions, teammates chattering, and possibly deafening facilities – your child will hear your voice over it all. So, choose your words wisely, if you are going to make yourself heard!
● Encourage but Don’t Coach: Your child has coaches on the bench who call the shots. It makes it challenging for them to focus and fulfill their role on the field or court if you shout your own instructions from the sideline or wait for breaks to whisper in their ear. It can be confusing, distracting, or irritating for some athletes, and at times, can be to their detriment if they follow your lead instead of their coach’s. Instead, use your voice (or whisper) to encourage effort, attitude, and sportsmanship. These are things your child can control and will help the team most!
● Stay Positive: Remember that your conduct reflects you, your child, and the team or club. Even if you think the referee is making terrible calls, the coach is making horrible decisions, or the opposition is playing dirty, focus on your children. Find something positive to say about their performance, or just stay quiet. No good comes from negative discussions in the bleachers or text messages to the coach during a game! Remember, Positive Mental Attitude even when on the sidelines!
● Body Language Speaks Volumes: If you choose to be a silent observer on the sideline, you can still communicate a lot to your child. Your body language will tell them if you’re excited, on the edge of your seat, disappointed, aggravated, and so on. Keep in mind that your child is aware of you when you are excited over a win or great play, but also aware when you are pacing, standing still, slouching or not even watching if they aren’t playing well or the team is losing. There is nothing more heartwrenching then watching a player turn to their parent in the stands and tell them to “shush” or on the flip side, realize their parent has unexpectedly walked away. No matter the score, continue to cheer, give a little thumbs-up, clap or smile! These gestures will only be beneficial in the long run! Again, remember Positive Mental Attitude!
In the Car
It’s important to know how to communicate with your child after a practice, game or match. The trick is figuring out how to talk with them so that they feel supported and knows that you paid attention, but not so much they feel pressured and end up shutting you out. Nothing good or productive ever comes from those shut down moments, so here are some tips to successfully navigate these conversations:
● Let Your Child Take the Lead: When you get in the car after a game, suppress that urge to jump in deep and talk about this play or offer pointers and feedback. I usually keep things light, ask an open ended question or let them initiate a conversation reflecting on the game – if they want to. Sometimes we don’t even talk about it at all, because invariably it comes up anyway yet in a more natural and organic manner. When this occurs, these conversations can be much more meaningful to your child! Especially if you let them take the lead. Yet when they do start to talk to you about the game, listen. Really listen to what they are saying, rather than waiting for your turn to simply reply about any of the things you have been dying to talk about. Listening to what they have to say gives you insight and reflection into how they’re processing the game and performance, and even how they are getting along with teammates and coaches.
● Focus on the Process: As you talk to your child about performance, focus on the process, rather than the outcome. Let them know that you support them and recognize their effort independent of a win or loss on the scoreboard. Pick out some good plays that showed effort, teamwork, effective communication, or a good attitude, for example. Tell them that you recognized that behavior. This shows that you not only reinforce that kind of sportsmanship on the field, but also that you really paid attention to them out there. Of course, there is nothing wrong with celebrating wins! But, win or lose, your child can still have had a good performance or individual strength that can be focused on that may benefit the team in the future!
● Talk the Talk: Make sure you take the high road – and take your child right along with you! During post-game conversations, encourage your child to speak respectfully about coaches, teammates, opponents, and referees. Model this, too, by avoiding placing blame or criticizing coaching decisions or player performances. Kids tend to vent if they are upset about a loss and it can be easy to allow it to go to far, so keep a positive, respectful focus on what your child learned from the experience.
Beyond on the sideline and in the car, there are a few general thoughts that you need to be aware of that seem common sense but sometimes in our enthusiasm, frustration or uncertainty on how to proceed, we lose sight of!
● Attitude, Attitude, Attitude: Your behavior and/or attitude is often reflected in your child’s behavior and/or attitude on the field, court or sidelines. Your child is generally a mirror of you. For example, I tend to be a cheerleader on the sidelines. Regardless if my child is in or out, I am cheering! As a result, my children are team cheerleaders too, whether playing or on the sideline, they are pumping their team up! Additionally, after loads of conversations with coaches from all different sports and levels, they all agree on one thing, a parent’s attitude toward the coach will also be reflected in the child’s attitude toward the coach. So guide your child’s perspective as you set the tone for a positive attitude!
● Your Child’s Goals May Not Be the Same as Yours: This is a tough one but so very important because ultimately, your child’s sporting goals probably aren’t always going to be the same as yours and you will have to accept that. Allow your child to be a child and do some of the things their peers are doing, so they are not always concentrating on a sport! Sometimes you think you have aligned goals, and maybe you do (or did)…but they are kids and their goals change – often! So allow them to re-evaluate during seasonal breaks. Don’t allow them to ditch out or be less disciplined during a season but you can burn a child out or discourage them if they see their peers doing things they are not allowed to because they are always practicing, training, and playing! Speaking from experience on this one, my oldest always knew she wanted to play college volleyball. She was driven! As a result – her goal had become my goal yet at a pivotal juncture, the summer between her junior and senior year, she decided otherwise and broke it to her dad and I. After all the years of commitment, sacrifice, investment and having been her biggest fan and supporter, this was a very hard thing for me (us) to accept. Yet, I forced myself to back away from the conversation and offered a compromise that we wouldn’t discuss it for three weeks and during that time, she wouldn’t play or train (unless she desired to) to have that time to think about it. She took that time to relax and really re-evaluate her sporting goals and before the three weeks were up, had come full circle back to her original goals. This taught me a huge sport parenting lesson to trust the process and to be prepared to let go because goals can change and we need to always be prepared for that!
● Check Your Ego at the Door: You read right! None of us ever think we are THAT parent but take great strides to check your ego at the gate, the door, and in the stands. Take a lesson in humility because while you guide this ship, this is not about you and the quicker you realize that, the more fun and productive this whole thing will be! Not to mention, in doing so, you help your child develop sportsmanship, grit, resilience, and ultimately, a respect for life, the game, themselves and others even in the face of frustration over a defeat or the glory of a win!
“If you’re not humble, it’s hard to be coached. If you can’t be coached, it’s hard to get better.” – Jay Wright, Villanova Basketball Coach
As always…Go in love,