I never thought I would be a sports mom. Sports weren’t a big part of my experience growing up. But three kids later here I am. Sitting on uncomfortable benches and watching my kids run around every weekend. It’s expensive, time consuming, exhausting, and totally worth it. They learn so much from being part of a team; life lessons about winning, losing, practice, effort, and attitude. It’s been an amazing thing for our family, and I’m glad we’re doing it.
But organized sports can get pretty weird. The hyper-competitive environment surrounding many sports creates a social norm for parents, where winning and losing seem more important than good sportsmanship, learning, and having fun. Where parents sometimes lose their minds and behave in ways that leave us shaking our heads, or dialing 9-1-1. Just last month, a dad in Springfield, MA got so angry about his son’s basketball game that he attacked a coach and bit off part of his ear. The kids on the team were between 10-12 years old.
So I did some research and identified 20 things parents can do (or not do) to place the value back on fun, fitness, learning the fundamentals and being part of a cohesive, supportive team.
Many of these tips come from an excellent article by Steve Henson, drawing from the research of Bruce E. Brown and Rob Miller (of Proactive Coaching LLC). They’ve spoken with thousands of young athletes about their experiences and have made a career of speaking and writing about ways parents and coaches can do a better job keeping it fun.
I recently spoke with Bruce Brown who told me that the biggest trend in youth sports that he’s seen in his lifetime is that it’s gone from being peer-controlled to adult-controlled. “Historically, the kids were the ones picking the line-ups and calling the strikes. Now adults do that for them.” He also made the observation that since the vast majority of young athletes stop playing in middle school, “the coaches most of our kids are going to have, they’ll have before they’re 13 years old. And most of those coaches are volunteers – moms and dads. Not professionals or teachers. Their influence is so important.”
In order for us parents to keep the games fun for our kids, I’ve identified four areas to focus on and 20 things you need to know, based on my personal experience, research, and conversation with Brown:
- Setting the stage for a good season
- Things NOT to do
- Things absolutely to do
- Things you may not have thought about
Here are 20 other things to consider:
1. Why are you doing this?
Answering this question is a worthwhile exercise. Is your child registered for sports because it’s what you want or because it’s what they want (or some combination of the two)? Is this sport a good fit for your kid? Are they ready to play and learn? Are you guys there for the exercise? To make friends? To learn the basics? To win a championship?
2. Discuss expectations with your child
Once you’ve figured out why you want your kid to play, have a discussion about what you expect from them and what they can expect from you. Identify things like trying hard, having a good attitude, improving their skills, being a good team-mate, and listening to the coach. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry encourages families to discuss expectations about sports.
3. Ask yourself: “Can I make this a priority?”
Sports are a time commitment a major time commitment. If you know it’ll be hard to make practices or games, evaluate how much you really want to be doing this along with how much your kid really wants to do it. If every practice is going to be a fight and you don’t have time for it anyway you’ll end up skipping. Making a commitment to a team, then letting your kid play hooky for half the season because it’s inconvenient is somewhat understandable, but not setting a good precedent for seeing things through.
4. Be clear with your kid what it means to be on a team
Being part of a team is a big part of why people, especially kids, do sports. It means being part of a group. It means having a good attitude even when someone messes up. It means hoping that others will do the same for you when you mess up. It means trying hard even when you don’t want to, controlling yourself when you don’t feel like it, focusing on doing the right thing and showing concern for others.
5. Play with them!
The best way to make sure your kids learn the fundamentals of their sport is to play with them. Taking the time to play with your kids also shows them that you’re making them and their commitment to the team a priority. Also? It’s fun and helps you both stay fit and active. Win/win.
6. Unless you’re the coach, you’re not the coach
Let the coaches do their jobs. Yelling instructions at your kid from the sidelines is not helpful. It’s been shown to actually inhibit their athletic achievement and performance. Additionally, it was one of things student athletes consistently identified as being a big negative. They may not tell us this, but kids hate it when their parents coach them from the bench or bleachers.
7. Don’t discuss other players — THEY ARE KIDS
Maybe one kid is terrible. Maybe another is sort of a jerk. Any assessment you make of other people’s kids should be kept to yourself. We’re talking about children. It’s not OK when kids say mean or disparaging things about their team-mates. It’s infinitely worse when adults do it.
Brown and Miller’s research also shows that kids hate it when their parents criticize players, whether on their team or on the opposing team.
8. Don’t lose your schmidt
Every week there seems to be a fresh example in the news of parents behaving horribly at their kids’ sporting events. This is a no brainer, but there is no place for aggressive or abusive behavior from spectators at children’s games. The emphasis should always be on good sportsmanship. Yelling at your kid, the coach, the officials, or other parents is just not OK.
9. Don’t discuss mistakes right after the game
Student athletes overwhelmingly stated that their worst memories of participating in sports were the car rides home. Henson reported: “The vast majority of dads and moms that make rides home from games miserable for their children do so inadvertently … They are well-intentioned folks who can’t help but initiate conversation about the contest before the sweat has dried on their child’s uniform. In the moments after a game, win or lose, kids desire distance. They make a rapid transition from athlete back to child. And they’d prefer if parents transitioned from spectator — or in many instances from coach — back to mom and dad.”
10. Don’t undermine the coach’s decisions
Disagreeing with the coach’s strategy, second guessing your kid’s playing time, criticizing other players, and talking back to referees and officials are textbook examples of undermining the coach. In doing so, you’re compromising the coach’s ability to effectively do her job. When you do these things as a parent, you’re not helping you’re hurting your kid’s team. If you have concerns, of course you should bring them up. But know the proper time and place; do it off-line and quietly. The National Council of Youth Sports encourages parents to do that, too.
11. Show up consistently and on time
Part of being a good teammate means showing up and doing your part. If you’re always late or miss lots of games and practices, your children miss out on learning opportunities, developing friendships, and making a meaningful contribution to their team. Being late also eventually discourages your child from participating due to the embarrassment of always being the last one to show.
12. Cheer for all the kids on the team
The National Council on Youth Sports encourages parents to always keep it positive — and it’s really good advice. Some kids are athletically gifted and some just aren’t. But if they’re all trying hard, they all deserve a hand. I’m not suggesting everyone get a huge trophy just for showing up, but as parents, we should encourage everyone. We should recognize that sometimes you’re the windshield, and sometimes you’re the bug. Your kid may be a star athlete but there will still be days when she plays like she has two left feet, and those cheers and encouragement from other families will buck her up.
13. Model good sportsmanship
Parents who model good sportsmanship are more likely to have kids who place a value on it, too. Discuss what it means to be a good sport and ask them why they think it’s important to say “good game” and shake hands with (or respectfully acknowledge) their opponents, win or lose.
It’s also important to discuss exactly what you mean by “sportsmanship” with your kids. Have a conversation with them about what it means to be a good sport and help them articulate their thoughts on the right way to act. Psychology Today has some great discussion questions that parents can use to kick-start that conversation.
14. Do your fair share of the work
Youth athletics are largely volunteer-run. Try to do your part setting up, cleaning up, scheduling, snacking, and generally helping out. Don’t be the mom who shows up on her cell phone and sits there looking annoyed while everyone else does their part.
15. Encouragement vs Pressure
It’s sometimes difficult to know the difference between encouragement and pressure. There are things parents can do to check themselves. For example, asking: “Did you have fun?” before asking “Did you win?” or “Did you score?” One suggestion from Brown and Miller was to approach your kids’ games as if you were a grandparent. Grandparents tend to have a more laid-back attitude, exuding an “I’m just happy to be here with you” vibe that young athletes said they loved.
16. I love to watch you play
One of the best points Henson makes in his article is the following: “College athletes were asked what their parents said that made them feel great, that amplified their joy during and after a ballgame. Their overwhelming response: “I love to watch you play.”
It’s so simple and so important to remember; they just want us to be proud of them and to enjoy being there.
17. Ask your kids what they think
Touch base with your kid throughout the season. It’s an excellent opportunity to go back and discuss the expectations you both identified in the beginning. Problems or disappointment can be talked out. Checking in with your kid on a regular basis throughout the season also helps you get a realistic idea of how much your child is enjoying it and what they’re getting out of the experience.
A lot of kids won’t admit that they’re feeling pressure, and some may even try to hide an injury, says the National Center for Sports Safety. Over-use injuries are becoming increasingly common, even for young athletes. So having honest and open conversations with your kids can also protect them from getting hurt.
18. Keep it fun or your kid will quit
A poll by the National Alliance for Youth Sports found that 70 percent of kids quit playing organized sports by the time they’re 13 because it’s just not fun anymore. There are lots of reasons for this. Adolescence changes everything; competition to make teams really steps up; etc. But the take-away for parents should be that if you want your kids to continue to play sports as teens, do what you can to keep it fun. Remember why Ray Kinsella quit playing baseball as a kid in the movie Field of Dreams — he had come to hate playing the game.
19. Praise your athletes whether they win or lose
It’s okay to be disappointed after a rough loss or a tough game. You can be guaranteed your child will be. But praise and rewards should be doled out in equal measure regardless of the outcome of the game. If you praise or reward your child only after a win, you will not only put undue pressure on your kid to succeed but create the impression that you only value winning. The thing about sports is that you are going to lose sometimes. Learning how to accept failure and keep moving forward is one of the most important things sports can teach us.
20. Let them own their successes and failures
In Henson’s article, Miller states: “Sports is one of [the] few places in a child’s life where a parent can say, ‘This is your thing’. Athletics is one of the best ways for young people to take risks and deal with failure because the consequences aren’t fatal; they aren’t permanent. We’re talking about a game. So they usually don’t want or need a parent to rescue them when something goes wrong. Once you as a parent are assured the team is a safe environment, release your child to the coach and to the game. That way all successes are theirs, all failures are theirs.”
Read more from Julie at her blog Rants from MommyLand. Follow Julie on Facebook and Twitter for additional goofy nonsense at no extra charge. You can catch up on her posts for Strollerderby, too – where she is often slightly less stupid.