For the Love of The Game: Maintaining Perspective in Youth Sports

Many parents put an extraordinary amount of resources into their child’s sports, including time, money, and emotional energy.  Emotional energy?  That doesn’t sound right, but I think for a lot of parents, it’s true.  I encourage parents to ask themselves a few questions when they enroll their child in a sport and throughout their child’s athletic career in order to maintain perspective, keep the experience fun, and prevent resentment all around.

What’s the point?

Being clear on why you are willing to devote these resources to practices and away from other activities, including, oftentimes, family dinners, is a very important step.  Are you signing your child up for soccer because you think being a part of a team teaches sportsmanship?  Offers a good opportunity for exercise?  Offers opportunities for socialization?  Or maybe you played soccer and you think your kid would enjoy it.  Maybe your child begged to sign up.  Sometimes you’re signing your child up simply because its seems like “the thing” to do – everyone else in your neighborhood is signing up their child.  What about FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out), or the parent version: FOMKFB (Fear Of My Kid Falling Behind), which doesn’t sound as catchy but is a powerful motivator for parents who worry that if their kid eventually maybe someday could possibly want to play soccer, they will be far behind their peers who started in kindergarten.  Are you trying to increase your child’s chances of getting a scholarship or having a well rounded childhood resume?  Figure out what you think the point is and write it down or put it in a note in your phone.  You’ll need to come back to this later.      

Are my expectations realistic?

Evaluate the expectations you have for your child’s behavior, level of motivation, and athletic performance.  Are these expectations in line with what you know about your child already?  Are they in line with your child’s developmental level?  Are your expectations for what your child will get out of the experience realistic?  For example, many preschool aged kids will “check in” with their parents throughout the course of a practice, even they even leave their parent to participate in the first place. Over the next couple of years, kids do less and less “checking in” with parents throughout practice. However, if you’ve got a kid who routinely is pretty cautious leaving your side, you might expect that going to practice and separating from you could be a challenge and your child may need some support in doing that.  I bring this up because even when we can predict that our easily distracted, free spirited kid will spend more time at softball playing in the dirt and picking grass, we become annoyed/embarrassed/amused, especially when the rest of the team seems to be more engaged in the game.  It might drive you crazy to see your kid goofing around with friends instead of patiently waiting for his turn to run through the drill.  But if your kid is the family entertainer, always looking for fun, what would you expect?  

Am I talking too much?

And when that behavior (predictable as it may be) drives you crazy, you might be tempted to talk. Whether you’re shouting directions to your kid on the field, gesturing and loud whispering to her to “pay attention,” or lecturing him on the car ride home that “if he wants to get better, he has to work hard,” it’s probably too much.  Here’s where you go back the reason why you signed your child up for the sport.  Step back and think about what you hope your child gets out of the activity.  Was it having a chance to exercise, be with friends, and be a part of the team?  Then look past the goofing around in line as long as your child participates when it’s his turn.  That goofing around is a part of who your child is and it is in line with what you hoped they would get out of the experience.  Remember, there is a coach. Let the coach have a chance to coach.  No need to whisper shout and gesture to your kid what she should do – the coach can instruct her.  

Are you taking the fun out of the game?

Inevitably, when parents talk, lecture, browbeat, or make “helpful suggestions,” they start to take the fun out of the activity.  John O’Sullivan, the founder of the Changing the Game Project , discusses the finding that kids play sports for a simple reason: they’re fun.  And they stop playing sports when they stop having fun.  Again, go back to the point of signing your kids up.  Did you want them to develop some interests?  Did you play and you think they would like it?  Then keep the game fun.  As soon as you turn practices and games into opportunities to critique your child’s behavior, character, or performance, you start chipping away at the fun.  

Is it worth it?

When you are tempted to provide instructions or suggestions for how your child can improve, ask yourself if it’s worth it.  If the point of getting your kid involved in softball is because she asked and you thought it would be good for her to get some exercise and have some time with friends, it may not be worth it to encourage her to pay attention and stop playing in the dirt.  When you start doing that, you may actually be working against your goal of having her participate.  She may not want to invite more opportunities to be reprimanded and instructed.  She may begin to complain about going or she may ask you not to go to practices or games.  When you step back and let your child’s experience unfold, they will play for themselves.  Or, they will decide they want to do something else.  And that’s ok.  

Are you having fun?  Are you telling your child that?

First, figure out if you’re having fun with this experience or if you’re resenting the experience.  Is the activity costing you an exorbitant amount of money or time?  Is it taking away from other areas of your life that you value?  If that’s the case, it may be time to re-evaluate your child’s involvement and perhaps set some limits.  Don’t fall into the guilt trap – you are not a bad parent for deciding you will not spend every other weekend traveling the country for cheer-leading competitions or that you can’t afford to spend thousands of dollars for your child to play hockey.  In this case, go back to your goal again and check if it’s realistic.  If you see thousands and thousands of dollars spent on travel hockey as an “investment,” hoping your child will get a scholarship to college to play hockey, you are putting a lot of pressure on your child and his performance.  You’ve got more skin in the game, so to speak, and you will be much more likely to take the fun out of the game for your child.  I have known kids to throw their tryouts because they’re just sick of playing the sport and their parents won’t let them give it up.  Parents build resentment because of all they are giving up and putting into the sport and kids end up resenting playing (and sometimes their parents) along the way.  Based on statistics alone, chances are your child will not make a lifetime career (or even get a scholarship) based on their childhood athletics.  Researchers and coaches who have dedicated their careers to keeping youth engaged in sports encourage parents to simply say, “I love watching you play.”  Nothing more is needed.       



Posted in Articles, Parenting, School-Aged Children, Teens.