There are many reasons for encouraging your kids to participate in organized sports: They’re fun, they’re social; they’re exercise in disguise; and, best of all, they’re a constructive diversion from computers, TV and electronic gadgets.
Most kids—especially younger ones—need little or no persuasion to get out and kick or hit a ball. But as they grow older and more opinionated in their likes and dislikes, they become choosier about what sports they’ll play. Factoring in cost, practice times and locations, you can’t blame parents for trying to steer kids toward a particular sport. But many wind up pushing too hard in directions that don’t always suit their children’s desires or abilities. Every kid has a strength; the trick is finding it. Building on an existing skill will enhance your child’s self-confidence and encourage them to try other sports. One of the problems with kids joining teams at 5 and 6 years old is that too many wind up specializing in one sport before they’ve had a chance to try other things. When they demonstrate natural agility early on, a lot of parents get caught up in the “my kid might be a prodigy” fantasy.
“The popularity of sports has increased dramatically over the years, and parents have an amplified desire for their kids to excel in sports and attract recognition as top athletes,” says sports psychology expert Jeanne Craft. “Children’s sports are becoming comparable to pro sports to the point where hiring youth sports coaches is on the rise.”
The reality is that less than one percent of today’s young athletes will qualify for any type of athletic scholarship in college, and an even smaller number will go on to professional sports or the Olympics. (Granted, that’s a hard sell for those of us who cheered on Havertown’s Brendan Hanson as he swam for the gold and silver in the last Summer Olympics.)
Adults generally think they know what’s best for their children. And most of the time, they’re right. But, adults also do things that have a negative impact on kids’ psyches and interfere with their motivation. Craft and other experts say that if parents really want to help their young athletes succeed, they need to start by addressing their own actions and identifying where they might be hindering their children’s athletic enjoyment and performance.
If a child doesn’t have the desire to compete and excel at sports, no one can force him or her to succeed athletically. The best approach is to expose children to a variety of sports and let them choose for themselves.
Ultimately, though, figuring out how to cultivate a healthy athlete may just be one of parenting’s greatest challenges.
The youth sports environment has changed significantly in recent years. Competition to make a team is much fiercer, and the options for participation have extended beyond the school and township level to select organizations (Ashbee Lacrosse, Aston Tri-States, Rocketsports soccer, etc.) that offer “house” teams to bridge the on- and off-seasons. Everywhere your kids turn, the heat is on.
By the time young athletes are in middle school, some families are spending as much as $1,000 or more a year on dues for private club teams that focus on competitive play. These same kids are practicing until 6 or 7 at night, and then coming home to wolf down dinner and jump right into homework. There’s no doubt today’s kids face enormous pressure to excel academically and athletically, and it’s the parents’ job to help them keep it together.
For many families, working with a sports psychologist can be beneficial. Kids get a chance to express their emotions about coaches, parental involvement, peer perceptions, self-esteem and performance anxiety. Parents, meanwhile, come away with deeper insights into how they can help their young athletes get more enjoyment from—and achieve greater success in—athletics. And it’s not just the top-tier kids who are feeling the pressure—average athletes also are pushed by parents and coaches, and face increased disappointment and loss of confidence when playing over their heads. A sports psychologist can be the difference between an athlete who is thriving and one who is simply surviving.
Along the way, says Craft, things like ethics and sportsmanship have taken a backseat to winning at all costs.
“Kids can’t be kids because they’re too involved in structured athletic activities where there is no informal play, creativity, imagination or chance to make up their own rules and games. They’re too dependent on adults for guidance and get bored easily when down time shows up,” Craft says. “Ask yourself, ‘Whatever happened to neighborhood sports?’ How many kids do you see doing the unorganized thing?”
One reason may be organized sports’ longer seasons, which require children to practice and train year-round if they want to be competitive. “As early as 9 years old, many kids try out for all-star teams or join traveling teams that compete regionally and nationally,” says Craft.
Not only do children get burnt out at a younger age, they fall victim to overuse injuries many of us never worried about until much later in life. Kids being diagnosed with rotator cuff injuries and stress fractures are on the rise, says Craft. For those who specialize in one sport and use the same muscles repeatedly, the wear and tear on muscles and joints is accelerated, since their bodies aren’t fully developed.
The most glaring consequence is what Craft terms Hurried Child Syndrome, where kids are pushed to do things beyond their years—to think, act and feel much older than they are. “Kids are put into situations where they’re forced to be sophisticated with their emotions.”
On the upside, facing “crisis” situations forces kids to manage their feelings in front of others. “People say sports builds character,” says Craft. “But I say they reveal it.”
Another negative consequence is an early loss of interest—especially for those competing at or near the top.
“There’s too much structure between school and practice,” says Craft. “A lot of kids wind up quitting at around 13 or 14 because the pressure from coaches and parents takes all the fun out of playing and competing. It’s hard for parents to keep kids motivated and help them achieve their goals without burning them out.”
Some of the things parents do wrong include rehashing and over-analyzing every detail of the game, focusing only on mistakes. That’s what the coach is for. The best thing you can do is step back and be the loving, enthusiastic support person your kids need to boost their self-esteem. A loss or bad performance shouldn’t ruin their day; help your child “let it go.”
During her years counseling kids with a range of talent, Craft has concocted a roster of terms to explain over-zealous parents’ irrational—and occasionally immature—perspectives: “Dreams of Glory” describes the delusions of parents who view their children as miniature professional players; “Young Athlete as an Investment” applies to those who see a scholarship in their child’s future; “Competition between Parents” pertains to those who compare their kids to others, adopting a “keep up with the Joneses” mentality.
Parents who try too hard to protect their children from negative or unfair outcomes fall into Craft’s “Control” category. “Vicarious Experience” describes the behavior parents who compete through their children, or who view their kids’ success as payback for their own failure or unfulfilled desire. Lastly, “Ego vs. Mastery” defines parents who favor winning over encouraging their children to give their best effort.
All of this adds up to loss of perspective—one in which parents fail to prioritize their child’s athletic experiences. “To ensure that children benefit, parents must learn to tread a fine line between caring too much about whether their children excel and taking too little interest in their athletic activities regardless of skill and performance level,” advises Craft.
“There’s a fine line between being a supportive, rational parent and being an overbearing, irrational parent,” she adds. “I can tell you a half-dozen stories about parents losing control on the sidelines or pushing their kids to the brink.”
Craft says the best things coaches and parents can do are to instill a life-long love of fitness and sports, set healthy limits and reasonable expectations, and let kids take the lead in defining their sports commitments. She also stresses the importance of balancing academics, athletics and social time.
“Keeping kids well rounded will provide them with the confidence and skills to respond to the ups and downs in life,” she says. “Ultimately, gaining agility in all three areas is crucial for being a happy, healthy and successful adult.”
1. Treat sports as a game, not a business. The primary goal should be to have fun and enjoy healthy competition.
2. It’s your child’s agenda, not yours. Put your goals for your child in the backseat. Make sure your child’s goals are attainable and communicate that you support them.
3. Be a positive role model for your child in and out of sports.
4. Pick up a competitive sport. You’ll gain empathy for the trials, tribulations, ups and downs, and frustrations your child is facing.
5. Cease and desist from all coaching near game time. Too much input from Mom or Dad can undermine the coach’s role and make kids feel embarrassed or feel confused.
6. Encourage young athletes to believe that even if they lose they’re not failures. If they’re involved in a number of activities that make them feel good, losing one game shouldn’t devastate them.
7. Build your child’s confidence. If kids are involved in activities that exploit their strengths, they’ll have many reasons to feel good about themselves.
8. Use positive reinforcement and constructive feedback. Point out at least five good things they did, then add constructive comments.
9. Teach positive self-talk.
10. Help your child establish pre-game rituals.
» Understand the philosophy, goals and rules of the organization and youth sports. Communicate with your child; promote self-esteem and the merits of giving your best effort; check your competitiveness; handle academic issues; preserve family life; coach positively; and keep perspective so you can keep the fun.
» Kids like it when parents encourage, not when they yell and lose control. Tell them they’re doing well and cheer them on; give positive support, whether they had a good or bad game; say things like, ‘Good hustle’ and ‘Just try your best’; don’t boo; encourage kids to be good sports by showing them how; let them make their own decisions and just let them play the game.
» Provide kids with the resources they need to play and thrive. Pay for good equipment; take them out to eat after the game.
» On the sidelines, don’t: be loud, rude, obnoxious, ill-mannered, disruptive, negative, degrading, violent or fanatical; criticize coaches, argue with other parents, bark instructions at young players or insult officials.