I am often asked my opinion on things that involve football. The questions range from how to find which player position best suits a child to who I think will win the Super Bowl, and pretty much everything in between. I have many thoughts on the game, on coaching, and on improving performance, so I am starting Passing Thoughts to share some of those thoughts. I welcome your comments and conversation. –KR

Friday, May 9, 2014

Make it a Winning Summer with Young Athletes

**This column also appeared in the Argus Leader on April 27, 2014.

Warm weather is finally here, and everyone seems ready to jump into summer activities. Many families will spend time at ball parks and practice fields cheering on their favorite young athletes over the coming months. I look forward to many rewarding interactions with parents who bring their kids to camps, clinics, and tournaments. But I dread the situations that will unfold around me where there is tremendous conflict between parents and athletes or coaches, and the parent is behaving badly. What should be an enjoyable experience for kids can turn into a nightmare for everyone, and make for a very long summer. If parents can keep these things in mind, summer sports can be a win-win experience.

Focus on success, not winning.
One of the things I really hate to see is kids who believe success is only defined by winning a championship. I watch these young athletes have great performances and great seasons, but they don't think those things mattered at all unless they win the big game. They become incredibly dejected if they lose, and that defeats the entire purpose of youth sports. Parents need to help kids set individual and team goals that focus on performance and enjoyment of the process, not just the final score. Did they try a new scheme? Play at a different position? Did everyone get a chance to make a play? Reality is that kids are going to play a lot of games, and they aren't going to win them all. That doesn’t have to be an awful experience if parents remember to reinforce their pride in the child's effort and performance. Watch them play, share their joy at learning and trying, and applaud their part in the process no matter who walks away with a trophy.

Make motivation fun.

Nothing is more difficult for motivated parents than for them to perceive their young athlete is losing focus and motivation. This is a common area of disagreement for athletes and their parents! For young athletes motivation should mean FUN. If athletes are not having a good time, then they lose interest in participation very quickly. Parents need to remember that kids are kids. They will not be performance driven like an adult, and they will be sporadically uninterested and unmotivated. Expect it, embrace it without conflict, and provide your athlete the opportunity and support to renew his energy for the game. If the sport becomes a topic where there is ongoing conflict with parents, you will do more damage by forcing the issue. Keep it fun for kids, and they will find the motivation to stay involved.

Talk about goals, not the score.

In a long summer of sports, I think parents should help kids set realistic but challenging goals to improve performance. This could be as simple as becoming a better dribbler, practicing a new play and executing it in the game, completing one more pass than the last game, shooting 100 free throws a week together, or displaying good sportsmanship. Help them select whatever small details they think can make them grow as an athlete and keep them interested in the sport. None of those goals should involve winning games. They should be focused on individual and team performance. It's an an entirely different and constructive conversation between parents and athletes when they are both focused on those personal goals and work together for the young athlete to reach them.

Find a healthy balance.

Balance is so important for kids. When our kids love sports, how often do we try to find a balance with things outside of sports? Without that balance, sometimes our kids become so invested in the sport that they lose sight of everything else. And we do the same as parents. Make sure your kids take the time to be outdoors, hang out with friends, and not focus exclusively on competition and their sport. So many families go from football to wrestling/basketball, and then baseball season, they never have a chance to enjoy down time at the lake and a break from the grind of youth sports. If at some point, the child starts to lose interest in the sport, then what is next? We need to help our kids find a sense of balance with their activities and unstructured time.

Embrace the process, mistakes and all.

One of the things I have learned from working with young athletes is that there is nobody harder on a child's performance than the child himself. Kids who make mistakes will replay them and beat themselves up on it forever. Parents often don't realize that they need to help their kids move past those moments. They will "coach" their kids and unintentionally reinforce the child's view that his mistake was huge and means he is a failure. As a parent, you need to be the great encourager. Trust that your coach will help the kids through mistakes and help them work to improve, but as a parent, you need to keep your athlete confident and feeling good about his effort and performance. Let the coach do his/her job, and let your kids make mistakes and learn from the process. Parents know that they love and support their athletes NO MATTER WHAT. Make sure you communicate that fact to your young athlete in ways that they can understand.

Summer should be a time for families to enjoy shared activities and grow together. By taking the focus off the scoreboard and putting it on our athletes and their small successes, hopefully parents and kids can enjoy the summer just a little bit more. Together.

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