**This column also appeared in the Argus Leader on March 15, 2016.
John Wooden once said, “Sports do not build character, they reveal it.” There is no aspect of sports where that truth is more evident than with sports parents.
We have all been present at sporting events where parents created a miserable experience for everyone involved, and the presence of those vocal few profoundly affects the experience for the majority of parents who are doing it right. In my years of working with parents of young athletes, these are the messages I try to reinforce to avoid being “that parent”:
1. Learning to lose is as important as learning to win. Parents often struggle with their kids losing, not because of the win-loss record, but because they hate seeing the disappointment their kids go through. It is so important that parents set goals outside of winning and losing with kids. Focus on aspects of performance, team goals and meaningful ways to celebrate improvement. It is OK for kids to figure out they don’t like losing, but parents need to help them learn to win and lose with respect for opponents, officials and the sport.
2. Adversity is part of the sport. Athletes at all levels will struggle, but kids don’t always have the emotional or physical resources to face their challenges. Parents need to help young athletes understand that struggles are part of learning how to improve and contribute to a team. Some days kids play well, some days they don’t. Some days they get lots of playing time, some days they don’t. Whatever the situation which is frustrating to a young athlete, parents need to find ways to empower their child to face the challenges. Parents can’t face it for them, and ultimately, kids learn about sports and life by encountering challenges with a solid support system.
3. Doing too much, too soon is not good for young athletes. We live in a time where there are tons of costly, flashy options available for young football players, and parents think their athletes need national exposure from birth in order to get their kids playing time and college scholarships. What exactly is the benefit for 7-year-olds from playing an expensive and over-hyped flag tourney in Puerto Rico? For the most part, these programs are a terrible addition to youth football. They are expensive, they mimic college and professional football with a heavy emphasis on winning, they set kids up for injury and burnout and they are unnecessary. It is better for young athletes to develop their athleticism and confidence, and to learn football fundamentals than to compete in a national Super Bowl-type atmosphere. Choose carefully the environment where your kids learn sports and sportsmanship.
4. Maintain perspective, and keep expectations in check. One of the hardest things for parents to deal with is the changes that kids go through as they grow. Their son or daughter dominated in fourth grade, but they do not know what is wrong with them now in eighth grade. Are they not trying as hard? Or practicing as hard? And how do we fix that? If you have watched your child’s peers grow and change, you know that physical development greatly affects performance, and it is different for every single child. Parents need to remember that performance and ability will vary widely in youth sports so focus on learning solid fundamentals. Helping kids focus on their own improvements and contributing to the team maintains a healthy perspective.
Youth sports should provide athletes and families a rich environment to learn and grow together. Parents must be mindful that the example of sportsmanship they set for their young athletes will carry over in powerful ways. Be an advocate for your athlete, but keep it positive and in perspective.