CHAPTER I: AWARENESS
Why you're the most important influence
Today, more than ever, sports-playing kids need their parents to be aware of the many pressures and challenges they face on the playing field -- including a relentless pressure to win that most parents themselves didn't experience. Sports-playing kids need moms and dads to be aware of their own motivations and desires, which influence them as sports parents.
Here are eleven ways you can become more aware of what kind of sports parent you are and what your child needs from you the most:
1. Give your child unconditional love, no matter what happens on the field
You buy your child the shoes and the uniform she needs to play soccer. You send your son to a three-week summer football clinic so he can improve his game. You offer her advice on how to improve her backhand. You drive him to 6 A.M. ice hockey practice. You give your time after work and on the weekends to help her practice her pitching. But are you giving her what she really needs to be successful and happy in sports?
Today's sports parents give their young athletes so much -- time, money, and energy -- more than most of our parents gave to us. It's not that our parents didn't love us or didn't care, it's just that today's parents are more involved in all of their children's activities, including sports. More parents attend their children's sporting events than ever before -- that's clear just by looking at the stands. Parents know more about the sports their kids are playing. They are more actively involved in making decisions about coaching, strategy, and which games their children will play. A child's sports activities are built into the structure of his or her parents' day or, for working parents, their weekends. As one mom of three teenage boys put it, "On the weekends, I should just put my coffeemaker in the mini van and sleep there."
The motive behind the increased involvement as sports parents is a good one. Parents want to give their children the best opportunities in sports. More parental involvement can certainly be positive for children. Kids love their parents' attention. They love to be supported by Mom and Dad. But I believe, very passionately, because I have witnessed it time and time again in my work with families, that although many very good, hardworking parents are putting in a lot of time, effort, and money to nurture their children in sports, too many kids are still not getting what they need. What young athletes need the most is unconditional love and support from Mom or Dad no matter what happens on the field or on the playground.
Instead of unconditional love, too many kids are getting pressure -- pressure to win, pressure to excel, pressure to make the all-star team, pressure to make Mom and Dad proud.
Toby, an eleven-year-old ice hockey player, told me, "Dr. Fish, my dad gets so excited when I win I don't want him to be mad at me if I don't."
Now, I've met Toby's dad several times and he's a nice guy. He doesn't yell at Toby or cajole him to perform better from the bleachers. When Toby wins, sure he claps and shouts, "Great job, Toby!" When Toby messes up on the ice, his dad is quick to tell him, "Shake it off, buddy! Don't worry about it!"
So why in the world would this boy think his dad would be mad at him?
As parents, we know how much we love our kids. Sure, we can be disappointed in them sometimes. We get frustrated with our kids. We get angry. These feelings, though uncomfortable to experience, are totally normal. Emotions run high in sports for everybody, including parents. But underneath those temporary feelings of disappointment or anger are feelings of love. Of course!
But kids don't automatically know this. Your child doesn't understand that you have this great reservoir of love for her that will never get used up. She doesn't always know that feelings, like anger and disappointment if she blows it on the tennis court, are temporary but that your love for her is not. Though we know our love is not conditional, kids think that it is. They see or sense our anger, disapproval, and disappointment and they get scared. They think, "Wow, Dad is really upset. I really let him down. I don't think he loves me anymore."
Kids need to be constantly reminded of the love and positive feelings we have toward them. This goes for kids of all ages. High school age kids will try to convince you that they don't care what you think, but they do. We must reassure them that our love for them is not based on how well they do on the field or court. We must tell them, again and again, that yes, we like when they win, because it's fun to win, it feels good to win, but we love them win or lose no matter what. Become a broken record with the message: "I love you when you win. I love you just as much when you lose." With the pressure and the competition sports-playing kids now face, you really can't say it enough.
You can show your unconditional love with hugs, by running your hand through his hair, by holding her hand when she's leaving the field (though don't try this on your twelve- or thirteen-year-old), or another gesture of tenderness you feel is appropriate to your child. One dad bought his son an ice cream cone after every game but he got a double dip when he lost.
Reassure your boy that you love him win or lose. Tell him, "It's great that you won, but even if you'd lost the game or dropped the ball, you still would have been my champ." It's important to remind kids that even though we're happy and excited when they do well in sports, it's okay when they don't do well, too. We still love them. You have more credibility with your child when you say, "I love you," when they win and when they don't. Then they think, "Mom must really mean it if she's saying it now and when I lose."
2. Talk to your children about their experiences in sports
We hear a lot about why sports is good for kids -- the exercise, the discipline, the fun. But here's another benefit you may not have thought about -- sports gives you an opportunity to talk with your boy or girl.
This may not seem like much of a benefit to you now if your child is still under the age of eleven or twelve. Young children love to talk to their parents and share their experiences. Sure, you have to drag information out of them on occasion, but you know how to eventually get them talking. However, as your child ages, you may find that sports will be one of the few areas that you still have in common. Clarisse told me that if her sixteen-year-old Michaela didn't play lacrosse, she probably would never talk to her daughter:
Michaela thinks I don't understand her struggles at school, with her friends, and boys. When I express interest, she rolls her eyes and says, "You don't get it, Mom." Maybe I don't understand other things in her life, but I do get lacrosse strategy. I've been driving her to games and practices for three years. We talk about how she did in the game, what frustrated her, and what she's happy about. She tells me about her coach and stories about the other girls on the team. Sometimes we laugh at something that happened. The point is, we talk. Talking to Michaela about sports is just easier than talking to her about the other areas of her life. It's our common ground.
Here are four guidelines you can use for getting the conversation about sports started and keeping it going:
• Check in weekly. Sports should be one of the things you ask your child about on a regular basis. Kids want their parents to be interested in everything they do. The biggest mistake is not that parents don't talk to their kids, it's that they tend to tune in the most when there's a problem. Don't let the ordinary moments pass you by; they are ripe with opportunities to learn something new about your boy or girl or just enjoy each other's company. Tune in and make time to talk, even after the uneventful game or practice. You don't have to have a major talk after every sporting event, practice, or game but try to get in the habit of at least having a weekly conversation with your boy or girl. You can simply ask, "How is soccer going?" or "Anything exciting going on in field hockey?" When parents view and approach sports as one more opportunity to learn about their children and to talk to them about another area of their lives, both kids and parents benefit. An ongoing dialogue about sports keeps you in tune with what your child is thinking and allows your child to hear your point of view. Parents tell me that they learn so much about their kids by talking to them about sports. One dad said, "I didn't know that Marcus was so aware of other people's feelings. He can tell when his coach is upset or when one of his teammates needs some encouragement. That's pretty good for a nine-year-old."
• Listen more than you talk. Parents with happy sports-playing kids do more listening than talking. They ask open-ended questions that encourage talk rather than a simple yes or no answer. They ask: "How do you feel about Coach?" "How can I help you enjoy hockey more?" or "You seem to be enjoying soccer so much this season. How come?" Then they are quiet and they let their kids do the talking. Part of the reason that parents don't listen enough is that they feel they have to solve their child's problems for them. As Teresa put it: "I can't stand to see Marissa hurting if one of her teammates says something mean. I used to try to devise strategies for her or help her think of what to say but within thirty seconds she'd be turning up the radio to drown me out. Now I've learned to say, 'That must have really hurt your feelings when Sally said you blew it,' and then let her talk about it." I know a mom who had to count to ten each time she had the urge to jump in and add something to what her son was saying. If you practice, listening more than you talk becomes a habit.
• Be a parent and not a coach. Don't center the conversation around what your daughter did wrong or how she could have done better. Kids are much more likely to talk to you if you point out what they did well. You can say, "I know you're disappointed that you didn't get a hit, but we're going to keep practicing. I really loved your effort today. And I saw that terrific play you made at second base." I know it's hard not to give advice or feedback, especially when you know that if your son relaxed his shoulders when he pitched, he'd perform better. I have to bite my tongue too. It's hard for any parent not to try to solve your child's problems. It's fine that you want to help your boy or girl achieve in athletics but remember that unless you're the one with the whistle and the clipboard drilling the team every Saturday, you're not a coach. (Parents who are their child's coach can find advice in Coaching Concerns, chapter 5). Kids need their moms and dads to be the cheerleader who always listens and, on occasion, gives good advice.
• Talk about sports in a nonathletic environment. If you find your child reluctant to talk to you about his sports experiences after a practice or a game, don't worry. It doesn't mean you have bad communication or that your child is hiding something from you. Sammy, a twelve-year-old youth football player told me, "Dr. Fish, I don't always want to talk about football right after I play. I get sick of it. I want my dad to talk to me about other stuff, like school or the soap box derby we're going to enter." This is very common. Kids get burned out on sports and need to recharge. Think about how you feel after work or after you've come home from the PTA meeting. Do you always want to talk about your day or what you talked about? Sometimes you just want to get your mind off your daily activities. Kids are the same way. Give them a chance to decompress from their practice or game. Pick a comfortable spot for your child, like her bedroom or the kitchen. Wait until you're playing Monopoly, tossing a ball, or doing the dishes before engaging her in conversation. You're likely to find that your child will be more willing to open up about sports if she's away from the source of the conflict.
3. Remember the reasons to play sports outside of winning
Kids learn early on that winning in sports is what counts. They see that if you win, you get a coveted spot on the all-star team. If you win, Mom and Dad are proud. If you win, your peers admire you and Coach is happy. You get the trophies; you're a champ. But if you don't win, you disappoint everyone.
Kids learn that winning is what counts from the media too. Our TVs routinely beam us pictures of the stars, like Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan, the athletes who have "made it." The sports media focuses on the champs, the winners, and the top dogs rather than the teams. Kids hear about professional players making millions of dollars and know they are admired for it. Kids of all ages are truly spellbound by larger than life sports heroes. Twenty years ago, if you asked a ten-year-old boy, "Who is your hero?" he probably would have named an astronaut, the President, or a superhero character. Today, he would probably say, "Michael Jordan," or another professional athlete. Millions of young girls admire basketball player Sue Bird and ice skater Michelle Kwan.
It's easy to get caught up in the idea that winning is what counts most in sports when it's all around you, on the field and coming out of the television. When we focus on winning we forget the many reasons why it's good for kids to play sports. When I was a kid, I liked to win, but I also liked hanging out with the other boys on my team. It was a lot of fun. I can remember feeling strong and vital when I played sports. I liked being out in the fresh air. Looking back now, I realize that I was probably more self-confident and self-assured as a teenager because I played sports.
Fun, fitness, fresh air, commitment, camaraderie, teamwork, perseverance, goal setting, the thrill of competition, and enhanced self-esteem...these are all the reasons why I encourage my children to play sports. I'm sure these are the reasons why you want your children to play sports too. The problem is, with so much attention paid to all-star teams, scores, and standings, it's easy to forget the many great reasons to play sports outside of winning. I struggle with this too. When I'm in the bleachers watching my son Eli play football and it's 7-7 with one minute left in the last quarter, it's hard to remember that I'm glad Eli's there because it's fun. I have to sit on my hands and bite my tongue pretty hard when the other team intercepts the ball. I have to remind myself that winning is only one small part of the whole sports picture. I make a conscious effort to talk to my kids at least two or three times a season about all the good reasons to play sports. I'll ask, "Not counting the championship game, what was the best thing about playing soccer this season?"
If one of my kids is playing for a particularly competitive coach or some of the other parents are pushing the kids to win, I remind them about the other reasons to play sports. Before or after every game. I'll say, "Yeah, Ari, I know it's hard when you don't win, but you sure looked like you were having fun with Jordan and Tory out there."
Though coaches, peers, and the media do influence your child about the importance of winning, parents have the most influence. If you take an early and proactive approach and remind both yourself and your child on a regular basis that winning isn't the only reason to play sports, you can help your child have a better experience in youth sports.
4. Beware of going overboard
Let me clarify what I mean by "overboard" or "overinvolved" parents. I don't mean the rare parent who totally loses control and punches a referee or even worse. Thankfully, the incidents of outright violent remain on the fringe.
I do mean the ever-increasing number of parents who are "crossing a line" every day with behaviors such as yelling at kids, screaming at coaches, arguing with officials, and/or cheating. Go to any community in the country and you can find examples of sports parents losing control. Yelling and screaming at a coach, fighting with other parents, and arguing with officials are the most obvious indications that you're an overboard or overinvolved sports parent.
Here are eight common signs that you're overboard as a sports parent. You:
find yourself talking more about your child's sport than your child.
are highly critical of your child's coach.
talk to your child more like a coach than a parent (i.e., always giving advice, instruction, and critiques).
constantly tell your child to practice more.
seem more emotionally invested in the sport than your child (i.e., you get more upset than he or she does about a lost game or performance mistake).
get a great deal of status and prestige from your child's athletic accomplishments.
believe that if your child just tried harder he or she could be successful at sports.
aren't hearing what your child is telling you (i.e., "Mom, I don't like when you stand behind me and tell me what to do." Or "Dad, it makes me nervous when you come to my games").
If you see yourself in any of the above, it's likely that you're going overboard in your child's sporting career. Please understand, you are not a terrible parent. I believe that many overboard sports parents sincerely are trying to help their kids or advocate for them. Many overboard sports parents regret their behavior later. Many of them tell me, "I just couldn't help myself."
Of course you can help yourself. You're an adult. You have control over your behavior.
But before you can change your behavior, you have to be aware of what you're doing and saying; otherwise you will continue to make the same mistakes over and over again. Be willing to look at your own behavior. Be willing to change. This is why your awareness as a sports parent is so critical.
5. Watch out for "blind spots" in your behavior
Having blind spots is a fact of human behavior and can be especially common in sports parenting because emotions run so high, because moms and dads are putting out a lot of effort, and because the competitive environment is supercharged. Even the most loving and caring parents can have blind spots. We all have them. We're not always tuned in; we don't always have the most accurate view of our own behavior.
By now you may be saying to yourself, "Well, I must be the exception here because I really and truly don't care if my son wins or loses the track meet." Or "I still love my daughter just as much, even if she doesn't score a lot of points during her basketball game. I would never let her think otherwise."
Of course you love your child no matter what happens during a game or on the field. In your heart you sincerely mean this -- most parents do feel this way. But in the heat of the moment, are you absolutely sure this is what you're communicating to your child? In the car after a lost game or at dinner later that evening, are you certain you're acting like everything is fine?
Edward was absolutely, positively certain that he was sending his son Jacob a positive message of unconditional love and support. During one of our meetings, Edward swore up and down that he would never make his eleven-year-old son feel bad for not swimming well. "I love Jacob unconditionally," he said. "I don't really care if he wins or loses. I would never yell at him like some other parents yell at their kids."
Just then Jacob looked up and said, "Then how come when I swim well you talk a lot in the car but if I have a bad meet, you stare out the window and don't say a word?"
Edward was stunned. He had no idea he was communicating his disappointment to his son this way. This is actually quite common -- parents often have no idea what they're really doing and saying when it comes to their kids and sports. The way we respond to and act toward our sports-playing children can become habit-forming, the way it was for Jacob's dad. When it came to sports, he had a "blind spot" to how he was feeling, thinking, or behaving. His behavior was obvious to everyone else, but because he had so much emotion invested in sports and seeing Jacob succeed in swimming, he couldn't be objective about his own actions.
I encouraged Edward to check in with Jacob for periodic reality checks about his attitudes and behavior about sports. He now regularly asks his son: "So, how am I doing as a sports dad? Is there anything you think I should know? Is there anything I'm doing that's bothering you?"
Checking in with your child works only if you're willing to listen to what your child is telling you. You can't listen if you're talking, so hear your child out. It's okay to clarify what your child is telling you, such as, "What you're telling me is I'm still making you nervous when I come to your games" or "You feel like I'm still talking about sports too much." Clarify but don't argue. And don't try to talk your child out of how he feels by saying something like, "But I didn't even cheer or say one word when I was at your game." If your child is telling you that your behavior is causing a problem, it most likely is.
Also, be sure to check in with your spouse or your child's other parent, or a person who knows you and your child. Ask, "I'm not sure how I'm doing in keeping a balanced attitude about Lisa's lacrosse. What do you think?" Friends, other family members, like grandparents, and coaches can also give you an objective opinion and reality check about your behavior and attitudes as a sports parent. But no matter whom you turn to for help, you have to be willing to hear the truth -- and that's not always easy. Remember to keep an open mind. Remind yourself that hearing the truth will help you discover any blind spots you may have as a sports parent.
6. Acknowledge that sports is emotional for you
A mom and dad are at their daughter's soccer match. They watch excitedly as their daughter cleverly maneuvers the ball away from the other team's player and approaches the goal. The goalie for the other team looks scared. Their daughter is going to make her first goal of the season! Suddenly, just as she's about to launch the ball, the referee blows his whistle. Mom and Dad watch in horror as he calls a foul on their daughter.
Suddenly the dad finds himself up and running onto the field to confront the referee. His face is red and his fists are clenched. The coach has to come out and ask this parent to please sit down.
Time for a confession: That dad described above was me about two years ago at my daughter Talia's soccer game. The coach who made me sit down was all of eighteen years old. Not a pleasant experience or memory for any sports dad, but imagine being a trained sport psychologist on top of that! Afterward, I was humiliated. It was a downright humbling experience.
Now, when I speak to parents' groups I share this embarrassing and painful memory. I do because it helps the audience understand how easy it is for a parent -- even when he or she knows better -- to lose control of his emotions when it comes to his sports-playing child.
I'm my own best example.
Going overboard by running out onto the field, while I'm not proud of it, has at least taught me a really good lesson -- parents need help handling the emotions that sports generates just as much as kids do.
Why is this true? Why are sports often an emotional hotbed for parents? Why do so many otherwise normal, loving, mild-mannered moms and dads turn into tigers when it comes to their kids and sports?
Watching your child play sports, especially when the environment is very competitive, can be nerve-racking. Just sitting in the stands during those game-defining moments can be emotionally draining for moms and dads.
It's one thing to say, "It's okay if Becky doesn't get a hit," when the score is 10-4. But when it's all tied up and the bases are loaded, you do want Becky to get a hit. You want your daughter to be the winner, the hero. If she gets a hit and the umpire makes a questionable foul call, you'll react -- whether it's internally or externally. You will feel a lot of emotion.
These are the kinds of moments when the game is not intellectual; it's emotional.
These are the moments that some parents, who are normally polite, in-control people, go overboard and start yelling from the stands.
These are the moments when Mom or Dad runs onto the field and gets in an umpire's or a coach's face and starts arguing.
When we see our kids being treated unfairly we react. When our kids make mistakes we react.
As parents, part of the emotion generated when we watch our children play sports is that we want to spare them pain, embarrassment, and frustration. Some kids can miss the fly ball in the field and shrug it off over ice cream an hour later. Other kids take those moments harder. Age plays a role in how kids react to making mistakes too. Your child may be extremely sensitive now at the age of eight and less sensitive later at age fifteen or vice versa. A lot will depend on other things that are happening for him or her, such as peer influence, other activities, and other stresses, such as school performance.
Don't try to suppress or deny the strong emotions you have when watching your child play sports. Strong emotions, especially when they're not socially acceptable, such as feeling angry toward an official or even your own child, can be unpleasant and so we like to pretend they don't exist. That's a mistake.
Feelings aren't good or bad, it's what we do or don't do with them that counts. You can run out on the field or you can suppress the urge. When parents realize that it's perfectly understandable and normal to get emotional over their child's sports, they are better able to deal with their feelings. When you're aware of and accepting of your emotions, you're less likely to be blindsided and have a reaction you find hard to control, like running out onto the field and making a fool out of yourself.
I, like many sports parents, learned this the hard way.
7. Remind yourself, "My child is not me"
I worked with a young ice skater who was talented but wanted to quit because of the constant pressure her mother put upon her to be the best. Her mother, from various accounts, was arguing with the coach, the judges, and was yelling at her daughter during practice.
When we met, one of the first things the mother told me was that she felt she could have been a professional skater herself if only her parents had pushed her, encouraged her, and had been willing to spend the money.
"I'm not going to let this dream die for Sherry," the mother said. "I'll do whatever it takes!"
This mom, however, assumed that skating was Sherry's dream. Sherry, on the other hand, liked skating, but loved animals. She dreamed of becoming a veterinarian one day, not a professional skater. When the girl said this aloud (apparently not for the first time), her mother didn't listen. She just steamrolled right over her daughter's dream and said, "Well, you can become a vet after you go for the gold."
This mom, clearly on a crusade to make her daughter a skater, whether or not the girl even wanted to skate, is an extreme example of a common problem. Many sports parents assume that their children have the same passions, goals, and dreams that they do. Many parents, and I mean many, mistakenly believe that their children are, if not clones of themselves, then at least very similar. They therefore see their children as opportunities to relive a piece of their own history and get it right. Or they think, "Sherry's just like me so I know she really wants to do this" and "She'll thank me later."
As parents, we have a tendency to project our own wishes, regrets, and dreams onto our children. It's perfectly understandable. We don't want our kids to feel cheated or left out when it comes to sports, especially if that's how we felt. That's natural. I know that desire comes from the heart. But remember, when it comes to sports parenting -- it's not your intention that matters. It's your actions.
When you find yourself pushing your child hard or are disappointed by what they want to do, take a step back and remind yourself, "My child is not a mini version of me." Respect the fact that your child has her own dreams and goals. Your child is a separate person. Nurture and encourage her toward her dreams and goals, even if that means giving up a dream of your own.
8. Ask yourself, "Why do I care so much if my child wins?"
A few years ago, at one of my son's hockey games, a player on his team failed to score during a tied game. Because of his mistake, the other team got control of the puck and scored the winning goal. The boy was wearing Wayne Gretzky's number on his shirt. From the sideline his father shouted, "All the time and money I put into your hockey, you should play like Gretzky." Though the father added a "ha, ha" and though he appeared to be joking, it was obvious to me and many of the other parents that there was a part of this dad that meant it. There was an expectation on the father's part that his son, with all the training, conditioning, camps, and practice, shouldn't be making mistakes, and in fact, should be playing like a superstar and winning.
It's certainly not negative to want your child to win or to be successful in sports or in academics or eventually in business for that matter. It becomes a problem, however, when your definition of success in sports becomes so narrow that it only allows for winning. When we were kids, playing sports, making a good effort, teamwork, and physical fitness were highly valued. Now, what matters most is whether or not your child wins.
Now, not winning equals failure.
With that message, the level of pressure to win often gives youth sports competition a negative, sometimes even life or death, quality. It makes the competitive environment supercharged and very intense. When that happens, sports becomes no fun.
Understanding, or uncovering, the reasons why you want your child to win may not always be easy, but it's worth doing. It doesn't mean you have a character flaw or you're a bad parent. It simply means that you need to do some soul searching. Your effort now can mean the difference between being an overboard sports parent who embarrasses himself and his child by yelling from the stands or being a supportive one.
If having a winner in sports is important to you, ask yourself this question: "What payoff do I get when my child wins?"
When we want something badly for our children, so badly that we behave in ways that aren't helpful for kids, it can mean we're trying to fulfill a need for ourselves. It's normal to feel good when your child wins, it's normal to want him to win, but when you need him to win in order to feel good about yourself, you have a problem. For example, do you feel like having a winner proves you're a worthwhile parent? Do you crave the recognition of being the parent with the star athlete? Do you feel like you're not making the same mistakes your parents made with you? Does it mean your daughter will have a sense of pride in her accomplishments that you never had?
If you can answer yes to any of these questions, you may be trying to feel good about yourself through your children's athletic accomplishments. This is a very common problem. Be willing to take an honest look at yourself. No, it's not necessarily fun. We don't like to see ourselves as anything less than the terrific parents we try to be. But the payoff is tremendous. You become a more aware sports parent who can offer true support and encouragement to your child.
9. Make peace with your own sports experience
Moms and dads who go overboard in sports often share painful memories of their own sports experiences, or lack thereof, with me. Jackie, a forty-five-year-old mom of three girls, remembers watching her brothers play football and baseball in the backyard:
My three brothers always played together and I was always left out. I wasn't allowed to play. And it wasn't my brothers who excluded me; it was my mother. I remember once when I asked why I couldn't join the boys she leaned down and said to me, 'What's wrong with you? Girls don't play rough like that.' I know it was a different time back then and girls weren't encouraged to play sports the way they are now, but I can still remember her face when she said it, like she was disgusted with me for asking. I will never let my girls feel that way about wanting to get dirty, be aggressive, or play rough in sports.
Consequently, Jackie has enthusiastically "encouraged" her three daughters to play sports. However, she felt that her twelve-year-old daughter, Hannah, held back too much and didn't take risks in sports, especially in field hockey. "She's too timid," Jackie said, one of her frequent criticisms of Hannah's game. They argued a lot. Hannah told me she just wanted her mom to butt out and let her play.
It was obvious to me (and probably to you too) that Jackie was trying to heal a wound from her past. However, Jackie wasn't connecting the fact that because she wasn't allowed to play sports, to get dirty, to be aggressive, and have the kind of fun she wanted as a child, she was going overboard in parenting her three girls in sports. Eventually Jackie understood that the important thing to her was that her girls be encouraged and supported in sports if they wanted to play and she had gone overboard with that desire because of her own painful past.
Think about your own sports memories. Chances are, these are not random memories. Like Jackie's, they can offer significant clues as to how you feel about yourself or what you experienced as a child. You only remember early experiences if they are significant enough to have made a lasting impact. Many sports parents still carry the memories, the wounds, the scars, the hopes and dreams that playing, or not playing, sports has left upon them from their own childhoods. These unhealed wounds can fuel your behavior as a sports parent. Many of us block out the painful sports memories and try not to think about them at all. Unfortunately, this isn't an effective coping mechanism. We can still be influenced by our early experiences, even if we don't consciously think about them. The feelings of anger, shame, and disappointment these memories generate can easily express themselves in the tone of voice we use to talk about a game, the pressure we put on our kids to perform, or the importance of winning in sports that we communicate to our children.
Parents who thrive when their children win often feel unaccomplished themselves in sports. Do you wish you had been a super athlete? Do you feel like an underachiever in sports?
If you discover that you're trying to heal your own painful sports history through your child's, I encourage you to do the following:
• Accept how you feel. Many people try to deny how they feel because they think it's inappropriate or silly. One dad said to me, "I feel ridiculous that it bothers me that I never played sports as a kid. I'm a prize-winning physicist. What does it matter now?" But it does matter. Your pain is your pain. Don't judge the feelings you have, just accept them. When you allow painful feelings to come out in the open you're less likely to be influenced by them in a negative way. It's hard to close your eyes to your feelings and behaviors once they've been opened.
• Be honest with your child. I gave Jackie a lot of credit because she was able to tell Hannah, "I was trying not to do to you what my mom did to me, only I went too far. I was pressuring you to play the way I wanted you to play. I'm sorry and I'm going to do better in the future." It's not easy to admit we're wrong, especially to our kids because we feel the pressure to always do right by them. But trust me, your child will most likely appreciate and respect you for being open.
• Set your own athletic goals. You may not be able to play a team sport but you can still find out who you are as an athlete. You can challenge yourself and feel accomplished. Join a gym. Many high schools and community colleges offer volleyball and basketball to adults, so sign up. Jackie, Hannah's mom, is now a soccer coach for a girls' recreational team (her daughters don't play on the team). One dad who was putting tremendous pressure on his son to achieve in football, challenged himself to focus less on his son's football career and more on his own athletic activities. Though he no longer wanted to play competitive football, he began training and running races and has set a goal to complete a half marathon within a year. By focusing on his own athletic accomplishments, he was able to not focus so heavily on his son's.
Once you understand and openly acknowledge any unfinished business or painful experience that you still carry from your own sports history that's influencing you as a sports parent, you are on the road to successful sports parenting. With the pressures sports-playing kids face today, they truly need the help and guidance of their parents. But Mom and Dad can't "be there" until they understand what really motivates their desire to have a winning athlete.
10. Modify your involvement, if necessary
As a sports parent, your intention is to "help" your child but it's your actions that are helpful or unhelpful. Your son will let you know that your behavior is a problem directly by saying something like, "Dad, when you come to my games you make me nervous" or "I don't like when you yell at me from the stands." Your daughter may be telling you to "back off" through her nonverbal communication, such as hanging her head when you tell her how to improve her serve. You think you're helping and being supportive but your child is letting you know otherwise. If he's telling you that you're creating stress and pressure to win you need to change your behavior. He doesn't want another coach or an overboard sports parent, he wants a mom or dad.
If you're an overboard or overinvolved sports parent I encourage you to take the following three steps to become less involved:
1. Set limits on your behavior. If your child doesn't like your standing too close to the sidelines, then you're not allowed to leave the stands, no matter how much you want to go give him a piece of helpful advice. Some parents have to limit the number of practices and games they attend or make the rule of no sports talk once you leave the field. Some overboard sports moms and dads need to have very clear behavioral guidelines set for them. Other parents are able to change simply with awareness, but if you still have a problem, you need to impose limits on your behavior and stick to it. As you will discover, changing your behavior is a very effective tool in alleviating your child's stress.
2. Challenge your belief system about what you can and can't do for your child. If you're thinking, "If I'm at more games, she'll play even better" or "The only way she'll get honest feedback is if I'm there to give it to her," you're wrong! More is not always better when it comes to sports. You cannot transform a child with average athletic talent into a superstar athlete by being in the stands and providing encouragement. Rather, you create stress and pressure for your child.
3. Give yourself a mantra. Come up with a short phrase to help snap you back when you're on the verge of losing control, such as "No yelling from the stands," "Coach doesn't need my advice," or "Ethan's needs are more important than mine." When you're sitting at a game and you get the urge to start yelling or to give the coach a piece of advice, repeat this phrase to yourself over and over again. Many parents find that it gives them a positive thought to focus on until the urge to shout or interfere passes.
I have worked with some pretty tough cases in which a mom or dad was going overboard and had a very hard time stopping. If they can correct their behavior I am completely confident that you can too. Think about what's at stake -- your child's health, happiness, and ability to enjoy sports. That's a good motivator for most moms and dads.
11. Be a role model for good sportsmanship
Kids learn how to be good sports by watching their parents. Parents who are good sports have kids who are good sports. Here are four guidelines for setting the standard of good sportsmanship behavior:
• Talk to the parents of the other team. These people are not your enemies or to be avoided. Be social. Extend yourself in friendship. Your children will see you do this and get the idea that it's okay to be friendly to people they're competing with.
• Congratulate any player who does a good job -- regardless of whether or not she's your child or what team she's on. Saying, "Good play," "Your team did a great job today," or "Good game," will encourage your child to support and be respectful of other players and their accomplishments.
• Thank the coaches and the referees for their time. We often assume they know we're appreciative. Let's tell them.
• Point out professional athletes in the media who show respect for the rules and those who don't. Discuss why some players get fines for inappropriate behavior, such as punching another player or spitting on an official, and why it's not acceptable to behave the same way. When watching an NBA playoff game with my sons, one player on the losing team was trying to start a fight with a player on the winning team. To his credit, the player on the winning team walked away. I told my sons, "I'm really impressed that he was able to do that. That must have been hard, but it was the right thing to do."
Copyright © 2003 by Joel Fish, Ph.D.
Introduction: Why our sports-playing kids need our help
Today, a record number of kids play sports -- approximately 40 million boys and girls, ages 6-17. That's a lot of sports-playing kids and a lot of sports parents.
If you're reading this book, you are most likely the parent of one or more of these kids. You, like many other sports parents today, may have a question, issue, or concern about your sports-playing child.
If you do, I promise you, you're not alone.
As a licenced psychologist and sport psychologist with over 20 years of clinical experience dealing with a wide range of athletes, both professional and amateur, I have met and worked with many parents. In fact, I meet parents every day who tell me they feel confused, stressed out, or simply unsure of how to deal with the many issues and pressures raised by their child playing a sport. These are hardworking, caring moms and dads from all backgrounds, walks of life, and income levels who have lots of questions -- lots and lots of them -- but few answers when it comes to helping their kids have a positive sports experience.
I routinely hear questions from concerned parents like:
My child seems quieter since joining the soccer team. Could he be stressed out?
My daughter's field hockey coach pushes very hard; is this okay?
Our son seems totally disinterested in sports. Should we sign him up anyway?
My daughter wants to quit the swim team mid-season. Will letting her quit send a bad message?
I'm a single mom raising a teenage son. He seems obsessed with winning. Is this just normal "boy" behavior?
Our eleven-year-old daughter is into skateboarding but we worry that there's an unhealthy subculture that goes with it. Is this true?
Today's Sports Parents Are Often in Uncharted Territory
It's no wonder that some parents feel they have more questions than answers. Youth sports have changed quite a bit over the years, but especially in the last twenty years. Sports parents today often find themselves in uncharted territory.
When I was a kid (I'm 48 years old now), after school or during the summer, I just walked out the back door, grabbed a baseball or hockey stick, and headed out to the street or to a nearby field to find some other kids to play with. We played for hours with no uniforms, no refs, no parents on the sidelines urging us to victory. Sure, I liked to win; we all did. But if we didn't it wasn't the end of the world. We thought, "We'll get them next time."
We played for hours. We played until the sky became so dark we couldn't see the ball anymore. We played until our mothers had to force us back inside. We played hard because we loved to play. It was fun.
Then, kids who played sports were just playing games, often with whoever was available from the neighborhood or playground. Now, kids who play sports are highly organized on teams and in leagues. Few kids are let out of the door and sent off to play or left to their own devices. There is far less spontaneous play. Now, kids are coached, trained, conditioned, and judged. Most youth sports occur on teams or in leagues -- there are fewer and fewer pickup games. Back when we were kids, if we played on a team, it was most likely a school team and we played for the school year and then we stopped. Now there are school teams that end but recreational leagues, after-school leagues, intramural sports, weekend leagues, summer leagues, sport camps, and year-round travel teams that go on and on.
Today, there are sports and competitions for things that weren't even considered sports when you were a kid -- in-line skating, snowboarding, downhill racing, and skateboarding. The range of sports today is incredibly diverse.
I'm sure you don't need me to tell you that youth sports today are not like when you were a kid -- you're living it. You're the one out there juggling schedules, shuttling your child to practices, attending the games and shelling out the money for uniforms and equipment.
There's Lots of Good in Youth Sports Today -- But...
In many ways, the changes that have occurred in youth sports since you were young are extremely positive. The sheer volume of kids playing sports today is terrific. It used to be that only the talented kids could play on teams; now kids of all skill levels can participate and that's good news for everybody. One of the reasons the number of sports-playing kids has skyrocketed is because the opportunities for girls to play sports has exploded in the last twenty-five years. In fact, one out of three sports-playing kids today is a girl. Kids can also participate now at younger ages. It used to be only school-aged kids had the chance to play organized sports. In general, kids of all ages, everywhere, have the opportunity to play more kinds of sports than ever before.
All great things. But there is a downside to all the changes in youth sports today.
Though a record forty million kids are playing sports, too many of them are unhappy. In fact, over 30 percent of them are quitting, dropping out, and throwing in the towel by the time they're thirteen!
According to studies conducted by the Youth Sport Institute at Michigan State University, the majority of kids who quit sports say it's because they're not having any fun. Kids today feel too much pressure to win.
Think about that for a minute. That's nearly twelve million kids who were not having any fun playing soccer, basketball, hockey, tennis, and many other sports. Twelve million kids! That's a lot of kids who become disenchanted with sports. The sports-playing kids I work with often tell me they feel stressed out, worried, and overwhelmed. Something is very wrong. Sports is supposed to be fun! Once, not so long ago, it was fun.
In today's highly organized and specialized youth sports environment, more and more sports-playing kids feel that just giving their best during a game or competition is not good enough. At younger and younger ages, kids are sent the message: "If you don't win, don't play. Winning is the reason we play. Winning is everything."
When winning is everything, the competitive environment can become a stressful and negative place for youngsters.
When winning is everything, sports is no longer fun.
What Sports Can Mean for Your Child in the Long Run
The high dropout rate in youth sports does not just hold short-term consequences for your child. The experiences we have as children playing sports help shape us as adults. For better or for worse, our early sports experience leaves its mark upon us. Athletics is one of the arenas in which, as children, we develop our identities. Self-esteem and self-confidence issues are frequently raised. A child with a poor athletic image and little confidence in sports may feel bad about him- or herself for years to come. The memories your child will have from the big game, the big race, the tournament, often stick to them like glue. Even events that happen at routine practices and games can profoundly influence your child for years to come, like getting laughed at or teased by teammates and how they are treated by coaches. I work with many adults, including professional athletes, and I can tell you that the memories we carry with us from sports are powerful ones. I know because adults frequently share their memories with me. Sports memories are typically vivid; the emotions attached to them are surprisingly fresh and often quite painful.
If your child is quitting sports, or is at risk to quit later, because she isn't having fun, whatever negative experience she has had may well follow her through adulthood. That's certainly not good. If your child drops out of sports, he won't reap the many benefits that sports has to offer -- like goal setting, perseverance, teamwork, and fitness. That's not good either.
Why Sports Parents Make All the Difference
Parents frequently ask me, "How can I make sure that my child has a good experience in sports? What's the secret?"
Some parents believe the secret is finding the right coach. Others say it's all in how she gets along with her teammates. Still others believe the secret is to match him with the sport that best fits his personality and temperament.
Yes, coaches, teammates, and the sport he plays matter. But the most critical factor in whether the forty million sports-playing children love their sports experiences or hate them is the behavior -- both public and private -- and the attitude of their parents. This fact surprises many parents.
Certainly, outside people and outside factors matter, and yes, these outside influences do contribute to shaping your child. But there's no doubt about it -- parents always have had, and always will have, the most significant influence over their kids. What you think about your child is more important to him than what anyone else thinks. If your daughter feels, "Mom and Dad are proud of me," that is more significant than acceptance from a coach or peer. But if your child feels, or even gets a hint, that Mom and Dad love me more when I play well or when I win, then that puts her under a lot of pressure. Kids who feel too much pressure to win don't enjoy sports. These are the kids who either quit youth sports or wish they could.
101 Ways to Be a Terrific Sports Parent
In addition to my work as a licensed psychologist and sport psychologist, I'm also a dad. My wife Debbie and I have three children (Eli, age fourteen, and twins, Talia and Ari, age ten) who play sports. From both my professional and personal experience, I can tell you that parenting a child in sports today can often be challenging -- sometimes very challenging!
I'd like to help make sports parenting a little less challenging for you. Moms and dads tell me that having the right information about their child's emotional and physical needs in sports, combined with some inspiration, helps a lot when they find themselves in that sometimes complex and confusing world of youth sports. Throughout this book you will find 101 ways to help your child be successful on and off the field. Some of these 101 ways will encourage you to take specific action steps regarding your role as a sports parent. Others will just ask you to consider a piece of advice or information. You certainly don't have to memorize these key points or read them and digest them all at once. Some may apply to an experience you and your child may be having now or maybe not for another ten years. Keep in mind, your ten-year-old soccer or hockey maniac may become the fourteen-year-old you have to force to go to practice. As you'll discover, the age of your child matters in how you'll deal with various issues. This is why throughout this book I generally break age down into three general categories. Elementary school-age (six-to-eleven-year old) kids tend to see things in black and white terms. They need help finding the gray areas. Middle school-age kids (twelve to fourteen years old) begin to wrestle with identity issues. They're asking, "Who am I?" and we need to help them find a positive answer. During the high school years (fifteen years old and up), peer pressure sets in and kids need our help to make the best choices for themselves.
You may already be aware of, or putting into practice, many of these important sports-parenting guidelines -- whether you know it or not. Many parents are doing a great job parenting their sports-playing kids. Sometimes parents say to me, "Well, I'm just happy to know I am doing the right thing." Reassurance can mean a lot when we're trying to parent our children in sports. If your child is happy in sports there's no reason why he or she can't stay that way -- especially once you have read this book, which is packed full of tips, techniques, and advice for parenting your child in sports at every age.
Or, you may be reading this with the full knowledge that your child is not having a good time in sports and you're wondering what, if anything, you can do about it. I ask you not to worry either. As you'll discover throughout this book, there's plenty you can do about it. You can help your child have a better experience in sports. I've worked with many families having issues and problems with their sports-playing children and just about all of them were able to resolve them, often quickly, and sometimes even easily. But before that can happen, you need to understand what your child is truly experiencing out there on the field, the court, or the playground.
I offer these 101 ways to be a terrific sports parent to you because the parents I have worked with and spoken to throughout the years have told me that this is the information they find most helpful and useful. These are the guidelines that help create terrific sports parents and happy and healthy sports-playing kids. I'm confident it can help you and your sports-playing child.
In sports, you cannot script the outcome of events. You can't always get what you want. We cannot guarantee that our sports-playing kids will have a good time or a good experience. We cannot guarantee that as parents we won't make some mistakes. But I can promise you this: If you are knowledgeable and aware of what your child is experiencing emotionally and physically in sports, you will be better able to give your child what he or she needs in order to have a good experience. When sports-playing kids get what they need from their parents -- the right kind of love, support, guidance, and encouragement -- they will stick with sports and reap many benefits for years to come. And when that happens, everyone wins.
Copyright © 2003 by Joel Fish, Ph.D.