It is a widely promulgated recommendation that youth spend one hour each day sweating and breathing hard. However, if we think of this exclusively as getting our kid to climb onto a treadmill or a stationary bike, we will probably not reach that goal and torture our kid and ourselves trying. A generally more effective strategy is to engage our child in sports. Moreover, some of the most important lessons in life can be learned on fields of play: it requires effective teamwork to reach most important goals, learning to do things when you don’t feel like it promotes success, learning how and when to use, redirect or suppress emotions promotes effectiveness with others, learning to cope well with injustice and unfairness keeps one from getting derailed, learning to manifest character when someone else isn’t marks high road life and so forth. All of these lessons, and more, can be found in athletics. To facilitate kids learning these lessons, allow me to offer 12 recommendations for adults:
#1: In your heart-of-hearts, which is that place that will come across no matter what you say, try to believe that a good quality effort matters more than a win. I know that there are agenda for which a win is more important (e.g. a coach keeping a paid gig, media attention). But, when it comes to a kid’s development, a win is usually a pleasant but subordinate matter. Moreover, if your lips say one thing but your heart feels another, your kid will often perceive the difference, if only unconsciously.
#2: Offer your time to promote your child’s skill development. Encourage going to the field or court or pool or wherever to practice, offering whatever kind help you may. It’s remarkable how mundane these moments can seem in the here-and-now but how critically important and precious they become across time.
#3: If you have objective evidence (i.e., objective ≠ your opinion) that the sport represents a top strength for your child, try to provide additional opportunities or supports (e.g., one-on-one high quality instruction, access to higher quality competitions).
#4: Don’t bug the coach. I think there is a place for sharing relevant information that your kid’s coach may not know, and which could be helpful for your kid’s coach to know. But, provide this information gently, infrequently and only if the coach seems open to it; and, do so less as your child ages as s/he does well to learn the art of effective self-advocacy. Also, try to leave the coach alone regarding strategy issues. It’s a tough enough to coach youth sports without having a parent ask why the runner was sent in the bottom of the 7th when the team was down by five runs.
#5: Listen to your child and provide what s/he needs after a competition. Of course, this will vary depending upon how s/he did, how the team did and his or her temperament. Sometimes there is cause for celebration. Sometimes there is cause for empathy. Sometimes there is cause for shutting up and providing space. Rarely is there cause for second-guessing and offering unsolicited advice; such learning is usually best acquired after some time has elapsed (even then, the learning may take deeper root if planted through means other than a parent lecture).
#6: Proportionately and authentically salute the following behaviors: supporting a teammate in victory and (especially) defeat, getting back up after getting knocked down (metaphorically speaking), not displaying frustration when feeling frustrated, remaining polite upon defeating an opponent, appropriately congratulating an opponent who is victorious, not responding in kind to poor sportsmanship, hustling when not hustling might be accepted and displaying selflessness (e.g., helping to clean up, carrying equipment for the coach).
#7: If you’re a parent coach, strive for this goal: try to make it that a stranger watching the competition cannot correctly guess who your kid is or to which kids’ parents you have ties. With younger kids make it about equal playing time, including across desirable positions (as long as no one stands to get hurt or humiliated), even if you’re up against coach ra-ra (most parents will know what’s going on and respect you for a high road stance). With older kids make it about whose performance (including practice behaviors, character and attitude) warrants positioning as you do. In my years of watching, and coaching with and against parent-coaches, it is a small minority who consistently pull this off. And, man, do we parents love you, you small minority!
#8: If you are the administrator of a school sports program, make it against the rules for a coach to accept paid coaching gigs from kids who attend that same district. It’s amazing to me how often this happens and it is wrong, wrong, wrong.
#9: On the sidelines, only make encouraging remarks to players, and try to think of such as a spice: a little is nice, too much draws attention to the spice and away from the main course. (I attended a baseball season once where a mom incessantly rang a cowbell throughout the baseball game. You know that song “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover?” Well, the parents on the other team collectively scripted “50 things you can do with….”). It is also elegant to compliment a kid on the other team for good performance.
#10: Try to avoid yelling critical remarks to coaches and officials. Such behaviors often embarrass a child and come across as oafish. And, very, very rare would be the circumstance when it would be appropriate to yell something negative at a player, especially one on the other team (of course). Oh, and this includes yelling something like: “c’mon boys, lets get the defense going!” after a kid makes an error.
#11: Try to be supportive of other parents by you. Like you, they are probably experiencing large mood swings based on how their kids are doing. It’s often comforting to have another parent make an encouraging or empathic remark. I think it can also be helpful, if you know each other well enough, to talk each other back off of cliffs. I know of many instances when a drive home was made more tolerable for a kid because another parent helped a mom or dad to embrace a wise perspective.
#12: Encourage your kid, the team and other parents to join you in celebrating and recognizing good coaching, officiating or booster behaviors (e.g., team moms/dads). After a long game, or a long season, a few authentic and kind words or a simple artful gesture can mean a great deal to the adult(s) while simultaneously modelling an important life lesson for your kid.
Oh, and, IMHO, practicing these strategies makes watching youth sports more fun. And, for me, at age 54, it’s becoming more and more about what’s fun!!