Youth sports participation has skyrocketed in the last decade, with kids participating in a wide variety of sports at ages earlier than ever. It is not surprising for pre-K boys and girls to develop their ice skating skills so that they'll be ready for the mites ice hockey team, or for "beehives" of five-year-olds to scurry frantically across soccer fields on Saturday mornings.
Americans value sports participation as a way of developing strong physical health and strong mental health (and there is good research to support the view that sports benefits both boys and girls). Through sports, kids can learn teamwork, become more independent, develop friendships, and have fun.
Kids do not do this alone: the adults in their lives help them use sports to build character, increase confidence, and encourage camaraderie. Adults, such as parents, guardians, and coaches, are the role models, and set the tone for fun. They are responsible for creating a healthy sports environment. Adult attitudes and behaviors can thus either help or hurt kids' sports experiences.
Six key questions
Adults involved in youth sports are the ones who are ultimately responsible for the quality of a child's sports experience. Coaches and team organizers can improve the quality of this experience by directly communicating guidelines to parents during the pre-season. In the words of the mom of a 10-year-old ice hockey player, "I like to meet the coach and other parents before the season starts to get a real sense of what is expected of my son and me ... It needs to be a good match." Formal meetings can assist adults in creating a positive sports environment for their youth athletes.
To reach this goal, parents should consider asking these six key questions.
1. Is the child enjoying the sport, or does he/she feel forced to play?
Be sure that the child is open to exploring the sport and playing it with a positive attitude. It is important for children to have the opportunity to try new experiences. After all, how will they really know they like something unless they try it? But, it is equally important for children to feel some level of personal investment and control in their choice of sport. Just because Dad was a football champ, or Mom was a basketball star, does not necessarily mean that young Johnny or Janie will follow suit. Adults should be sure that they are promoting a sport for the benefit of the child, and not because they are vicariously living their own unfulfilled dream, nor because they are re-experiencing their past glory sports days. Children should own the sports experience as their own, and adults should be sensitive not to overstep boundaries. Young Rachel said it clearly, "I don't want people to think that I chose something because my mom did it." Sports are a great place for children to gain mastery, autonomy, and independence of individual character. That will not easily happen if adults interfere with the experience.
2. Is the child's involvement in the sport more important to the adult or to the child?
Honestly answering this question will help adults be more aware of the concerns reflected in Question #1. It will also help coaches and team personnel become honest with themselves about whether they are putting the child's needs first, or that of the team's winning record. Adults should maintain a balance between the needs of the team and the needs of the child. Youth sports are not adult professional sports, and to treat them equally is not in the best interests of the child or teen athlete. Youth are in a process of developing self-esteem, developing human values, ethics and fair play. As they mature, their sense of character and confidence is in a state of flux. They are growing and changing, and not yet stabilized in their sense of self. The adults in their lives should be careful not to place on them burdensome demands to perform and win at all costs.
Sometimes, when the player is the child of the coach, there is more of an opportunity for unequal or unfair treatment. One Dad recalls: "I felt so sorry for one of the kids on my son's team. His father was the coach and kept putting all this pressure on him." Of course, youth sports are a great place to provide the healthy, strong competitive experiences that prepare children for the challenging, "unprotected" adult world. But, there is no pressing need to prematurely throw children into that adult world, and doing so can be emotionally harmful.
3. Is the child feeling confident playing in the sport, or is he/she feeling inadequate and doubting him/herself?
Adults should look for signs that may indicate lack of confidence. A child may engage in negative self-statements about his/her sports skills: "I am not as good as the other players." "I can't learn how to do this." A child may engage in numerous excuses to avoid playing or to explain his/her perceived lack of skills. Don't ignore such statements, or just toss them off with a casual comment such as, "That's not true." Whether or not the statements are true, your child is trying to communicate something to you.
So LISTEN! Engage in conversation to help understand why your child is feeling that way. Among the possible reasons could be that your child:
- isn't well-suited to that particular sport;
- needs additional training, coaching, or better-fitting equipment;
- has an unidentified physical injury that is hampering her play;
- is experiencing conflict with a coach or a teammate (e.g. bullying;
- is not getting the positive reinforcement from you about his/her skills that he needs;
- does not like the sport, but continues to play to avoid disappointing you, the coach, or the team.
- is experiencing a general lack of confidence in other areas of his/her life, not just in sports, and may need to talk to a psychlogical professional.
In fact, very often, just lending an ear will do the trick. Being available to listen in a supportive, nonjudgmental, open way is sometimes enough to reduce your child's frustration and to help him/her feel more confident.
4. Is the sports environment providing healthy friendships for the child, or does the child feel isolated from the team?
It is easy to see which team member is teased more often than other team members. It is also easy to see which children are included in the locker room conversations and invited to the play dates. It is okay, of course, for children to have different groups of friends: soccer friends, classmate friends, Boy Scouts friends, and neighborhood friends, etc. It is not necessary for a youth athlete to have his/her "best" friends also be his/her sports teammates. But it is important for the child to feel as if he/she contributes to the camaraderie of the team, that teammates enjoy his/her company, and, likewise, that your child enjoys the company of team members.
Adults can help foster this by scheduling play dates with teammates and by organizing team social activities. Every coach knows that successful teams are those in which the team members spend quality time with each other in venues other than the competitive play.
One mom said it all, "The more we get the kids together to play or have picnics or come over each others' homes, the easier it is for them to play together on the team. Some kids are very close friends with one or two teammates, and others are just regular buddies who have other close friends at school. No matter what, when they are all together, they have a great time."
5. Is the current sports experience one in which there is bullying or unconstructive criticism given by coaches, other adults, or other team members?
There is absolutely no place for bullying in youth sports, whether by teammates, opponents, fans, coaches, or other adults. Period.
One physician and sports dad comments, "So many parents don't know how to behave on the sidelines and spoil it for their children. These parents need training in appropriate behavior ... they don't listen to the rest of us." People who bully are often those who are unable to effectively manage their own anger or frustration, who may suffer from low self-esteem, and who may have been the victims of bullying themselves in the past. These individuals may benefit from counseling and stress management interventions.
Adults need to protect children from these confused individuals.
Constructive criticism is necessary to help shape and hone successful sports skills. Constructive criticism focuses on building positive behaviors, not on attacking personal character. If you want to improve an athlete's skills, then you need to figure out whether what you are telling the athlete actually results in the skill you want, or if it just results in the athlete losing confidence and feeling badly.
If you want a successful team and a strong player, you will avoid criticism that only makes things worse. On the other hand, fake or inflated praise is unrealistic and the youth athlete will sense that. Building confidence means honestly and sincerely rewarding the positive behaviors and skills. To build a nice green lawn, it is better to vigorously feed the healthy grass to produce more of it and to crowd out the weeds, than it is to flood the lawn with herbicide that kills not only the weeds but so much of the good lawn that the dirt is mostly left showing. When giving constructive criticism, think MOTIVATION, SUPPORT, and GENUINENESS.
6. Do parents, coaches, or other adults exhibit negative behaviors that are destructive to the child's sports experience?
Adults behaving badly in youth sports are not a pretty sight. How many of us have seen or heard about the over-involved sports parent with an anger management problem or about the frustrated coach who is a little too serious about the need to win? John, the father of a nine-year-old baseball player, described an all-too-familiar story: "There was a great game going on with a lot of parents showing up to cheer on their teams. I guess one parent from our team said a ‘few words' to the parent of the other team and then next thing you know they were fighting on the field! The police showed up, had to stop the game and send us home."
The healthy sports parent is one who:
- gives the child space to fight his/her own battles;
- does not become irrationally and overly emotionally invested in the outcomes of games;
- does not interfere with the coach's plans and directions;
- does not display anger outbursts at games and practices;
- does not put down the kids on the opposing teams (remember they are just kids!)
- does not engage in what would be considered disrespectful behavior (name calling, gossip, threats, destructive comments), and who does not try to incite other parents or youth athletes in any of the just mentioned negative behaviors.
- is not self-centered, understands boundaries, and does not embarrass others around him or her.
When a parent is worried about the welfare of the youth athlete, coaching issues, or other related concerns, it is important that the parent use productive communication channels to resolve problems and differences. Parents bear a responsibility to protect the welfare of their children, and they should do so in the most effective way possible. By doing so, they model conflict resolution skills for their children.