When you attend your child's game, go as a fan, not a coach. Kids don't like when their parents make more noise than anyone or hollering plays or instructions from the sideline or stands. Young players need to learn from their mistakes, as much as from their successes. Not only do they get confused if parents and coaches are constantly yelling criticism or plays, all that yelling can do long-lasting psychological damage.
I remember a time, before one of my sons' soccer game, when I ran into my friend, Lauren, as she was dropping off her son, Henry. As he dashed off with my sons, I told her,"I'll wait until you park, and we can walk over to the field together." She looked at me dejectedly. "I won't be staying to watch Henry's game," she said. "He told me in the car on the way over that he no longer wanted me to come to his games."
Henry was only eight, yet he had strong opinions about who could attend his games. I couldn't understand his reasons, and when I asked Lauren, she was as perplexed as I was. I started ticking off a list of possibilities for Lauren. "You must be one of those moms who yell at him from the sideline," I said half-jokingly, knowing that kids are embarrassed by loud parents.
"No, that can't be the reason," she said. "I spend most of my time during the games knitting or chatting with other parents."
None of the other possible explanations for Henry's demand seemed to apply either.
Thinking that Henry might tell me why he felt the way he did, I volunteered to give him a ride home. Lauren agreed.
In the car after the game, Henry and my three boys were celebrating how well they had played. Henry was a bit sad that his mom hadn't been there to see him play goal, as he had recorded a shutout. I asked him why she had gone home. "Well, it's a long story," Henry said, "but I don't like her to see me play poorly. In my last game, I gave up five goals. My mom tried to tell me what I did wrong, and I didn't like it. She's never played soccer and doesn't even know the rules."
Kids, especially under twelve, are always seeking their parents' approval. Negative labels and generalizations and criticism can have a devastating emotional impact. If you critique your child's performance, she will interpret your anger, disapproval, and disappointment as meaning that you don't love her anymore - in other words, that your love is conditional.
Every child will have good games and bad games, so keep in mind a couple of points:
- It is important to keep the bad times in perspective. After a loss, your child will most appreciate words of encouragement and a hug. Resist the temptation to hash out everything that went wrong right after the game or scrimmage on the way home in the car.
- Just like you after a hard day at work, kids just want to relax after a game or practice; it usually isn't the best time to talk to them. If you want to talk about the game, do it when your child isn't stressed or thinking about the game he just played. Children need to be given the space to process the experience on their own and then move on.
Ignorance is Bliss
As I watched Spencer play indoor lacrosse one Sunday afternoon, I couldn't help but overhear the conversation between two fathers seated directly behind me. "I love watching Dylan's games," said one. "I never played lacrosse and don't have a clue about the rules or what's going on, so I'm not overly invested. It's just great to see them play in a pickup league like this."
The father had hit on the reason he was enjoying his son's games, and his son was enjoying having him at them: The father didn't know anything about indoor lacrosse, so he wasn't in a position to critique the game or his son's performance. Every father I spoke with at lacrosse said the same thing: Their sons wanted them to come to games. "It's not that way with his football games," one said.
Knowledge is sometimes a dangerous thing
Unfortunately, most parents who have played the sport that their child is playing or watch it on television think they are experts on how it is played. Many can't resist the temptation to offer a running commentary on the game in progress. Parents who have played the sport have to be extra careful not to put additional psychological stress on their child to follow in their footsteps. (I am reminded of the aphorism, "A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.") Parents need to show their support just by being at games as spectators, not as judges or commentators.
For a child to ask that his or her parents "not come to my games anymore" is an all too common occurrence. Such announcements seem to come most often after a player has had a bad game or practice. They also seem to come just after pregame warm-ups when the player has missed a number of jump shots or just can't seem to put the puck in the net. The last thing a child needs to hear is a parent giving coaching pointers or putting pressure on him or her to perform from the sidelines. What children want most is unconditional support and encouragement, not criticism. Just knowing that Mom or Dad is in the stands is enough to make a child happy.
Eight out of ten children surveyed in one recent poll said that they wanted their parents at their games. Another survey of youth soccer players ages 7 to 14 put the number at close to 100%. What kids don't like is when their parents make more noise than anyone. Asked what embarrasses them most, every single child surveyed listed parents hollering plays or instructions from the sideline or stands. Almost four in ten kids in another survey reported having been embarrassed by the behavior of fans (presumably their parents). Young players need to learn from their mistakes, as much as from their successes. Not only do they get confused if parents and coaches are constantly yelling criticism or plays, all that yelling can do long-lasting psychological damage.
Silence Is Golden
Children who have loud and noisy parents are at a disadvantage. Focusing on the game with a screeching parent in the background is next to impossible. A mother is always the first to pick out the voice of her child crying "Mom, mom!" in a crowded store. It's the same way with kids. It doesn't matter how many fans are yelling, they can always hear their parents through the din.
Don't get lulled into believing that because yelling at players may be tolerated at professional sports contests, it is acceptable to criticize players at youth sports contests. It isn't. While the intensity and competitiveness of youth sports contests tends to mimic professional contests more and more, resist the temptation to view them the same way.
My sons learned that the best way for them to quiet down their dad if he was yelling on the sidelines at a soccer game was to stop in their tracks, look straight at him and yell back,"Dad! You're distracting me. Please be quiet! You're making me mess up!" It's an embarrassing way for a parent to get the message. Instead of forcing your child to take matters into his own hands by telling everyone that you are keeping him from playing his best, better for you to exercise self-control and put a lid on it.
Adapted from the book, Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports (HarperCollins 2006) by MomsTeam Founder, Brooke de Lench.
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