Recently I received a call from a mother seeking advice. While attending a youth football game in which her son's team was getting crushed, she overheard another mom repeatedly express frustration that her own son wasn't playing. As the opposing team scored again, this upset mom lost it: she stormed down from the bleachers and marched around the field to where the teams were standing, arriving just as her son went into the game and was promptly pulled back out again. She grabbed her son and dragged him away so quickly that the coaches didn't even notice.
The mom who called me recounted her husband's observation at that point: "That's such a mom thing to do," he said. And this mom thought to herself, "What's wrong with that? What's wrong with a 'mom thing to do'?"
On the one hand, she wondered, are moms supposed to just stand by while their kids suffer exclusion or other negative aspects of competitive youth sports? On the other hand, she wondered, what kind of message does a mom send by taking her kid off the field in the middle of a game.
"Mothers do get like mama bears," I told her. "We really do get very protective of our children." But while I recognized this mother's frustration with her son's lack of playing time, I couldn't endorse her actions.
Yet, I told her, a mother's protectiveness is not a bad thing. In fact, what serves mothers so well as sports parents is their natural protectiveness, along with their nurturing instinct, emotional openness, and their belief in the importance of fair play, cooperation, connectedness, inclusiveness and the value of doing one's best over winning and competition.
All of these traits give moms the potential to change the highly competitive culture of youth sports today in a profound way. Here's how using your special gifts as a mother can help your child - and all children - have the best possible sports experience:
Trust your "mother's intuition."
This is the single biggest key to being a good sports parent. You know your child better than anyone. You are your own expert. Are you trying to decide whether and when to let your child start playing sports , try out for a competitive travel team or begin specializing in a single sport? Or, even more serious, are you considering pulling your child off a team because you sense the coach is likely to abuse your child? Trusting your intuition in these cases is always the right choice.
Have the courage to say "no."
As a mother, you know when to say no: to candy right before meals, to staying up way past bedtime, to a new video game that isn't really needed. The same should be true for sports. Don't be intimidated into saying "yes" to letting your child play on two or three different teams during a single season, or paying $1,400 for that tournament at a fancy resort, simply because you worry that your child will suffer if you don't.
Make time for free, unstructured play and for family activities.
As a mother, you know intuitively how important downtime and family time are to your child's healthy development. And yet, today's parents are under enormous pressure to help their kids succeed and to keep up with other sports parents. Avoid getting sucked into unhealthy peer pressure from other parents to push your child into more and more activities. Set aside time just for the family, and stick to it. Research shows that teens who eat dinner with their parents at least five nights a week are the least likely to be taking drugs, suffering from depression or in trouble with the law; they're the most likely to be doing well in school and have a supportive circle of friends.
Set limits on sports participation that work for your child and your family.
For some, one sport and one team per season may be right. Other kids may thrive on more intense involvement. But you also need to consider the time you'll need to spend getting your child to and from practices and games. Set limits on how much participation your family can handle. It's best to work with your child on this; if you simply impose limits unilaterally, your child won't learn to structure her own schedule and to find the right balance between activities and free time.
Balance winning with having fun and skill development.
In general, women tend to be more process-oriented, while men seem more result-oriented. Thus, moms are more likely to reject the common supposition that, for better or worse, competition must consist of winning, losing and displays of power, dominance and control. Whether as a coach or as a parent, teach your child to define a successful competition as one in which everyone contributes and the most is gotten from everyone's individual efforts. Emphasize the journey, not the results; the effort not the outcome.