You have probably heard comments about parents living vicariously through their child’s sports activities or parents who are reliving their own childhood experiences, most of which were unsuccessful. You have heard about helicopter parents who want to micro-manage everything that goes on with their kids. An even newer scenario that I have witnessed are parents who use their child’s successes, especially in the form of an athletic scholarship, to one-up their friends. (i.e. my kid got a scholarship to xyz, what about your kid?)
Do not misunderstand what I am saying here. I think it is great if your son or daughter is successful in their youth sports, and especially if they get the opportunity to play at the highest levels. But it is only great if that is THEIR goal, and not just yours. Sure, younger kids need some encouragement to play organized sports. You almost never hear a ten-year-old say “let’s go out and practice.” They usually say “let’s go out and play.” We, adults, forget that sometimes. We forget that when we were kids we just went out and picked up a football, a basketball, or a bat and ball and went to the park, or out in the street (yes, I am dating myself), and played. We did not need mom or dad to drive us. We did not need a coach to tell us the rules. We just went out and played. Now, it is their turn. Let your child create their own youth sports experience. It is okay to guide them. And sometimes they might even need a kick in the pants. But let them tell you what direction they want to take.
One thing we always did with our daughter was once she decided to play on a team, she was not allowed to quit until her commitment was finished. In her seven or eight years of travel ball, we only left two teams before the end of the season. One was after the winter ball and at the start of spring so you could say it was prior to the commitment time. The other team we left not just because Jessica was not getting x amount of playing time. They were not using her at all. And the assistant coach, who had coached Jessica on her first travel team and who liked Jessica a lot, told us that we should look for another team because the head coach was not going to use her. On top of that, the team was getting ready to go to Wisconsin to qualify for nationals which meant spending about two thousand dollars which I did not have. Other than that she always stayed on her travel teams until the season was over in August. Two teams she played on for two years. One of the great lessons your child can learn from sports is commitment. Some parents let their kids jump from one team to another if they are not the star of the team in the first week. It must be their experience, but do not let them think it is all about them. This is where some kids get to feel entitled, often because a helicopter parent always wanted to make sure they were the star of the team. Unless it is absolutely an unbearable situation FOR YOUR CHILD, help them stay with that team. Teaching them commitment may be the most valuable lesson you can teach them.
The last part of making sure it is their experience, and to help them understand when negative things happen that they can still turn that lemon into lemonade and have some success is to actually listen to your child. Be sensitive to where they might be at in regards to organized sports. Are you truly on their side regardless of how they perform on the field or the court? Perhaps you have seen the poster where the little boy asks his parents,”will you still love me if I strike out??” There can be a lot of pressure put on your kids and you may not even realize they are feeling it. I learned that lesson when Jessica first tried out for travel ball. She was twelve years old. We had tried out for five teams. Jessica was a pitcher. Each time the coach would say to come back when she gains about another 5 mph of speed. One of the teams, the coach was not honest about what he was really looking for. I thought Jessica had done a great job of keeping up with the players already on the team in doing their drills. Finally, one of the teams Jessica had already tried out for had lost some players. I spoke with the manager and she said they would love to see Jessica again. We had changed pitching coaches and Jessica had picked up some more speed, along with a few more pitches.
On the day that Jess was supposed to go to this team’s practice, school had just finished. Jessica told me that she thinks she wants a break from softball. I told her that was okay but that she was going to do something. Except for that day, she was not just going to sit around the house on the computer or watch television. I wanted her to have some activity. I went to my office in the garage. This was about 4:15 PM and the practice we were to be at started at 5.
I was in my office for about 15 minutes when Jessica came out to the garage and said, “I am bored?” I asked her what she wanted to do. She did not have an answer. I did not say the S word. About 10 minutes later she came out again, same story. Another 15 minutes I had to make a trip in to the house. Jessica again announced her boredom. Finally, I said, “why don’t you go to the practice?” First, she said we would be late and the manager probably would not like it. I explained to her that it was a practice not a tryout and that the manager would not worry about her being a little late this day. Then she said something that I will never forget. “Dad, what if they don’t want me again?”
I had no clue that she was feeling that rejected by not being accepted by those teams. This is one reason that many people advocate for rec ball leagues not to call their evaluation days tryouts. Because we are giving a message that the kids will always be selected to be on a team. As you move up the ladder to travel ball, high school ball, etc. not everyone makes the team. This gave me a chance to explain to Jessica that her only responsibility, my only expectation of her was that she tried to do the best she could. I told her that God knows what team you are supposed to be on.
Jessica ended up going to the practice that day. The team accepted her and invited her to join them. That was her start in travel ball. She was only with this team for about six months. She did not play a lot. Newer, younger players on a travel team often spend a lot of time on the bench and paying their dues. But the team’s practices were very good and helped make Jessica a much better player. The following January she switched to a lesser known team. But that lesser known team eventually won some pretty nice tournaments. Jessica was the star of the team. But she might have never gotten there if I had not been fully supportive of Jessica whether she made a team or not. Every coach will see your kid differently. Jessica did her best at each tryout. It was not her fault that the coaches decided she was not that one player they were looking for. I never went to a coach asking that Jessica be given a certain position. It was up to her to earn her place on the team. If your child gets favored by your intimidating the coach, what did they learn?
Did I ever get too excited at Jessica’s games or practices? Perhaps. Once you are a coach it is hard to turn that side of you off. But I always tried to respect the other coaches. I tried not to be too crazy. I think I succeeded in that. The last thing I would have wanted to do was to embarrass Jessica. Always remember, your son or daughter could be like that pitcher I told you about earlier. They might do what you want them to just out of respect or love or even fear of you. They will do it for your acceptance and approval. Will you still love your son if he strikes out? Will you still love your daughter if she gives up the winning goal in her soccer match? Will they quit sports in anger because of your negativity? Or will you give them the right amount of love, encouragement, and support so that they will feel confident to do their best and make their own way in sports or anywhere else? Remember, it is up to you. And do not forget to make sure it about them!
I hope these suggestions and stories will help you find the right mix. What lessons have you learned from your child’s youth sports experience? Did you change the way you view your child or the way you acted around their activities because of a situation similar to what we went through? Please share you story with me by emailing it to firstname.lastname@example.org. Perhaps it will help others. Tune in to Kidz n Sports every Wednesday at 10 AM Pacific time on the internet at www.irantradio.com. If you don’t catch the live show you can get the podcast at www.irantradio.com or www.kidznsports.com.
May your child have a great youth sports experience. Mike Davis has been coaching youth sports since 1976. First as an assistant coach on his cousin’s little league team, then as a basketball coach and referee at the Miller’s Unit Boys Club in Phoenix, AZ. As of the date of this publication, Mike is starting his 13th year as a varsity high school softball coach. Coach Mike believes every kid that wants to play sports deserves a chance to do so. Teach First, Win Later is the mantra of his online radio talk show, Kidz n Sports. You can find Coach Mike on Facebook, Twitter, Linked In, and Pinterest.