A Parental Guide for Nurturing a Young Athlete
Much has been written and said in the media recently concerning the role parent’s play in their children’s sporting life. Much of it has been negative, stories of fistfights between coaches and parents at Little League games, and overbearing parents so over-involved in their children’s sports that they undermine growth and performance. In fact, approximately 73 percent of children who compete in organized sports quit by age 13. Many drop out because they say the pressure from coaches and parents simply takes all the fun out of playing and competing.
So how can we keep our kids motivated and help them achieve their sports goals without burning them out? We need to shift the emphasis from competition and winning to fun and play and we need to let our children take the lead in defining their sports commitments. The job of parents is to help set healthy limits and reasonable expectations. While there are no recipes for creating star athletes, we can nurture elite talent and promote healthy exercise habits in young people
Sheila King, an exercise physiologist at UCLA provides a set of guidelines that I have found useful as a coach, and feel can be a practical aid to parents as they share sporting experiences with their children
- Lose the attitude of winning at all costs. Many children do not enjoy organized sports because coaches and parents put too much pressure on winning. Fewer than 1 percent of the children participating in organized sports today will qualify for any type of athletic scholarship in college and an even smaller number of those will go on to professional sports or the Olympics, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics. Coaches and parents who instill a life-long love of fitness and sports are the real winners
- Providing good coaching can help children develop the skills and abilities they need to excel and succeed in sports. The best coaches are positive and offer lots of encouragement, emphasizing both skill development and good sportsmanship. They are organized and set limits for both players and parents. They do not chastise or punish players for making mistakes. Instead, they praise the effort and emphasize fun, not winning at all costs. Most youth league coaches are volunteers and have not had professional training but that doesn’t mean you have to put up with a verbally abusive coach or one who arrives late and doesn’t organize practices. If you end up with one, try to move your child to another team as soon as possible. If you can’t get a transfer, discuss your concerns with the coach in a private, non-threatening conversation
- Be sure your children are playing at the appropriate level for age and skill development. Nothing can be more discouraging to children than playing over their heads. Confidence is key — especially for girls, who more often express lower perceptions of physical competence than boys. Emphasize effort over result. By the same token, nothing can be more frustrating than playing below your potential. If your children are highly skilled, make sure they’re challenged on the field or on the court. If they’re playing above their peer level, find groups that meet their needs because a child with the potential to be an elite athlete deserves special attention and consideration. There are plenty of resources out there; it’s up to you to take full advantage of them.
- Don’t rehash every detail of the game with your child. Over-analyzing play can take the fun out of it. And focusing only on mistakes can backfire: Some kids will do anything to avoid making another mistake, including not doing anything at all. Children need to develop their instincts and learn to trust them. They don’t need to dwell on every misstep. Let the coach provide feedback during practice when children can readily make change
- Some children are ready for competition at an early age. But from a developmental standpoint, competition is best introduced in adolescence when children are more comfortable testing themselves against others. Most pre-adolescents do not enjoy the competitive nature of sports. The emphasis in this age group should be on fun, movement variety, social and skill developments
- Children have to have the desire within themselves to compete and excel at sports. Parents cannot force children to succeed as athletes. The best approach is to expose kids to a variety of sports. Then let them choose the sport. Examine your personal motives for wanting your child to compete. If you are trying to live vicariously through your child, reassess what your child wants and needs and put those desires ahead of your own
- Never let your child hear you criticizing the coach or other players. Let your child know it’s not the end of the world if they lose an important game. It could be their most important lesson. Parents who shout obscenities and criticisms embarrass children and squelch their desires. Keep the sideline comments positive and encouraging. Refrain from blaming umpires and referees for “bad” calls. Teach your children that such judgments are part of the game and must be overcome. Realize that most of the referees and umpires are volunteers who provide a service for your children
Help children learn to balance sports in their lives. Keeping children well rounded will provide them with the confidence and skills to adapt to the challenges they will face in life, keep them fit and healthy, and provide memorable experiences for the entire family to share.
Empowering Conversations with Your Child
by Jim Thompson
When we think about what makes people friends with each other, a number of things come to mind. For example, our friends like us and enjoy spending time with us, as we enjoy them. And what is it we mostly do when we are together with our friends? Mostly we talk and listen to each other.
Conversations are the glue between people, the essential element in a strong relationship. Relationships wither without communication, and the very best form of communication is the conversation. Many parents fall into the trap of thinking that it is their job to talk and their child’s to listen. Actually that’s only half-right. It is also our job to listen and the child’s job to talk. It’s a wonderful thing when a parent and child can really talk to and hear each other.
It is important that parents intentionally seek out conversations about sports with their athletes. Here are some suggestions for how to engage your child in a conversation about sports.
1. Establish Your Goal—A Conversation Among Equals: A conversation is something between equals. Kings didn’t have conversations with their subjects. They told them what to do. Prepare yourself for a conversation with your child by reminding yourself that sports is her thing, not yours. Remember that you want to support her, to let her know that you are on her side. Your goal is not to give advice on how to become a better athlete. It should be to engage your child in a conversation among equals, one of whom (you!) is on the side of the other (her!).
2. Adopt a Tell-Me-More Attitude: Brenda Ueland penned one of the most important essays on relationships ever written, Tell Me More: “When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand. Ideas actually begin to grow within us and come to life.”
Adopt the attitude that you want your child to tell-you-more (“I really want to hear what you have to say.”), and then listen to what he has to say—even if you don’t agree with it or like it—and you will begin to tap into what Ueland calls the “little creative fountain” in your child.
“If you are very tired, strained…this little fountain is muddied over and covered with a lot of debris…it is when people really listen to us, with quiet fascinated attention, that the little fountain begins to work again, to accelerate in the most surprising way.”
Think of your conversation with your child as an Olympic event with judges. A conversation that rates a 9 or a 10 is one in which the child does more talking and the parent more listening. Set your goal before you start, and go for it.
3. Listen! In many instances you may know exactly what your child can do to improve. However, this is a conversation, remember? Your goal is to get your child to talk about her sports experience, so ask rather than tell. Save your tellings for another time.
4. Use Open-Ended Questions: Some questions lend themselves to one-word responses. “How was school today?” “Fine.” Your goal is to get your child to talk at length, so ask questions that will tend to elicit longer, more thoughtful responses.
- “What was the most enjoyable part of today’s practice/game?”
- “What worked well?”
- “What didn’t turn out so well?”
- “What did you learn that can help you in the future?”
- “Any thoughts on what you’d like to work on before the next game?”
5. Also ask about life-lesson and character issues: “Any thoughts on what you’ve learned in practice this week that might help you with other parts of your life?” Even if you saw the entire game, the goal is to get your child to talk about the game the way she saw it, not for you to tell her what she could have done better.
6. Show You Are Listening. Make it obvious to your child that you are paying attention through use of nonverbal actions such as making eye contact as he talks, nodding your head and making “listening noises” (“uh-huh,” “hmmm,” “interesting,” etc.).
Listening is one of the greatest gifts you can give your child! Ueland again:
“Who are the people, for example, to whom you go for advice? Not to the hard, practical ones who can tell you exactly what to do, but to the listeners; that is, the kindest, least censorious, least bossy people that you know. It is because by pouring out your problem to them, you then know what to do about it yourself.”
7. Let Your Child Set the Terms: William Pollack, MD, author of Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood, notes that children have different “emotional schedules” that determine when they are ready to talk about an experience. Forcing a conversation right after a competition (when there may be a lot of emotion) is often less successful than waiting until the child gives an indication that he is ready to talk. Boys may take longer than girls to talk about an experience, so look for prompts that a child is ready. And conversations don’t have to be lengthy to be effective. If your child wants a brief discussion, defer to his wishes. If he feels like every discussion about sports is going to be long, he’ll likely begin to avoid them. And don’t be afraid of silence. Stick with it and your child will open up to you.
8. Connect through activity. Sometimes the best way to spark a conversation is through an activity that your child enjoys. Playing a board game or putting a puzzle together can allow space for a child to volunteer thoughts and feelings about the game and how he performed. This is especially important for boys, who often resist a direct adult-style of conversation.
9. Enjoy: The most important reason why you should listen to your child with a tell-me-more attitude: Because then she will want to talk to you, and as she (and you) get older, you will find there is no greater gift than a child who enjoys conversations with you.