My first introduction to the unseemly sideline of youth sports happened at a U6 soccer game. The players were in kindergarten, an age when the goal flags at the end of the field hold as much appeal as the soccer ball and after-game snacks are the real highlight, especially if someone brings doughnuts.
We laughed a lot when our kids scored in the wrong goal, shoved their hands down their shorts or stopped to watch a plane formation flying overhead.
Then the boys played a team with a shouting dad. I shout too, but this dad took it to another level.
“Run to the ball! Faster! Win that!” he yelled, an angry barrage that continued as his son ran down the field. “Dribble! Go Left! Man on! Shoot!”
The boy dribbled. He shot. The ball crossed the goal line. Parents cheered. The boy burst into tears.
Since then our three kids have sampled a smorgasbord of sports, from football, basketball, baseball and soccer to karate, tennis, cross- country, and track.
We don’t care what athletic endeavors they choose as long as they’re moving, having fun and developing life lessons like teamwork, sportsmanship and self-discipline.
As our kids’ biggest fans we love watching them run, throw, jump and kick, and tend toward high-decibel exuberance on the bleachers and sidelines. That is, except at tennis matches. That’s an oddly quiet sport.
Thankfully, the majority of youth games, matches, and meets are flanked by positive parents hollering encouragements like, “Good job” and “Woo hoo!”
But I’ve also witnessed and heard about a lot of sports mama and dad drama over the years.
A mom gets ejected for yelling profanities at the teenage referee.
A dad takes a swing at another father after talking smack about their on-the-court daughters.
A parent constantly complains about the coach, players and referees, as though battling an evil conspiracy to keep Junior from achieving those pro-ball dreams.
And I’ll admit, there’ve been times my own behavior, while not red card worthy, has nonetheless crossed a line of caring too much.
According to a 2011 article in the International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching, when parents identify too much with their children’s sport successes or failures it creates stress for the child.
“Some parents thus become ‘winners’ or ‘losers’ through their children, and the pressure placed on the children to excel can be extreme,” wrote Frank L. Smoll, Sean P. Cumming, and Ronald E. Smith. “A child must succeed or the parent’s self-image is threatened. Much more is at stake than a mere game, and the child of such a parent carries a heavy burden.”
So, I’d like to call a time-out for some parental coaching I wish I’d heard years ago.
It’s not about winning. Sure, we want our children to work hard and compete to the best of their ability, but this is their game, not ours. Besides, good sportsmanship is a life skill that matters no matter what side of the score board you’re on. Sports offer a great opportunity to help our children develop character through both wins and losses.
Expect mistakes. If the point-guard misses a shot, the quarterback grounds a pass or the goalie fails to block, it’s natural to cringe. But please clamp your lips closed and wait for something to cheer about. They’re children. They make mistakes. It’s part of the game. It’s part of life.
Even if the mistake is unsportsmanlike behavior, the game usually provides a natural consequence making it a learning opportunity with life-long benefits.
Through those consequences the young athletes learn self-control, conflict resolution and how to disagree with authority respectfully – all qualities that employers love.
Cheer for, not against. Even in individual sports like swimming and running the child is usually part of a team. Cheer for everyone. In fact, it’s OK to express appreciation for skill or sportsmanship displayed by the opposing team. Again, they aren’t professional athletes. They’re children.
Treat the ref like the field. No, that doesn’t mean walk all over him. Just pay as much attention to him as you would a patch of grass. Refs make mistakes, too. They aren’t going to get every call right.
In a week, month or year that horrible call isn’t going to matter. It’s a game, not life or death or a golden opportunity. Besides, if you yell at the ref it not only demonstrates poor self-control, it risks making the ref cranky, resulting in more bad calls.
Let go. One of the big benefits of organized sports is having other adults to mentor our children. If we holler “pass” or “shoot” when the coach has told the player to dribble, we undermine his authority. Our kids deserve a chance to learn and grow without us calling all the shots.
And when inevitable disagreements pop up, we can pick the ones that truly matter and express our opinions respectfully at the right time and place, preferably not at a game or in front of the players.
See the big picture. A small percentage of youth athletes go on to play in college. Even fewer make it professionally. Some lose interest before high school, especially if they have unruly parents.
So, instead of imagining the next Jordan, Messi or Manning, parents should aim for the youth sports experience to impart life-long lessons while developing confidence, making friends and having fun.
There’s a reason the word “play” shows up so much in sports. But if sports parents steal the fun with sports mama and dad drama, the real loser is the kid. And nobody wants that.