Johnny started playing soccer because all of the kids in kindergarten were signing up. Then, by third grade, he is tapped for the all-star team that meets year round and competes in tournaments out of state. Jenny began gymnastics to burn off some extra energy as a toddler. Then, before she could even read, she was invited to a "pre-team" program, and now spends 20 hours a week flipping at the gym.
Kids like Johnny and Jenny are clearly devoted to their sports. But they are not the only ones who are committed: so are their parents.
With tuitions and fees that can approximate a monthly car payment, missed family dinners and weekends lost traveling to remote locations to sit inside a gym, at a ball field or in a hotel convention center eating overpriced hot dogs, no one can doubt that youth sports parents are dedicated to their child's athletic pursuits.
The dollars, hours and effort invested on the part of the entire family can make what began as a fun activity into a lifestyle. And while it is a lifestyle that can bring many happy memories, it is also one that can drive even the most good-hearted sports parents into the rat race that is a part of the dark side of youth sports.
As a parent and as the owner of one of the largest gymnastics clubs in the United States, I've had the opportunity to sit on both sides of the bleachers. I sheepishly admit that there were moments of my own parental insanity. And I've certainly witnessed and experienced scores of others levied toward me. Yet, in almost each and every case the parent involved was a good-hearted, well-meaning person who simply got sucked up in the frenzy of competitive parenting.
It happens. Good people do bad things. Rational people have irrational moments. Here are a dozen dangerous ideas that can plague even the best-intentioned sports parents:
1. If my child fails to make consistent progress, it is her coach's fault and we should change gyms/programs. While occasionally this is true, usually changing programs is a cause for further lack of progress, not more. Progress is not linear. Two steps forward, one step back followed by lots of jogging in place is a normal path to progress. Time and repetitions will get the athlete moving forward again. Kids develop in fits and starts. Growth spurts both physically and psychologically can derail progress. Some seasons are going to go better than others. Scapegoating the coach will not change the fact that developing a young athlete takes time and patience.
2. For all the money I am paying, there better be results. Well, first, it doesn't work that way. What you are paying for is time and opportunity for instruction. So long as the program honors that by providing the time and coach, it is up to your child to create the results. You can't buy a back handspring on beam. You can't buy a well thrown fast ball. You earn it. Additionally, as the adult in the family you are making the decision on how much money is spent on a child's activity. Please do not make it his or her burden to be responsible for the decision you made.
3. The more time practicing, the better. Not at all. The more time training, the greater chance of injury and burnout. For athletes, rest is a vital part of their training so their bodies can repair and recover. Psychologically, having a couple days off a week allows the athlete to yearn for training instead of feeling handcuffed by it. Yes, of course, as an athlete moves through the program to the more elite levels of play more time may be needed to develop conditioning and skills. But still there should be ample time away from training. As with most things in life, just because some is good, more is not necessarily better.
4. To be truly great at a sport, my child must sacrifice a normal childhood. Childhood comes but just once in a person's life. Don't sacrifice it for anything. First, it is not necessary. But second, it never comes around again. Will there be moments of sacrifice? Yes, yes there will. But to sacrifice all or even a majority of childhood? No way. Remember you are raising a child who happens to be an athlete, not an athlete who happens to be a child.
5. My child is doing a sport to earn a college scholarship. Hate to break it to you, but less than 2 percent of high school seniors earn an athletic scholarship to college. Your child should play a sport to develop fitness, make friends, have fun and learn great life skills and lessons. And if your child happens to end up in that 2 percent, that's fantastic. But to expect that from her will only lead to undo pressure and almost certain disappointment.
6. Because I watch practice so much, I can coach my child's sport. Ok, then because I watch Grey's Anatomy, I am a doctor? I didn't think so. While your child's coaches may not look like professionals in their sweat pants and T-shirt, they very much are. Years of experience with the sport, coaching clinics, safety certifications, congresses and seminars as well as reading technical journals and books, attending internal trainings, watching instructional videos and scanning YouTube for drills and ideas is what makes a coach expert. And, by the way, I promise not to come into your place of work and give you unsolicited advice on how to do your job. You're welcome.
7. I can motivate my child to perform with bribes like money or presents. By conditioning a child to train for a treat, you are raising a circus animal not an intrinsically motivated human being. Learning a new skill should be the motivation for the athlete to train, not a new iPod. Not to mention that it is not your job to motivate your child in her sport, that is her job and that of her coaches. You have to nag her enough about her being kind and polite and doing her homework and chores. Let the coaches nag her at her practice.
8. It's not like we are going to the Olympics, so there is no need to take this seriously. "We" are not doing the sport. "He" or "she" is. And remember that 2 percent rate for NCAA scholarships? That statistic suddenly looks like a sure thing compared to the Olympics. So, you are correct, your child is not going to the Olympics. I say this not because I don't think your child is talented. I say this because almost nobody's child is going to the Olympics; so, the odds are that I am correct. Your child takes a sport seriously to learn discipline, how to be part of something bigger than herself and to challenge herself physically and emotionally. The process of taking it seriously is the gift of the sport. Joining a team teaches responsibility and commitment. Don't lose that valuable lesson for your child.
9. As soon as he isn't having fun, it's okay to quit. Fun is an important, even essential, part of sports. But not every day or even week or month of participating in a sport is fun. There are times when things get hard. There are times when they are frustrating. Working though those times teaches resilience that will serve your child well long after he leaves the sport. Sure, a pattern of not having fun might signal that it is time to re-evaluate your child's participation, but a single period of time that is "not fun" is not a good reason to quit.
10. No quitting. Ever. On the flip side, sometimes it is time to step away and move on to another sport or activity. Children's interest in things change. That's normal. Passions dwindle or shift. Again watch for patterns, rather than single incidents. Encourage your child to see something through to a logical ending time (end of a month, term, season or school year). Additionally, help your child formulate a plan as to what he will be doing next so he is not without a physical outlet. Finally, teach your child to say good-bye to coaches and teammates in a way that honors and respects the time they spent together. Endings are hard and the temptation will be to slink off into the night without a glance backward. Don't do it.
11. Not getting a medal will crush my child's self-esteem. No it won't. In the short term, she might feel badly. But it won't ruin her confidence forever. In fact, not getting a medal will actually increase her self-esteem in the long run if she is coached through the disappointment. First, allow her to process those sad feelings by thinking about what went wrong. Then, help her (perhaps in concert with her coaches) to develop a plan to work toward improvement. Following these steps will increase her self-esteem. However, what can ruin her confidence is how you react to her not getting a medal. If you show disappointment in her, lead her to believe that no matter what she does she will not be able to improve her performance or forget to explain to her that failure to achieve a goal is normal and that each time people put forth effort they are not always rewarded, that will crush her, not the lack of a $1.49 medal.
12. It's okay for my daughter's coach to scream at her or call her names. He is just trying to get the best out of her. No. No, it is not okay for anyone to abuse your child. Ever. Even if that person is trying to get the "best" out of her.
It's so easy to get swept into the tide of competitive sports parenting. Wanting to be good parents, we try to give our kids everything we can to set them up for success and happiness. Wanting our kids to succeed, we worry that we are placing them at a competitive disadvantage if we don't push them harder. Wanting them to be happy and have strong self-esteem, we want to protect them from disappointment. And so goes the hamster wheel that powers the terrified segment of our parenting brain.
Take a deep breath. Pause the wheel. And regain perspective.
If we really want to understand what your child-athlete wants most from you is this: for you to be less stressed and tired. Stop running yourself ragged and freaking yourself out about your child's sport. This is what your child wants most from you -- that and loving her unconditionally. Neither which have a thing to do with her athletic career.