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Rick Wolff Chairman, The Center For Sports Parenting Joel Fish is one of the few experts who provides real insight and compassionate advice for moms and dads. 101 Ways to Be a Terrific Sports Parent should be mandatory reading for anyone involved in youth sports.
Introduction: Why our sports-playing kids need our help
Today, a record number of kids play sports — approximately 40 million boys and girls, ages 6-17. That's a lot of sports-playing kids and a lot of sports parents.
If you're reading this book, you are most likely the parent of one or more of these kids. You, like many other sports parents today, may have a question, issue, or concern about your sports-playing child.
If you do, I promise you, you're not alone.
As a licenced psychologist and sport psychologist with over 20 years of clinical experience dealing with a wide range of athletes, both professional and amateur, I have met and worked with many parents. In fact, I meet parents every day who tell me they feel confused, stressed out, or simply unsure of how to deal with the many issues and pressures raised by their child playing a sport. These are hardworking, caring moms and dads from all backgrounds, walks of life, and income levels who have lots of questions — lots and lots of them — but few answers when it comes to helping their kids have a positive sports experience.
I routinely hear questions from concerned parents like:
My child seems quieter since joining the soccer team. Could he be stressed out?
My daughter's field hockey coach pushes very hard; is this okay?
Our son seems totally disinterested in sports. Should we sign him up anyway?
My daughter wants to quit the swim team mid-season. Will letting her quit send a bad message?
I'm a single mom raising a teenage son. He seems obsessed with winning. Is this just normal "boy" behavior?
Our eleven-year-old daughter is into skateboarding but we worry that there's an unhealthy subculture that goes with it. Is this true?
Today's Sports Parents Are Often in Uncharted Territory
It's no wonder that some parents feel they have more questions than answers. Youth sports have changed quite a bit over the years, but especially in the last twenty years. Sports parents today often find themselves in uncharted territory.
When I was a kid (I'm 48 years old now), after school or during the summer, I just walked out the back door, grabbed a baseball or hockey stick, and headed out to the street or to a nearby field to find some other kids to play with. We played for hours with no uniforms, no refs, no parents on the sidelines urging us to victory. Sure, I liked to win; we all did. But if we didn't it wasn't the end of the world. We thought, "We'll get them next time."
We played for hours. We played until the sky became so dark we couldn't see the ball anymore. We played until our mothers had to force us back inside. We played hard because we loved to play. It was fun.
Then, kids who played sports were just playing games, often with whoever was available from the neighborhood or playground. Now, kids who play sports are highly organized on teams and in leagues. Few kids are let out of the door and sent off to play or left to their own devices. There is far less spontaneous play. Now, kids are coached, trained, conditioned, and judged. Most youth sports occur on teams or in leagues — there are fewer and fewer pickup games. Back when we were kids, if we played on a team, it was most likely a school team and we played for the school year and then we stopped. Now there are school teams that end but recreational leagues, after-school leagues, intramural sports, weekend leagues, summer leagues, sport camps, and year-round travel teams that go on and on.
Today, there are sports and competitions for things that weren't even considered sports when you were a kid — in-line skating, snowboarding, downhill racing, and skateboarding. The range of sports today is incredibly diverse.
I'm sure you don't need me to tell you that youth sports today are not like when you were a kid — you're living it. You're the one out there juggling schedules, shuttling your child to practices, attending the games and shelling out the money for uniforms and equipment.
There's Lots of Good in Youth Sports Today — But...
In many ways, the changes that have occurred in youth sports since you were young are extremely positive. The sheer volume of kids playing sports today is terrific. It used to be that only the talented kids could play on teams; now kids of all skill levels can participate and that's good news for everybody. One of the reasons the number of sports-playing kids has skyrocketed is because the opportunities for girls to play sports has exploded in the last twenty-five years. In fact, one out of three sports-playing kids today is a girl. Kids can also participate now at younger ages. It used to be only school-aged kids had the chance to play organized sports. In general, kids of all ages, everywhere, have the opportunity to play more kinds of sports than ever before.
All great things. But there is a downside to all the changes in youth sports today.
Though a record forty million kids are playing sports, too many of them are unhappy. In fact, over 30 percent of them are quitting, dropping out, and throwing in the towel by the time they're thirteen!
According to studies conducted by the Youth Sport Institute at Michigan State University, the majority of kids who quit sports say it's because they're not having any fun. Kids today feel too much pressure to win.
Think about that for a minute. That's nearly twelve million kids who were not having any fun playing soccer, basketball, hockey, tennis, and many other sports. Twelve million kids! That's a lot of kids who become disenchanted with sports. The sports-playing kids I work with often tell me they feel stressed out, worried, and overwhelmed. Something is very wrong. Sports is supposed to be fun! Once, not so long ago, it was fun.
In today's highly organized and specialized youth sports environment, more and more sports-playing kids feel that just giving their best during a game or competition is not good enough. At younger and younger ages, kids are sent the message: "If you don't win, don't play. Winning is the reason we play. Winning is everything."
When winning is everything, the competitive environment can become a stressful and negative place for youngsters.
When winning is everything, sports is no longer fun.
What Sports Can Mean for Your Child in the Long Run
The high dropout rate in youth sports does not just hold short-term consequences for your child. The experiences we have as children playing sports help shape us as adults. For better or for worse, our early sports experience leaves its mark upon us. Athletics is one of the arenas in which, as children, we develop our identities. Self-esteem and self-confidence issues are frequently raised. A child with a poor athletic image and little confidence in sports may feel bad about him- or herself for years to come. The memories your child will have from the big game, the big race, the tournament, often stick to them like glue. Even events that happen at routine practices and games can profoundly influence your child for years to come, like getting laughed at or teased by teammates and how they are treated by coaches. I work with many adults, including professional athletes, and I can tell you that the memories we carry with us from sports are powerful ones. I know because adults frequently share their memories with me. Sports memories are typically vivid; the emotions attached to them are surprisingly fresh and often quite painful.
If your child is quitting sports, or is at risk to quit later, because she isn't having fun, whatever negative experience she has had may well follow her through adulthood. That's certainly not good. If your child drops out of sports, he won't reap the many benefits that sports has to offer — like goal setting, perseverance, teamwork, and fitness. That's not good either.
Why Sports Parents Make All the Difference
Parents frequently ask me, "How can I make sure that my child has a good experience in sports? What's the secret?"
Some parents believe the secret is finding the right coach. Others say it's all in how she gets along with her teammates. Still others believe the secret is to match him with the sport that best fits his personality and temperament.
Yes, coaches, teammates, and the sport he plays matter. But the most critical factor in whether the forty million sports-playing children love their sports experiences or hate them is the behavior — both public and private — and the attitude of their parents. This fact surprises many parents.
Certainly, outside people and outside factors matter, and yes, these outside influences do contribute to shaping your child. But there's no doubt about it — parents always have had, and always will have, the most significant influence over their kids. What you think about your child is more important to him than what anyone else thinks. If your daughter feels, "Mom and Dad are proud of me," that is more significant than acceptance from a coach or peer. But if your child feels, or even gets a hint, that Mom and Dad love me more when I play well or when I win, then that puts her under a lot of pressure. Kids who feel too much pressure to win don't enjoy sports. These are the kids who either quit youth sports or wish they could.
101 Ways to Be a Terrific Sports Parent
In addition to my work as a licensed psychologist and sport psychologist, I'm also a dad. My wife Debbie and I have three children (Eli, age fourteen, and twins, Talia and Ari, age ten) who play sports. From both my professional and personal experience, I can tell you that parenting a child in sports today can often be challenging — sometimes very challenging!
I'd like to help make sports parenting a little less challenging for you. Moms and dads tell me that having the right information about their child's emotional and physical needs in sports, combined with some inspiration, helps a lot when they find themselves in that sometimes complex and confusing world of youth sports. Throughout this book you will find 101 ways to help your child be successful on and off the field. Some of these 101 ways will encourage you to take specific action steps regarding your role as a sports parent. Others will just ask you to consider a piece of advice or information. You certainly don't have to memorize these key points or read them and digest them all at once. Some may apply to an experience you and your child may be having now or maybe not for another ten years. Keep in mind, your ten-year-old soccer or hockey maniac may become the fourteen-year-old you have to force to go to practice. As you'll discover, the age of your child matters in how you'll deal with various issues. This is why throughout this book I generally break age down into three general categories. Elementary school-age (six-to-eleven-year old) kids tend to see things in black and white terms. They need help finding the gray areas. Middle school-age kids (twelve to fourteen years old) begin to wrestle with identity issues. They're asking, "Who am I?" and we need to help them find a positive answer. During the high school years (fifteen years old and up), peer pressure sets in and kids need our help to make the best choices for themselves.
You may already be aware of, or putting into practice, many of these important sports-parenting guidelines — whether you know it or not. Many parents are doing a great job parenting their sports-playing kids. Sometimes parents say to me, "Well, I'm just happy to know I am doing the right thing." Reassurance can mean a lot when we're trying to parent our children in sports. If your child is happy in sports there's no reason why he or she can't stay that way — especially once you have read this book, which is packed full of tips, techniques, and advice for parenting your child in sports at every age.
Or, you may be reading this with the full knowledge that your child is not having a good time in sports and you're wondering what, if anything, you can do about it. I ask you not to worry either. As you'll discover throughout this book, there's plenty you can do about it. You can help your child have a better experience in sports. I've worked with many families having issues and problems with their sports-playing children and just about all of them were able to resolve them, often quickly, and sometimes even easily. But before that can happen, you need to understand what your child is truly experiencing out there on the field, the court, or the playground.
I offer these 101 ways to be a terrific sports parent to you because the parents I have worked with and spoken to throughout the years have told me that this is the information they find most helpful and useful. These are the guidelines that help create terrific sports parents and happy and healthy sports-playing kids. I'm confident it can help you and your sports-playing child.
In sports, you cannot script the outcome of events. You can't always get what you want. We cannot guarantee that our sports-playing kids will have a good time or a good experience. We cannot guarantee that as parents we won't make some mistakes. But I can promise you this: If you are knowledgeable and aware of what your child is experiencing emotionally and physically in sports, you will be better able to give your child what he or she needs in order to have a good experience. When sports-playing kids get what they need from their parents — the right kind of love, support, guidance, and encouragement — they will stick with sports and reap many benefits for years to come. And when that happens, everyone wins.
Copyright © 2003 by Joel Fish, Ph.D.
Why our sports-playing kids need our help
Why you're the most important influence
It's not good or bad -- it's how your child learns to handle it
Practice doesn't always make perfect
More isn't necessarily better
V. COACHING CONCERNS
Cultivate a positive relationship
VI. SIBLING RIVALRY
Foster a healthy competitive environment
Prepare your child, physically and emotionally, for her sport
If it's not fun, something is wrong
Empower your child through sports
X. FAMILY ISSUES
Work together in the best interest of your children -- and respect your own needs
Creating positive memories for kids in sports