Parents play a huge role in determining whether youth sports are a positive or negative experience for their kids. Although there is no set formula for success, there are some important guidelines for all parents to keep in mind.
1. Set a good example of an active person.
What kids see has greater impact on them than what they hear. In other words, kids are tuned into observational learning. They will do many things their parents do, and physical activity is no exception. Active parents produce active children. If children see their mom and dad participating in and enjoying sports, then it’s going to be more natural for them to want to pursue those activities. On the other hand, if parents are couch potatoes…
2. Let kids participate in determining when they are ready for sports.
Children who are forced into sports before they are ready usually have bad experiences. When kids say they are interested, parents should start looking seriously at it. By involving children in the decision-making process, they feel a sense of ownership in the outcome. This creates a greater sense of commitment: “I’m doing it because I want to do it, not because I’m made to do it.”
3. Give priority to your child’s own interests.
Most kids develop a sense of their personal interests at an early age. And although parents might prefer that their child be active in sports, maybe the child would rather play the violin. Because of this, parents should let their children have a say in determining what tune they march to. Remember that youth sports are about what participation can do for kids, and not what parents get out of it.
4. Don’t use sports as a baby-sitter.
Some parents erroneously believe their involvement merely consists of getting their child signed up and driving them to and from games. But that’s just part of it. Parents not only have a right but a responsibility to oversee their child’s sport participation.
5. Emphasize the process of enjoyment rather than the product of winning.
Research on young athletes’ motives for playing sports has consistently shown that their primary objective is to have fun. Studies also indicate that the main reason why youngsters drop out of sports is, “It isn’t fun any more.” Simply stated, children want to play sports to have fun—and when the fun disappears, so do they.
6. Emphasize striving to improve skills rather than comparing oneself with others.
Physical development occurs at different rates in youngsters, and this should be made clear to them. It is particularly important that children whose skill is lagging not view this as a permanent condition. Parents who praise self-improvement efforts can help their kids derive pleasure from their progress over time. This creates many worthwhile experiences in sports—even for athletes who never will be stars.
7. Give kids an opportunity for early success.
Properly structured learning situations are designed to ensure some degree of initial success. And when children perform sport skills correctly, they should be given ample amounts of verbal praise and/or nonverbal forms of reinforcement—a smile, a pat on the back, a high-five. In other words, catch the athlete doing something right. In addition, liberally reinforce effort and achievement. Remember, whether kids show it or not, the positive things you say and do stick with them.
8. Establish and maintain open lines of communication.
Tell your children what you expect—things like giving maximum effort, listening to the coach, having fun—and ask what they are thinking. Make it very clear you want to know how they feel about what’s happening in practices and games. This type of two-way communication is essential.
9. Evaluate your child’s coach.
Parents should talk to the coach, regularly go to games and occasionally attend practices. Additionally, they should ask themselves the following questions:
If not, it may be necessary to find another team for your child. Unfortunately, some coaches don’t understand what youth sports should be about, and the negative experience they provide can turn a kid off to sports forever.
10. Think safety first.
What can be done to prevent sport injuries? The American College of Sports Medicine offers the following guidelines:
11. Be alert for signs of pain or injury.
Kids might not say they are hurt because they believe it will disappoint parents and/or coaches. Because of this, adults must look for the symptoms of injuries common to the sport. Early detection is important. At the first sign of pain, get the young athlete out of the game or practice and get pain checked out. Additionally, an injured athlete should not return to play until the symptoms of injury have completely disappeared. Continued participation may make the injury worse and may place the athlete at a high risk for another injury.
12. Don’t live your dreams through your children.
All parents identify with their children to some extent and thus want them to do well. This is natural and healthy. But sometimes parents over-identify, and the child becomes an extension of themselves. Parents who are “winners” or “losers” through their children are experiencing the frustrated-jock syndrome, which places extreme pressure on the children. The young athlete must succeed, or the parent’s self-image is threatened. To avoid this, don’t define your own self-worth in terms of how good your children are.
Editor’s Note: Thank you to Frank L. Smoll, Ph.D., for this article. Dr. Smoll is a sport psychologist at the University of Washington and co-director of Youth Enrichment in Sports. To see previews of his Mastery Approach to Parenting in Sports and Mastery Approach to Coaching DVDs, visit www.y-e-sports.com.