Parents come to youth sports because they care about their kids and appreciate the benefits of physical exercise and team play. However, it is possible to care too much. Here is some expert advice for keeping the youth sports experience positive -- both physically and mentally.
Most experts say children should start in sports when they show a genuine, self-motivated interest. This does not mean the first step should involve organized competition. Sports consultant and retired coach Keith Zembower held his son out of organized sports until the boy was 10. He tells parents to get children grounded in skills, fundamentals, and play, rather than in organized games. He admits children may fall a bit behind when the time comes for competing, but they'll catch up.
Getting started means playing (note the word "play"). Encourage your child to take part in pickup games. Play catch with your daughter, kick soccer balls with your son, and shoot hoops with the whole family.
Jim M. Brown, a former physical education teacher and junior high, high school, and college coach, agrees with Zembower. "Many kids have done everything by age 12. They've had the traveling, the trophies, the new uniforms, the cheerleaders, the all-star teams, the whole thing. What's to look forward to? So, they may end up dropping out and developing an interest in other things -- some of them not good."
One last point: To prevent burnout, don't overdo the rewards like extra allowance or trips to the ice cream stand. Kids who "play for pay" tend to burn out quicker and take less pleasure in playing.
Playing on an organized team can be a wonderful experience for kids. Because of the time and energy demands, team sports can even help create closeness within the family. But that closeness can sometimes slip into excessiveness.
To avoid this, Brown, as a teacher and coach, advises parents to back off some. Don't wear T-shirts saying "I am Johnny's mother." Don't go to every practice. Skip a game or two. "Part of growing up," says Brown, "is the separating process. The child should not have a mom or dad looking over the fence at every move."
Parents also should watch for signs that they are projecting their own hopes and fears onto their youngster. Common signs of projection include:
- Becoming overprotective. Yes, losing hurts -- but probably not as much as a parent might believe. Don't go to great lengths to soothe the pain. Let your child's natural reaction guide your own reaction.
- Making big plans. Stop yourself immediately if you find yourself thinking, "Wow! With her talent, she could be a real star."
- Growing impatient. Parents sometimes worry that their child isn't progressing fast enough. Or isn't playing up to his potential.
It's easy to see why projection is bad: It implies that your child isn't measuring up to the standards that your fantasies are setting. The hard part is catching yourself when the results of projection show themselves -- often in the heat of battle.
There are positive things parents can do to help their youngster succeed:
1. Consider sports camps if the child is enthusiastic about team play and has real desire to improve skills.
2. If team sports are turning your child off, perhaps a park and rec, school, intramural, or church league would be better at this stage.
3. Give the coaches a break. If the coaching staff is reasonably fair and treats the kids with respect, avoid the temptation to second guess their judgement. Approach problems in a positive light, preferably outside the hearing of your child. And don't hesitate to pull your child from a team headed up by a coach who is abusive (physically or verbally) or who puts a child at risk of injury.
4. Make safety priority one. Check that equipment and clothing is well-fitted to your child and is up-to-date. Watch for signs of overtraining, such as excessive fatigue or soreness. Encourage kids to play a variety of positions and sports; over-specialization at a young age leads to injuries as well as burn-out.
There is, perhaps, no better time to demonstrate your good-parent sportsmanship than right after a game. Some do's and don'ts:
Do . . .Do give your child room to have fun.
- Allow for a cooling-off period. In this time, close your mouth and open your arms. "Put your arm around them," says Zembower. "Remind them that we are out here for the fun of it, and there is going to be another day."
- Ask questions about performance, such as: "What is the one thing you did that you would like to do again?" "What is the one thing you did that you would like to do differently?" "Did you have fun?"
- Don't ridicule people or performance. Remember when you were young and had the same experience. Share with your child how you dealt with that experience.
Don't . . .
- Immediately ask about winning. Winning should not be most important and therefore should not be your first concern. The outcome only concerns many younger kids for about three minutes after a game. "After that, they are more interested in where the snow cone stand is than with losing or winning," says sports consultant and retired coach Keith Zembower.
- Launch into an instant, detailed post-game analysis. Rick Wolff, coaching and sport psychology expert, calls it the station wagon syndrome featuring your child as the back seat prisoner and you, the parent, as the inquisitor. "Let the child tell you," says Wolff, "versus you telling the child what you would have done."
The bottom line of all of this: Let your kids enjoy sports. And let yourself enjoy them, too. Never forget that games are for playing.