Parents’ Role In Youth Sports: Keep ’em in the Game

By David A. Hammond

My oldest child is graduating high school and wrapping up his youth sports career just as my youngest is beginning her youth sports career, and I’ve been thinking about what a great time we’ve had. I learned a lot about myself as my son progressed through his career, and I think my experience is worth sharing with other folks with kids starting out in youth sports. Over the years I’ve coached soccer and Little League baseball, served as a board member, shuttled kids countless miles to and from practices, participated in fundraisers, and watched games and practices in rain, sleet, snow, and even blazing sun! I’ve put in my time, and it has been worth it. I’ve noticed parents of former students at many high school games lamenting the fact that their kids are through. The years of youth sports were golden for them, as they have been for me.

Youth sports impacts most kids, whether or not they participate. Youth sports also affects most parents. I’d like to help parents think about their children’s upcoming youth sports careers, the outcomes they envision for their kids, and the strategies most likely to achieve those outcomes. Successful youth sports experiences depend on setting realistic expectations and modeling appropriate behaviors. So what expectations are reasonable, and what behaviors should we model for our kids? To answer these questions we must first consider each child’s individual characteristics and their maturity level.

Having children is a lottery; we simply don’t know who we’ll get. Parents who excelled in sports may or may not find themselves with athletic kids. We’re all unique, and our individual strengths, weaknesses and personality characteristics may appear evident early on. On the other hand, an individual’s abilities often require years of development, and may also depend on one’s physical maturity, which progresses on different tracks for different individuals. Whatever your child’s characteristics, he or she, and you, can experience youth sports positively; however, this will depend on your approach to parenting. Success depends on considering your child’s characteristics and developing strategies to address their individual needs. The message for each youth athlete should be tailored, and thinking of your strategy in advance will help ensure you “stay on message.”

Parents seem to go through an evolutionary cycle as their children progress through youth sports. When their kids first start out, they are very intense about outcomes, but as their kids grow, they accept outcomes better. I know this was true for me. I’ve learned that it really is about “how you play the game,” rather than whether you win or lose. (I can’t help adding a caveat here: it is more fun to win…) Keeping the big picture in mind from the beginning will help you and your children avoid a lot of angst. Nothing will influence your kids’ sportsmanship more than your own behavior at games.

Our definitions of success are instrumental to helping our kids. Many kids subconsciously know it is important to give all of their effort and be a team player, but on a conscious level they just want to play and win, and be part of the team. Keep in mind that as they get older their motivations will change. Kids do love to win and hate to lose, but they usually get past the ups and downs sooner than their parents. Many parents understand this, yet still have difficulty acting appropriately in game situations. It is natural for our emotions to carry the day (or get carried away) at a sporting event, so good advice is to anticipate game day emotions, and be prepared to demonstrate good sportsmanship.

Author Dan Brown describes four roles in youth sports: spectator, player, coach and referee. He wisely counsels that those involved in youth athletics are wise to serve in only one of these roles at a time.# Note that the spectator role is reserved for parents; we’re not part of the game! Our job as parents is to support our kids, not to play, coach, or referee. The most valuable advice I received as a parent was to listen and wait patiently after each game until the athlete was ready to talk. Invariably, if I tried to initiate a post-game conversation it did not go well. Kids always support their team and their coaches, and even their opponents, but they are typically hard on themselves. I counsel patience; always wait for the athlete to talk first, even if it is a long wait. The players will debrief, and supportive parents will focus on reinforcing the attributes of sports the children value, such as teamwork, perseverance and sportsmanship. Here are some statistics that inform us where kids are coming from:

  • Percent who participate in sports to be with friends 65%
  • Percent who wanted to improve their sports skills 20%
  • Percent who said they wouldn’t care if no score was kept in their games 71%
  • Percent who said they wished no parents would watch them play 37%
  • Percent who said they see other kids act like poor sports frequently 51 %
  • Percent who would prefer to be on a losing team if they could play rather than warm the bench on a winning team 90%

Motivation to participate in youth sports varies. While statistics suggest seven of ten kids don’t care about the score, the flip-side is three of ten kids do care, and your child may be one of them. Many young athletes simply want to be playing with friends: while others are in it for the thrill, or simply love the sport or want to improve their skills. Yet still others participate for the group association; they want to get the sweatshirt, to add this activity and these friendships to their identity. Our job as parents is to assess our own kids’ motivation and tailor our message to promote and encourage their involvement. In my opinion, the measure of each coach’s success should be how many of the kids on their team return for another season. It is important to keep kids involved because once they drop out, it becomes very difficult to re-enter a sport.

After an event we should emphasize the fun parts; the group your kids were with and their successes. Often kids will acknowledge and appreciate the other team’s successes. If the other team demonstrated teamwork, calling it out will be appreciated by your kids. If the other team persevered when they were behind, your kids will know, and won’t mind your mentioning it. If the other team did or did not demonstrate good sportsmanship, your kids will know. Two things that will definitely alienate your kids:

  • Complaining about the refs (sometimes they will complain about the refs, just let it go, or emphasize it is outside their control.)
  • Complaining about coaches (they defend coaches to the teeth).

We all know we should emphasize the values of doing one’s best and demonstrating good sportsmanship; however, it is difficult to maintain composure in the heat of the moment, so plan ahead. Consider how your actions will appear. If you know you are inclined toward demonstrative behavior, then it would be wise to plan alternatives in advance. Many successful parents are those organizing ice cream or pizza for after the event, or otherwise engaged in helping out. If you have taken the leap and engaged as a parent-coach, I can provide a lot of advice for you, but it is far beyond the scope of this article. Suffice it to say that you must separate the role of coach from parent, which is nearly impossible. My advice: use these words, “now I am the coach, and I have twelve kids relying on me,” and “now I am your parent, I want to listen;” and ask your child to refer to you as “coach” on the field.

The value of participating in youth sports is gender neutral. Yes, opportunities aren’t equal and the sports are different, but the importance of the activity, and parents’ roles, are the same. Participation is paramount; consider: female high school athletes are three times more likely to graduate than non-athletes, 92 % less likely to get involved with drugs, and 80% less likely to get pregnant; yet only 52% of girls play organized sports.2

Participation gets more difficult as kids get older. Twenty million kids register each year for competitive sports, yet 70 percent quit playing by age thirteen.#,# What causes them to drop out? Part of the explanation is that there are fewer opportunities as kids reach high school. However, a contributing factor is parents’ failure to emphasize the value of participating. As the definition of success changes from doing one’s best to winning, it is hard for many to succeed. There are many sports opportunities available at young ages, and with messages tailored to each child’s needs, I think all of our children can find a sports opportunity that will carry through their high school years, and we’ll all be better off for it.

Copyright © 2012 David A. Hammond. All rights reserved. Used with permission.