When you’re a parent, the toughest thing about kids’ sports isn’t the break-of-dawn practices, the carpooling, or the team in the next town that’s a head taller than the home team. No, the biggest challenge for parents is standing on the sidelines, witnessing heart-stopping saves, crushing defeats and unfair calls — all within a culture that elevates athletic ability and dangles college scholarships almost within reach — and feeling helpless to protect our child’s feelings and dreams.
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No wonder we’re so prone to pushing our kids hard and yelling not-so-helpful comments from the stands. There’s a lot at stake, from our kids’ confidence to those scholarships we secretly dream about. We’re looking out for our kids — isn’t it our job to show them how to work hard for a goal and then achieve it? Shouldn’t we help them live up to their full athletic potential so they can reap the benefits of sports participation?
It’s true there’s a lot to cheer for when it comes to athletics. Not only do our kids develop a sense of teamwork and stay in shape, they develop traits such as responsibility, accountability and resilience. And at least one study has shown that athletes perform better in school than non-athletes and are more likely to graduate, possibly due in part to the development of key values such as honesty, fair play, respect for themselves and others and adherence to rules.
Problems mount, however, when the parent cares more about the sport than the child. While we want our kids to live up to their full potential, pushing them beyond their desires or abilities creates a power struggle between parent and child, undermines their joy in the activity, leads to burnout and injuries, and leaves the child feeling that he or she will never meet a parent’s expectations.
We all have noble intentions, but if we’re not careful we’ll end up doing more harm than good. Here, some tips on how to be your child’s biggest fan on and off the field.
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- Ease up on expectations. Instead of pushing your child toward specific performance levels (for instance, beating your high-school track times), encourage practice, improvement, a positive attitude and other traits and abilities they can control.
- Shout only positive encouragement during the game — and to all team members. Only offer constructive feedback once the game is over and the emotions die down.
- Respect coaches, officials and the other team. When we berate and question judgments, we only teach our kids to shift blame and disrespect others.
- In the event of a win, avoid shallow praise like “You were the star player!” and “You’re awesome!” Instead, encourage the effort your child has put forth and link positive behavior (running miles around the neighborhood) to positive results (a new personal record).
- When faced with a loss, empathize first. “It’s hard to lose when you worked so hard and poured your heart out on the court.” Then, point out the hard work your child put forth and let her know what she can feel proud about. “The team didn’t win, but you guys can feel great about the way you worked together. And you never gave up!”
- Resist blaming and negative comments, and counter-balance your child’s complaints as well. He might need a reminder that both teams had the same ref, and some referees are more skilled and experienced than others — it’s all part of playing sports.
- Help your child see that she can’t control the referee or the other players, but she can self-evaluate and control her own actions. If she’s unhappy with the outcome ask, “What would you do differently?” or, “What do you think your team should work on?”
- If you lost it during the game, you need to come clean. Apologizing to your child, the coach and others affected is a great way to demonstrate good sportsmanship.
Whether your child would rather pick flowers than catch fly balls, or maintains dreams of professional swimming, you’re always going to be his biggest fan. And when you can hold that position in a positive way, you and your child both win.
Amy McCready is the Founder of PositiveParentingSolutions.com and the author of the best selling book, "The 'Me, Me, Me' Epidemic: A Step-by-Step Guide to Raising Capable, Grateful Kids in an Over-Entitled World." For free parenting webinars and strategies to bring out the best in your kids, visit PositiveParentingSolutions.com.