“You gotta want it, son. Show them you have a little heart.”
“Be ready, the ball’s coming your way!”
“Run. Faster. FASTER. FAAAASSSTER!!”
“Ugh, It’s OK. You’ll get it next time.”
“Let’s play some defense now.”
“Stay in there, hands up! Put your hands up, PUT YOUR HANDS UP”!
Those are just a few of the dozens of things the parents sitting next to me yelled out to a pint-size 7-year-old as he ran up and down the basketball court for 36 minutes. If only they knew that prompting, instructing and endlessly offering their two cents from the sidelines was actually sabotaging their young athlete’s chances at success, not helping them.
Imagine trying to do your job or focus on a task while someone slings non-stop corrections and critiques at you? It would make concentrating on anything impossible. When we do that to our children, not only does it distract them from the game, but in many cases, kids will actually shut down and tune out when they hear too much instruction. How do you expect them to listen to their coach when all they hear is you?
I used to be that parent. Thinking I was helping by yelling out “insightful” tips to my children. My daughter even started looking at me after each play to see my reaction. Each time she made a mistake she would get more and more anxious, clearly wondering if I approved or disapproved of her performance.
Then a few years ago I read about some meaningful research conducted by Bruce E. Brown and Rob Miller of proactivecoaching.info. For 30 years, they asked kids of all ages what their parents could say about the sports they played that would make them feel happy, confident, and fulfilled.
Turns out the words children most want to hear from Mom and Dad are “I love to watch you play.” It's that easy. Yet In the hundreds of youth sporting events I had attended, I had never heard one parent say it.
So I started. So did my friends. I worked on being quiet during the game and afterwards, I’d say things like “it was so fun for me to watch you today,” or “I loved being here and seeing you play soccer.”
At first it felt a little cheesy, but guess what? It worked.
Unlike seemingly positive statements like “you’ll do better next time,” which inadvertently put pressure on kids to improve, “I love to watch you play” doesn’t place judgment on performance. Instead, it sends the message that you’re happy to be along for the ride, just because you enjoy being there. It’s a way of letting kids know they have your unconditional support because their value isn’t dependent on winning.
Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly once shared a similar insight. He said he believed a key to his football players' success was having a support system they knew always would be there, especially when they had played poorly or suffered a loss.
In the increasing crazy and competitive world of youth sports, our kids don’t need us telling them what they already know — that they should have shot the ball, blocked the puck or stuck the landing. They need to know we love them even though they didn’t.
Alex Flanagan is a sports broadcaster for NBC Sports and the NFL Network. She created the website Ilovetowatchyouplay.com to provide parents with a resource to help them survive youth sports. She lives in southern California with her husband and three children.