It has often been said that there is no better place to teach character than on the playing field, where sports can instill the life lessons that prepare young people for success. The most common lessons in sports concern resilience, teamwork, competitiveness, discipline, leadership and how to overcome fear and other adversity. Youth who learn these lessons can use them to succeed in sports and, more importantly, in the rest of their lives as family members, students, employees, employers and community members.
The very existence of the Positive Coaching Alliance (the national nonprofit I work for as executive director of the Sacramento chapter) is based on sport as the ideal educational environment. Sports are exciting, healthy and generally fun, so children and teens are likely to engage and commit in ways quite different from the classroom. Sports also offer immediate feedback and understanding of cause and effect: In baseball, for instance, either you moved the runner over or you did not. There’s no waiting, unlike when a teacher grades your paper.
For generations, youth sports provided opportunities for kids to get together with their friends, learn how to compete and have fun. There wasn’t talk of college scholarships or playing professionally — there was just the game. Keeping kids involved in youth sports was easy because the desired outcome of youth sports was simple: Have fun and play. As youth sports have become a multi-billion dollar industry, things are no longer quite as simple.
One of the most profound changes in youth sports revolves around the definition of success. In today’s youth sports landscape, the definition of success — one created solely by adults — no longer centers around character development, life lessons and having fun. Winning is often the only thing that matters because winning, many coaches and parents believe, is the only path to the college scholarships and professional playing careers that are the new desired outcomes of youth sports.
As an administrator in a youth sports organization, a coach and a sports parent, I have the opportunity to be involved in youth sports from many different perspectives. While each position has a unique set of challenges, I personally believe that the role of sports parent is the hardest, at least today; it didn’t used to be that way. Billie Jean King, arguably the greatest female tennis player of all time, once attributed her success to the fact that her parents couldn’t have cared less about how she performed on the court. There was no pressure, so she just went out, worked hard and competed.
Today, with the win-at-all-cost attitude so prevalent in youth sports, parents feel more pressure to keep up. If they aren’t fully invested in their childrens’ sports careers, their kids will fall behind and will never be able to catch up. No more college scholarships, goodbye professional career. Between competitive travel teams, personal trainers and specialized year-round leagues, children as young as 7 are feeling pressure to perform. Parents are investing thousands and thousands of dollars. Playing and having fun aren’t really on the radar.
In our heads, I think all sports parents know that their child isn’t going to get a college scholarship or play professionally. The numbers don’t lie. Yet, even with the facts, we all get wrapped up in the tidal wave of “keeping up” and continue to negatively impact the youth sports experience for our children. We need to shift the definition of youth sports success back to development — athletic and character — and let kids have fun as they pursue their own aspirations.
At PCA, we understand the critically important role of parents in the athletic development of their child. To help them have the most positive, character-building youth sports experience possible, parents must play their role.
“We did it!”
One of the first things parents can do in order to help improve the youth sports experience is to realize that this is about the child. This is their experience and the more we can separate our own feelings and sense of identity from the equation, the better. If someone asks you how your son’s baseball team did over the weekend and you find yourself saying things like “We won,” “We crushed them,” or “We went 3-4 with three dingers,” then you might be too heavily invested in their youth sports experience and should consider how that impacts them.
Effort Versus Outcome
Another simple, yet impactful change a parent can make is to praise effort as opposed to outcome. There is only so much any athlete can control in the ultimate outcome of a game. By focusing on, and praising, the things they can control — like effort and attitude — young athletes will develop a growth mindset that will help them long after their playing days are over.
“I Love to Watch You Play!”
The simplest change a parent can make is on the car ride home. With the game recently over, a well-intentioned sports parent often wants to “help” and the car ride home becomes an impromptu coaching session. Things that could have been done better, small things to correct and if-only scenarios are just a few of the ways we try to help. In reality, this never helps. It has been well-documented that the best, and only, thing you should say is that you loved to watch your child play.
If we, as parents, play our role, we can help our children have fun and gain the most out of their sports experience — and by that, I mean they will have the opportunity to become the best athletes, and best people, they can be.