Recently, my son's U11 soccer team beat their crosstown rival in a decided victory. As we made our way toward the car, I overheard parents from the other team consoling their boys and praising them for trying their best.
One father bent down at the waist to meet his 10-year-old at eye level before yelling, "I can't believe I took the day off of work to come watch you, and you go and lose like that." The boy stood up straight with a stony expression while receiving the verbal lashing; he'd clearly been in this position before.
While that father's comments certainly crossed into a territory nobody should go, it did get me thinking about my own behavior as the parent of an athlete, which, admittedly, can be improved. (It's very easy to get carried away and coach from the stands.)
Being a parent of a youth athlete can be tricky, particularly for those of us who were highly competitive children ourselves and grew up to be passionate sports fans. It's a delicate balance of encouraging without being pushy and managing expectations without being demeaning.
Overbearing parents are actually contributing to fewer kids wanting to play sports, which could have implications for future professional and Olympic teams. Of course, it can also heavily affect the health of a parent-child relationship.
Here are 10 commandments for all parents of youth athletes to abide by, for the sake of all of our kids:
I. Thou shalt cheer for the entire team.
Being part of a team for the first time is no easy feat. There are different dynamics that need to be worked out. Players of different abilities need to learn to come together and that happens more easily when all of the kids feel accepted. Set an example by cheering for kids other than your own and for the team as a whole.
II. Thou shalt focus on the positives. Even if your child's team loses, there are always positives to focus on. Did they have fun? Did they improve their ball-handling skills? Did they work together as a team? That is what deserves attention, not the end score.
III. Thou shalt show respect for the opposing team. Kids (and parents!) sometimes need a reminder that the opposing team is made up of kids with feelings too. Calling opponents bad names is really hurtful to the kids who hear them, it's a terrible example to set for your child and it makes you look really bad.
IV. Thou shalt let the coach lead the team how he or she sees fit.
Until kids hit middle school, they most likely play for a rec league with an all-volunteer coaching staff. Not every child can be the quarterback and it's up to the coach to decide what position is best suited for each player. They are also responsible for setting up plays, so there's no need for you (or me, to be honest) to shout instructions from the sidelines. If you deeply feel you could be running the team better, please be sure to volunteer your time next season.
V. Thou shalt show up whenever possible. While a number of parents are overbearing about sports, others have the opposite problem and are noticeably absent. Yes, there are work conflicts that cause parents to miss games and extenuating circumstances keep your child from showing up. However, try to make them a priority. The team is counting on your child to be there every time and your kid needs you to be there, too.
VI. Understand a child's athletic abilities are not a reflection of good or bad parenting. A child's athletic performance may not be a reflection on parenting, but your reaction to that performance is. If your child makes a mistake, don't act like they did it as a personal attack on you. There's absolutely no reason for a child to feel as if they let their parent down if they don't excel on the field.
VII. Thou shalt respect the referees.
Like the coaches, referees for rec leagues are volunteer or nominally paid at best. Depending on the age group, the referees might even be high schoolers who want to help out at the level where they started. Please remember that they are humans. If there is an objectionable call, it's up to the coach to bring it to their attention — not you.
VIII. Thou shalt remember the kids are always watching. You have the power to build up or destroy a child's confidence while they're playing sports, even if you're not yelling. Children are always watching their parents in the stands and they are well aware of your facial expressions. If they are looking to you for approval, the last thing they want to see is you looking embarrassed or angry they made a mistake. Likewise, they know when you're on your phone and not paying attention at all.
IX. Thou shalt not live vicariously through the child. It's natural for parents who played sports as a child to want their own children to play the same sport. After all, it gives the parent and the child something to bond over, and the parent gets to feel helpful by having additional insight. However, it's important to recognize that your child is their own person. They have their own interests, own talents, and are living their own lives. They will experience losses and they will experience achievements. It's perfectly natural to be proud of them for it, but understand those are their experiences, not yours.
X. Thou shalt remember what is actually important at the end of the day.
Sports, and competition in general, have the potential to teach good lessons to our kids, which is why we signed them up in the first place. The lesson the child receives should never be that it's only worth your time to watch them win or that making a mistake is an unforgivable sin. Yes, you play games with the hope of winning, but ultimately, it's just a game. Please make sure priorities are firmly in place. The outcome of a game may be uncertain, but the love and healthy support you give your child never should be.
We can do better, fellow parents. Our kids deserve it.
Need a handy reminder? Keep this list with you before heading out to the next game:
[Header image: iStockphoto]
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