All around the country, the story is the same. The atmosphere that surrounds so many youth sports leagues has become toxic. A large number of youth sports parents have lost perspective on healthy involvement in youth athletics. I had heard about this through numerous second hand sources for many years, and recently, I had the opportunity to see it in person as my oldest child participated in club soccer and basketball.
Two years ago, I attended a pre-season parents meeting for my son’s U12 soccer league. This was our first season with this organization, and my son was excited about getting started so he could improve his skills, learn more about the game, and make new friends. The parent meeting lasted about 50 minutes, but the first 30 were all spent detailing very specific league protocol for handing parent-coach conflicts. The next ten were spent boasting about this particular club’s win-loss record against other area clubs. The final ten minutes dealt with what I considered to be the important stuff – coaching philosophies, practice schedules, etc. What does it say about the expectations of the league when the director has to devote more resources to dealing with parents than actually coaching and planning a positive season for the kids? After the first 15 minutes of his talk, I started looking around at the other parents to see if they were as confused as I was regarding the content of the discussion. Much to my surprise, many were nodding and taking notes.
Sadly, this soccer league has much in common with many others. When winning tournaments, leagues, and invitationals has become the main focus of a youth lacrosse or softball league, that focus needs redirection. In addition to the issue of overemphasis on the final score, parents are far too invested in their children’s sports careers. They are too invested emotionally and, in many cases, financially because of the skyrocketing costs to participate in some of the “top” leagues. Parents are living vicariously through their sons and daughters in a manner that is unhealthy for both them and their children. Of course, when one considers that the price tag for many of these leagues is in the thousands of dollars per season, it is easy to see how the stakes are certainly amped for the participants.
In an effort to turn the tide of negativity in club sports and with the new year just around the corner, below are seven New Year’s resolutions that parents can use to make 2017 a better year for their child and for them.
- Do not discuss the final score of any contest immediately after a game. Rather, emphasize learning, fun, and teamwork. If the first thing that you say to your child as they walk off the field is “nice win” or “tough loss”, then the child knows that is the top priority. Make your postgame discussions about their efforts, their improvements, and their enjoyment of the competitive experience.
- Cheer only for your child’s team, not against the opponents. Going to an NFL game and hearing a fan boo a player from the opposing team or taunt their star player seems to come with the territory. Going to a U12 basketball game and watching an adult do it leaves you with an entirely different feeling. At the youth level, sometimes the comments are more subtle such as “she can’t go to her left”, or “he can’t shoot”. Rather than commenting on the opposition, focus on building up your own child and his or her teammates from within, in a way that does not degrade someone else’s.
- Support the decisions of the coaches on your child’s team. This one can be challenging for many parents, and it is unreasonable to assume that we will always agree with every decision that a coach makes. However, we also can not expect our kids to develop a healthy mindset if they know we are constantly undermining the coach’s efforts with our words and actions. Teach your children to be resilient and deal positively when they are faced with disappointment.
- Do not openly question the calls of the officials during the game. This resolution is not only for your kids, but also for the good of the league itself. If you have not heard this already, officials in almost all sports are in short supply. Dropout rates for new officials and umpires around the country are far too high. Officials will make mistakes just as your child will as they play. Many youth leagues are training grounds for the high school and college officials of the next decade. Create an environment where people want to officiate in your child’s league and you may find that you attract better officials.
- Volunteer to be a coaching assistant, keep the clock, officiate, or take on other tasks that support your child’s team and league. Seeing the operations of a league from a perspective other than the bleachers can give you a whole new appreciation of just how much goes on behind the scenes with club sports. Knowing that parents are willing to take on these additional tasks also frees up the head coaches to spend more time focused on your kids.
- Take your child to watch high school sports. Professional sports rarely provide positive examples for our youth athletes today. They also create unrealistic expectations for athletes who are still trying to grasp the fundamentals of the game. Allow your son or daughter to appreciate sports with the right perspective and build a better sense of understanding what will hopefully be a part of their own lives in just a few years down the road.
- Encourage your child to play multiple sports. In spite of what your club program may tell you about the benefits of their year-round training, it is simply healthier – physically, socially, and psychologically – for them to play two or three sports throughout the year. Playing multiple sports will make your son or daughter much more resistant to injury, muscle overuse, and burnout. Skills learned in one sport will also complement those learned in another, creating a more well-rounded athlete down the road.
Best wishes to all parents as they navigate the seas of youth sports in 2017.