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Kids First Soccer
Little League and Varsity Sports Parenting

Introduction

Success in highly competitive sports depends on several key factors: preexisting talent, a strong internal drive within the aspiring athlete, and last but not least, a caring and sound social support system. In my 30-year career as a physical educator and coach I have observed that even the most educated, sophisticated, caring and loving parents could find themselves confused about sound child rearing practices. It may not seem surprising, therefore, that parents of young competitive athletes who do not have any experience or guidelines to help them, and who have to deal with a very intense and taxing environment, are unprepared to tackle the demands made upon them and their children. The natural parental instincts of some little league and varsity parents (a growing number of bad examples made the news in last few years) point out to potentially disastrous consequences that the lack of training or preparation in "sport parenting" might have on children and adults alike. It seems clear that parents of young competitive players could benefit greatly from guidelines for "sport parenting." A positive philosophy of sport parenting could help define parents' role vis--vis their child's, parent's self image, and the coach's attitudes and aspirations.

Quin and Groppel (1989, pp. 279-282) discuss important sport parenting tips that the coach should bear in mind in dealing with parents. The authors suggest that most parents get involved with (tennis in their case) youth sports very innocently. Often the child progresses through endless hours of practice and competition, and the parent leans on the child to work harder and longer hours. Considerable financial, time, and emotional commitments are used as a leverage to get more from the child, who is made to feel guilty if he/she does not deliver on the investment. There comes the time when parent and child, quite unexpectedly, find themselves caught up in "the middle of the highly pressurized, complex, and confusing world of competitive [youth sports] (Quin & Groppel, 1989, p. 279)." Clearly, the parent ought to play an active role in her or his child's sport activities and help facilitate the child's growth to the point of maturity and independence as an athlete and as a human being. The parent's involvement in their child's sport is an integral part of their relationship with their child. Parents, however, must make sure that their role focuses on emotional and financial support, on parenting and education. The kind and the amount of sport experiences the child may need to acquire proper skills should be left to the coach to decide. The coach and the junior athlete decide which events the player should enter, how widely these events are to be spaced, at what level the child is ready to compete. These decisions should be coordinated with the family's plans and schedules. The parent who insists on being closely involved with the professional aspects of the child's preparation may think he or she is doing what's best for the child, but ends up undermining the coach's authority and adds unnecessary pressure on the young athlete. Periodic parent/child/coach conferences will help clarify the role, expectations, and goals of all involved parties.

The Parent's Role in the Junior Player/Parent/Coach Equation¹

Being a teenager in addition to being wrapped up in the highly pressurized world of state or even regional competitive sports is hard enough. Piling up demands, expecting the youth to work harder and win more often, is one of the most fundamental mistakes a parent or a coach can make. Putting such a pressure on the child adds to the anxiety level and the already existing burden that is hampering the youth's progress and performance. Most of us, adults and youngsters alike, perform best under a certain level of positive stress. When parents and coaches accentuate the fun aspects of competitive soccer or any other sport, along with the innate value of playing the game, they help the child stay within the limits of the "positive stress zone." The more successful the adults are in these efforts, the more likely they are to see the youngster succeed in competitive sports and the more likely they are to see the child thrive outside the sport environment.

A survey of participants at the Omega Easter Bowl tennis tournament in Miami, Florida (Finn, 1987, USA Today, April 16), revealed that over 70 percent of the tennis parents were spending in excess of $5,000 per year on tennis practices and 31.3 percent spend well over $10,000 annually. Tuition for participation in soccer clubs, for example, has been steadily on the rise. It is not uncommon to be charged as much as $1,500.00 a season (travel and other expenses not included). These days the development of a top athletes in any sport requires a substantial financial commitment by parents. It is not surprising, therefore, that many parents view their child's port experience as a long term investment. Hundreds of colleges and many prestigious academic institutions are actively recruiting student athletes. A direct result is that a 10 or 13-year-old becomes responsible for a $5,000.00 or in today's reality in sports like tennis a $20,000 - $30,000 a year investment. The youngster is then expected to deliver, if not by winning then at least by putting extra effort and readiness to make personal sacrifices.

Participation in competitive sports is a life experience that should prove invaluable to the young athlete as a developing, maturing person. As the sport "experience turns into a financial investment with an expected return, the greater the likelihood it will get completely off track (Quin & Groppel, 1989, p. 279)." Al Rosen a former major league baseball player pointed out that parents should keep losing as well as winning in perspective. Parents should not get angry and irritable when their child doesn't play well and loses, and neither should parents get too excited when their child wins. "Most importantly, [parents] should never tie special privileges or rewards to winning. One of the most damaging practices of parents is to withdraw attention, love, or affection when their children lose. This kind of pressure can have significant short-term and long-term negative consequences for the athletes. [Children] quickly realize they are no longer competing to win the match, but rather to win the love and approval of their parents (Quin & Groppel, 1989, p. 280)."

Some parents tend to live vicariously through their child's sport experience. Parent's ego confusion with the child's is evident in situations where the parents uses language such as "Who or where are we playing today?" or "We had a great game today!" The parent's ability to let go, allow the child to act independently and assume responsibility for both success and failure, on and off the field, is a crucial aspect of the youngster's growth and development as an athlete and as a human being. A child cannot drive to a remote playoff location. He/she can, however, find out against whom, where, and when he/she is competing. And, when a parent is asked about her/his child's performance, I suggest he/she replies with "Here, why don't you ask her/him; getting to watch her/him compete is always a pleasure for me."

Al Rosen also suggested the following questions as a reminder of the scope of parental responsibility and involvement in their child's sport: Can the parents give up their child? Can the parents admit their shortcomings? As Quin and Groppel (1989) point out, parenting in itself is a challenging task; coaching and parenting at the same time may be overwhelming for most parents. Once the parent has entrusted the child to a coach, however, the parent is expected to take a back seat, or even better yet, stay away and let the coach do the coaching. A parent that is actively involved in his child's training process is inadvertently undermining the coach's authority.

Quin and Groppel (1989) argue that when parents take notes or videotape their child sports activities, they "may think they are helping, but...these seemingly harmless practices often create more performance problems for their kids (pp. 280-281)." Parents that "never miss a practice or a game" create a level of commitment that is often much higher than what would be considered appropriate for a child. Remarkably successful athletes, such as, Mark Spitz, Michael Jordan, Pete Sampras, the Williams sisters to name a few, were very focused, and driven young athletes. They are the exception. Your and my children are "normal" and well adjusted despite the fact that they may not approach sports as some of us would have liked them to. Sport and competition for the vast majority of children, as numerous studies keep reminding us, is a time to feel competent, to have fun, and to be actively engaged. Most children do not perceive sports as an end in itself; as a career or a job. On the contrary, expressions, such as, "playful," "make believe," "non-threatening," best describe the average child's expectation from sports. It is therefore crucial that parents take the time to periodically ask the child about her/his aspirations and expectation from the sport experience. The sport parent should be carful to avoid the naive assumption that what he/she thinks is best for their child must naturally represent their child's wishes.

American Youth and Sports Participation Study²

A Study of 10,000 Students and their Feelings About Sports:

  • Why they participate
  • Why they quit
  • How they feel about winning
  • How motivations differ
  • What adults can do
Highlights of the Study
  • Sport participation, and the desire to participate in sports, decline sharply and steadily between ages 10 and 18. At age 10, 45 percent of young people say they participate, or intend to be included in a non-school sports team. Among 18-year-olds, this figure drops to 26 percent. My informal survey of Argentinean parents in Buenos Aires (Frankl, 1993) indicates that when the level of competition and the emphasis on winning go up, less successful individuals tend to feel out of place and drop out.
  • "Fun" is a pivotal reason for taking part in a sport, and when the fun is gone, sport activity is likely to be discontinued. Developing an understanding of what constitutes "fun" will be crucial in encouraging greater participation.
  • Winning is far from being the major reason attracting young people to sport. While victory is the most publicized aspect of sports, it is not a leading motivator for participation. Having fun, sharing experience, improving skills, staying in shape and competing are among the most important benefits that youngsters derive from sport exercises.
  • Not all athletes -- even successful ones -- have the same motivations for involvement. The most dedicated athletes, for example, are those most strongly motivated by the desire to improve their skills, while others are more influenced by outside approval or pressure.

Winning: It Gets Low Grades

  • Winning, the most publicized and sought-after goal in sports, is actually a relatively poor motivator for most junior and senior high school students. The "American Youth and Sport Participation" study suggests that the path to excellent performance lies in motivating young people to embrace self-improvement.
  • In several different questions probing reasons for being involved in sports, winning never ranked higher than seventh. Other rewards, from improving skills to gaining recognition to getting exercise, ranked higher.
For example, in one question, students were asked to think about a single experience in sports that made them feel successful and then rate 20 statements according to how they expressed that experience. The highest rated was "My performance made me feel good." In 13th place was "I won."

Even among the most dedicated athletes, winning took a back seat to self-improvement and competition. These athletes, isolated among the sample through analytical techniques, ranked winning in eighth place among reasons they played their best school sport -- well below the number one reason: "To improve my skills."

When asked to select the single most important reason for playing their best school sport, "to win" ranked in seventh place among boys. Among girls it placed 10th, tied with "learning new skills" and "team travel."


What Adults Can Do: Suggestions for Leaders, Coaches and Parents

Several Studies Have Identified the Following "Truths" About Children and Sports:
Reproduced from: Ewing, M. E. & Seefeldt, V. (1990)

  • FUN IS PIVOTAL; IF IT ISN'T "FUN," YOUNG PEOPLE WON'T PLAY A SPORT.
  • SKILL DEVELOPMENT IS A CRUCIAL ASPECT OF FUN; IT IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN WINNING EVEN AMONG THE BEST ATHLETES.
  • THE MOST REWARDING CHALLENGES OF SPORTS ARE THOSE THAT LEAD TO SELF-KNOWLEDGE.
  • INTRINSIC REWARDS (SELF-KNOWLEDGE THAT GROWS OUT OF SELF-COMPETITION) ARE MORE IMPORTANT IN CREATING LIFETIME ATHLETES THAN ARE EXTRINSIC REWARDS (VICTORY OR ATTENTION FROM OTHERS).

Suggestions for Park and Recreation Directors, Athletics Directors, Youth Sport Programmers:
  • CHOOSE STAFF MEMBERS WHO UNDERSTAND THE "TRUTHS" ABOUT YOUNG PEOPLE AND SPORTS.
  • DESIGN ACTIVITIES THAT ENSURE ENJOYMENT -- THAT BALANCE CHALLENGE AND SKILL SO THAT BOREDOM AND ANXIETY CAN BE AVOIDED.
  • RECOGNIZE THAT THE IDEA OF FUN VARIES WITH THE AGE AND SKILL LEVELS OF THE PARTICIPANTS.
  • HELP PARENTS BECOME PART OF THE TEAM, RATHER THAN OUTSIDE CRITICS.
  • DEVELOP DEFINITIONS OF SUCCESS THAT ARE NOT BASED SOLELY ON WINNING.

Suggestions for Coaches
  • BECOME A COMMUNICATOR (A LISTENER AND A GIVER OF FEEDBACK).
  • RECOGNIZE THE NEEDS OF YOUR KIDS AND BALANCE YOUR NEEDS WITH THEIRS.
  • DEVELOP PERSPECTIVE: REMEMBER WHAT YOU WERE LIKE AT THEIR AGE AND WHAT YOU COULD DO THEN; DON'T JUDGE THE KIDS BY WHAT YOU CAN DO NOW.
  • REMEMBER THE "BIG TRUTHS" AND PLAN ACTIVITIES ALWAYS BEARING THEM IN MIND.
  • SEEK OUT WORKSHOPS AND EDUCATIONAL PROGRAMS THAT TEACH NOT ONLY SPORTS-RELATED SKILLS BUT ALSO COMMUNICATION AND INTERPERSONAL SKILLS THAT WILL HELP YOU WORK WITH PARENTS AND GET THE MOST OUT OF YOUR KIDS.
  • TRY TO WORK WITH PARENTS AND MAKE THEM PART OF THE TEAM RATHER THAN VIEWING THEM AS CRITICS TO BE AVOIDED.
Suggestions for Parents
  • REMEMBER THE "BIG TRUTHS" AND BEAR THEM IN MIND WHEN YOU TALK TO YOUR CHILDREN (AFTER A GAME, ASK ABOUT "FUN," "SKILL IMPROVEMENT," "LEARNING EXPERIENCES").
  • LOOK AT YOURSELF AS PART OF THE TEAM AND BE SUPPORTIVE OF THE COACH; AVOID SETTING UP A CONFLICT IN YOUR CHILD'S MIND BETWEEN HER OR HIS PARENTS AND COACHES. IF YOU WANT TO AFFECT THE COACHING, VOLUNTEER TO HELP.
  • DEVELOP PERSPECTIVE: REMEMBER WHAT YOU COULD DO AT YOUR CHILDREN'S AGES; DON'T JUDGE THEM BY WHAT YOU CAN DO NOW.
  • TRY TO UNDERSTAND WHAT YOUR CHILD WANTS FROM SPORTS - NOT ALL CHILDREN LOOK FOR THE SAME THINGS. DETERMINE IF HE OR SHE WANTS TO BE INVOLVED AT ALL.
What Can the Parent and Coach Do?

SEVERAL STUDIES HAVE IDENTIFIED THE FOLLOWING "TRUTHS" ABOUT YOUTH AND COMPETITIVE SPORTS:
  • FUN IS PIVOTAL; IF IT ISN'T "FUN," YOUNG PLAYERS WON'T ENDURE THE HARDSHIPS AND SACRIFICES THAT ARE NECESSARY FOR SURVIVAL AND SUCCESS IN THE HIGHLY COMPETITIVE WORLD OF Youth Sports.
  • SKILL DEVELOPMENT IS A CRUCIAL ASPECT OF FUN; IT IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN WINNING EVEN AMONG THE MOST COMPETITIVE AND MOST SUCCESSFUL ATHLETES.
  • THE MOST REWARDING CHALLENGES OF SPORTS ARE THOSE THAT LEAD TO SELF-DISCOVERY AND SELF-KNOWLEDGE.
  • INTRINSIC REWARDS (SELF-KNOWLEDGE THAT GROWS OUT OF SELF-COMPETITION) ARE MORE IMPORTANT IN CREATING LIFETIME ATHLETES THAN ARE EXTRINSIC REWARDS (VICTORY OR ATTENTION FROM OTHERS).


References

¹Quin, A., & Groppel, J. (1989). The science of coaching tennis.

Martens, R. (1987). Coaches' guide to sport psychology (A publication for the "American Coaching Effectiveness Program" Level 2 Sport Science Curriculum). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics. (pp. 3-14).

²Ewing, M. E. & Seefeldt, V. (1990). American youth and sports participation: A study of 10,000 students and their feelings about sport. North Palm Beach, FL: Athletic Footwear Association. (Sponsored by: Athletic Footwear Association -- AFA, 200 Castlewood Drive, North Palm Beach, Florida 33408; Gregg Hartley, Executive Director, phone # 407 840-1161).



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Last Modified: May 18, 2016