Being a parent is a difficult that is at best gut instinct and trial and error learning. Being a sports parent just raises the bar that much more. The role of the sports parent depends on many factors including the nature of the sport, age and temperament of the child, accessibility to quality coaching and facilities and the resources of the family.
As I look back at my own experiences, both as a psychologist, sports psychology consultant and parent of an athlete, I can recognize some of my own strengths and weaknesses. In spite of perhaps more “knowledge” than the average parent, I recognize I was far from the “perfect” sports parent myself. However, I do come away with the satisfaction feeling I did a pretty good job and did the best I could at the time with the knowledge and resources I had.
I humbly have come up with a few guidelines of how you might become a great sports parent.
There are many ways to identify and encourage an interest in sports. Here is a short list.
- Expose your child at an early age to the sports available in your community, both individual and team sports.
- Watch sporting events on television together.
- Plan some family events around going to some sport events.
- “Play” ball with your child early and often.
- Notice what activities he/she seems to like.
- Look to your local community for after-school and weekend programs.
- Summer camps, both day and sleep away, provide great opportunities to be exposed to many sports and activities in a short period of time.
Don’t be in a hurry to specialize in a single sport early on. Some of the best known coaches like tennis Guru Nick Bollettieri advocates promoting cross training to build essential athletic skills as a foundation for sports. Participating in a number of sports also helps reduce the risk of burnout and overuse injuries.
Provide your youngster with good equipment so they can safely and effectively participate in their sport. It is not necessary or even desirable to buy the best and most expensive even if you can afford it (with the exception of safety related items).
For recreational sports, the level of coaching/teaching might be variable as some instructors may be volunteers or have minimum training and experience in working with kids at a particular age and skill level. If possible, interview the coach, go to several practices and games to be sure the values and interactions the coach demonstrates are compatible with your own. Some issues that I personally had in this area were: 1. My son was once on a soccer team where the coach did lots of yelling and criticizing and treated the kids as if they were marine cadets! 2. In my own childhood, I was a good pitcher in baseball so the coach had me pitch entire games until I eventually threw my arm out.
If your youngster moves from recreational to competitive sports, DON’T be the coach. In my opinion mixing the role of coach and parent has led to far more problems than solutions.
Be careful not to re-live your own sports careers through that of your child. If you find yourself using phrases like, “We are going to have a tough time playing against Plymouth High this weekend”, watch out! YOU are not playing: your son or daughter is and this may be a sign you are overly involved or invested.
Encourage but don’t insist. The desire to play and practice should come from the child and not from you constantly pushing to practice more, try harder, etc.
Do not abdicate your role in character development. If you see your youngster, cheating, cursing, talking or behaving badly whether on or off the court or playing field, act accordingly. If your child throws a tennis racket in anger and frustration and it breaks and you immediately just replace the racket, you are just reinforcing this kind of negative behavior. Talk with your child about feelings and behaviors, cultivate the right attitudes, reward good behavior and when necessary, punish bad behavior.
If you as a sports parent, get overly anxious or angry and can’t control it yourself, get help. Remember the adage, as ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure! You are your child’s most important role model. Actions speak louder than words. You can’t TELL a child to control their temper if you are losing yours!
Teach responsibility. Based on their age, give your children chores: walking the dog, helping put away groceries, doing laundry, setting their own alarm clock, being ready to go to a practice, lesson or game on time, attending to school, etc.
Choose your coaches wisely steering towards those who seek to develop your child as a whole person first and away from those who advocate a “winning at all costs” mentality. Remember the karate kid? Which teacher would you want your child to train with?
My most practical guideline for being a good sports parent is this: imagine everything you do and say is being recorded on video and the highlights will be broadcast on the national evening news. Choose your words and actions wisely; once given, they cannot be easily taken back.