I grew up watching my kids play sports.
Wait, what? you ask. Doesn’t the growing up usually happen before you have the kids?
Well, what I mean is, being a youth coach and (more often) a spectator for my kids' sporting events has stimulated a lot of my own personal growth as a parent and as a person. Based on this experience, I have a few points of consideration, and a challenge, to pass along to others in this phase of their sporting lives.
The all-too-often hyper-competitive, over-commercialized world of youth sports can be a jungle to navigate for kids and parents alike. As a licensed sport psychologist I have both formal education and best intentions in this domain. Even so, I’ve often found myself struggling to live out the choices and behaviors that ensure the most positive sporting experience for me, my kids, and my kids’ teammates.
While I still have plenty of room for improvement, I’d like to suggest a basic guiding principle for anyone striving to give their kids the best youth sports experience possible. In the end, isn’t that what we’re all trying to do? So, here’s my advice:
Let the coaches do the coaching, and challenge yourself to only yell support. In other words, let any feedback you give, verbal or nonverbal, be either in affirmation of a job well done, or encouragement when things don’t go well on the playing field. No advice, no correction, no coaching.
You typically don’t have to watch for long at a youth sporting event to realize there’s a whole lot of parental armchair coaching going on. It’s well-enough intended, but at best it goes unheard or ignored by young athletes who are just trying to focus on their teammates, the task at hand, and what their coach has to say. At its worst, parental commentary can be confusing or even shaming to kids who are probably (and hopefully!) there to have fun with their friends and maybe to enjoy getting better at a skill.
Shouting out advice at competitions is often an outgrowth of parents "coaching" their kids at the earliest stages, hoping to prepare them for when they join a team and get “serious.” Then when that time comes, the yelling can be a way to soothe our own egos: If my kid screws up, we think, at least no one will say it’s because I stood silently by and let it happen!
There’s absolutely a place for correction and constructive criticism in youth sport development, but you’ll do best to connect your kid with skilled, experienced coaches who can fulfill that role. Having done so, parents can then focus on their best role: being their kid’s biggest fan! When things go well, go wild with joy! When your kid falters (which inevitably they will do, because that’s sports and that’s life), stay chill, trust the coaching process, and know that learning is not only a long game, but also goes best when kids have a strong sense of being supported and loved no matter how they perform. Be the parent who makes it feel safe to make mistakes.
Although sticking to the positive is a simple enough concept, I can’t say I’ve always found it easy to execute. If you find your words drifting back to quasi-coaching during a game, consider this radical approach: draw the line at no words at all! Let your applause do the talking when things go well, and let the coach give the feedback when mistakes are made. When you’ve mastered nonverbal positive feedback, then go back to words of positive support. Bonus points if you can cheer for behaviors that are about the process rather than the outcome, and more bonus points if you can cheer for great play by your kid’s opponents!
The most surprising thing about making these changes in my parenting life, is how much more I’ve enjoyed the experience of watching my kids play. When you relieve yourself of the burden of coaching from the bleachers, focusing instead on appreciation and enjoyment of the things that go right, the fun factor goes way up. For you and for your kid.
If you are having more fun, and your child is more free to enjoy their sport, they’ll likely stay with it longer. And if they stay with it longer, they’re bound to get better. And either way, they’ll have learned some important lessons and skills for life. Their sports experience, however long it lasts, will go down as a net positive rather than a detraction from their joy.
Youth sport culture needs this now more than ever. Challenge yourself to do your part!