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Being a Good Sports Parent

Excerpted from

The Young Athlete: A Sports Doctor's Complete Guide for Parents

By ,

The Consequences of Emotional Overinvestment

So what? You might ask. Why shouldn't I go to my kid's games? She's only going to play for a few years. What's so terrible about yelling myself hoarse? Isn't that the American way: rooting for the home team on Friday night? And up to a point, you would be right. If athletics is important to your child, of course you should take an interest. If she wants you at the games, try to arrange to be there. Dinner table conversations about the upcoming game or the new players on the team can constitute a healthy component of family life. And a certain amount of socializing with teammates' families is appropriate and pleasurable. But remember, "Moderation in all things." If your family discusses only sports and never touches on political events, or books or movies, history or science, you're overly focused on sports and likely to be shortchanging your kids. These are the years when you want to be introducing your children to the wider world and developing their curiosity. Your obsession with sports can stunt your kids' intellectual, emotional, and social growth, leaving them less than fully rounded. And if their interest in sports wanes, or if they sustain a long-term injury that prevents their involvement, it may be extremely difficult for them to find other fruitful and satisfying outlets.

Basically, your involvement with your kid's athletic activity verges on over-involvement when it adversely affects your child. The last three warning signs relate to your child's mental state and his relationship with you. If he no longer seems to be happy playing, if sports have become a frequent flashpoint in your family, if your child expressly tells you he's unhappy with your behavior at the games or your attitude toward sports, you probably have some real soul-searching to do.

As we've seen, one of the main benefits of youth sports is the satisfaction and joy they produce for the players. Serious athletes, especially as they reach high school age, spend long hours honing their skills and working with their coach and teammates on tactics and techniques. The payoff for all this hard work is the satisfaction they derive from improving as players, being part of a team, becoming fitter and healthier, and, we hope, winning with enough frequency to reinforce the other benefits. In addition, sports should be a source of sheer fun as the young athlete experiences the unique pleasure of performing at peak capacity, preferably with teammates she likes and respects, under a coach she admires. When you over-invest in your kid's athletics, you create a drag on the benefits your child would otherwise derive and produce unnecessary stress in her life. And no child or adolescent needs extra stress.

Diversify Your Emotional Portfolio

So what to do if you flunked the overinvestment quiz? Diversify. You can probably figure out your own cures to suit your particular family configuration, but here are some things to try:

The Rule of Three

If your child says you're overinvolved or that she doesn't want you at her games, try skipping every third game. When Game Day No. 3 arrives, say to your kid, "Good-bye, have fun, play well, and good luck." Then, to ease the withdrawal, treat yourself to a movie or brunch with friends. In time this painful ritual may become easier, even pleasurable. You'll catch up with films you've missed because you were on the sidelines and rediscover the pleasures of Sunday eggs benedict, which you probably haven't had since your child was born.

Avocational Therapy

Take up new leisure-time activities of your own. You and your spouse can enroll in that ballroom dancing class you've been promising yourselves. Or pull out the darkroom equipment that's been gathering dust in your attic since your kid started playing sports. Or you can volunteer to be a ref-for other kids' teams.

Start Your Own Team

Instead of living vicariously through your child, take up his sport yourself.

Form a team of like-minded adults. I know of a group of soccer moms who did just that. When their daughters were eleven and starting to play soccer seriously, some of the mothers had the self-awareness to realize they were jealous. Their kids were doing what they never did: playing a sport they loved seriously and regularly. These mothers formed a team called (what else?) the Soccer Moms. Some had never played before, but they trained, recruited a handful of younger, more experienced players, hired a coach, and joined a league. Five years later they're still going strong, and have even played in a tournament in Ireland!

The Sports Parent's Mantra

If you still find you're living vicariously through your child's athletic life, do the following: Before going to your child's game, look yourself in the mirror, take a deep cleansing breath, and say, "I'm not Johnny, Johnny's not me." Repeat this as necessary with your own child's name until you know you no longer need "Johnny" to make up for all the injustices in your own life.

Supporting Your Child

Now that you've gotten a handle on your own issues and have attained a near-perfect zen state of sports parenthood, it's time to focus on how, in this newly-enlightened spirit, you can best support your child and the team.

One major, perennial, and difficult parenting issue (and not just for sports) is how to encourage high standards without pressuring too much. How do we balance pushing/coaxing our child to reach new, fulfilling achievements against nurturing what he can and wants to do? This primarily means paying close attention to the child's patterns of behavior and response. Does Julia eagerly embrace new experiences (and if so, does this entail excessive risk-taking?), or does she stand back and evaluate the situation before dipping a toe in the water (and if so, is she overly fearful?)? Is Tom clear about what he wants (for example, an electric guitar), or does he want to try something new every week (the guitar, then tae kwon do, then chess)? Does Robert tend to overestimate his abilities and performance, thus leading to repeated disappointment, or does he underestimate them, thus avoiding challenge and new experiences? Or does he usually evaluate them objectively?

Parents also need to figure out what evidence is relevant. Is a particular incident or remark a blip or a trend? If your child suddenly doesn't want to play, you need to analyze whether she's entered a new phase of development-perhaps theater has become more compelling-or whether someone has been mean ("When are you going to learn to kick the ball?") or whether her reluctance is an expression of momentary insecurity, but she'd actually like to continue playing. Blip versus trend is always a difficult call, even for the most observant parents, especially because children are often simply unable to explain their decisions. Parents have to listen and watch for any scraps of evidence to guide them.

One useful strategy is to help your child focus on parts of the game where he can exert himself (such as positioning, decisionmaking, skills). Remind him that there's nothing he can do about some things (field conditions, the referee, the weather), and that complaining about these elements will simply distract him from playing his best. You can discuss the differences with your child; you can also set an example by cheering for good plays and good decisions ("Good idea!") and being calm about bad calls by the officials (say nothing, or if you must, say something like "Yes, that was a bad call, but it's part of the game").

Another strategy that works well is to help your child set attainable, legitimate goals (such as "Remember to look up when you have the ball," "See if you can shoot ten times during the game," "Just do your best, so that you're proud of your effort"). Listen to what your child wants to do. If he doesn't want to play, don't make him-unless your repeated experience is that he needs to be coaxed. Talk about the feelings of failure as well as success. It's important for kids to learn to handle losing and failing, just as it's important to learn about winning. They should strive to win, but not at the expense of having fun. In general, girls seem better at enjoying the experience of playing than boys, who tend to be raised to win.

In a series of school squash matches, a young friend named Sasha always lost to Malina, never scoring more than four points. Sasha was anxious and unhappy the night before the final match. Her parents suggested that she try to score six points this time. The next day Sasha came home beaming: She had scored eight points against Malina! She had still lost the match, but she was a winner in her own mind because she had achieved the goal she wanted to.

An added wrinkle to the difficulty of balancing high expectations with low pressure is that boys and girls often respond differently to pressure and criticism. Most boys seem able to take them in stride, whereas girls are often exceptionally sensitive to what they perceive as criticism. As one father put it, "Girls seem to wear their skin inside out."

With both boys and girls, however, positive reinforcement is always better than a negative approach. In one exercise, basketball players were divided into two groups. One group analyzed films of free throws they had made: the other analyzed films of free throws missed. The group shown the made shots did far better in the next game they played. Positive reinforcement is the better tool for a variety of possible reasons, among them stimulating the visual memory of having been successful and building greater self-confidence.

But even when parents think they're being positive, girls often hear the most innocuous statement as pressure and respond with fury. If a parent says, "Did you practice dribbling today?" the girl hears-usually correctly-"You need to work on your dribbling." "You forgot to practice, didn't you?" may lead to nuclear holocaust in your kitchen. Try to think in terms of positive reinforcement and give up on the concept of constructive criticism. In the minds of children, who are always at the mercy of their all-powerful parents, there is no such thing as constructive criticism. One useful mantra for parents is: "Do I want to be right, or do I want to be effective?" Indeed, this mantra can prove invaluable in a wide variety of parenting and social situations, sports-related or not.

One major source of difficulty between parents and children is that parents know how much they could improve their children's lives by sharing their own hard-earned wisdom ("Reread your essay before handing it in"; "If you always put your glove in the same place, you won't waste time looking for it"). Children, however, all too often intransigently reject parental advice and must discover how to manage in the world through their own experience. And "experience" more often than not refers to bad decisions recollected in tranquility. It's hard for parents to see their children heading for mistakes, but unless they risk serious injury, it's usually better to let them figure out what to do by themselves. If you're lucky, when they fail they'll come to you for advice and might even act on what you tell them.

Tags: Exercise and Fitness