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Five Ways to Help Your Child Athelete January 7, 2006

Posted by TimTheFoolMan in Football, Parenting/Children, Sports.

As the father of two teenage sons, both of whom are atheletes, I pay a great deal of attention to how my sons are coached, and how they respond to various coaching techniques. Having also coached football at the lowest levels, I have seen the other side too. Unfortunately, many athlete’s parents undermine their child’s experiences. Here are five things you can do that will help your son or daughter have a great experience in their sport.

These aren’t a “magic bullets,” but they are common to the behaviors I’ve seen from parents that consistently have good sports experiences, regardless of their child’s ability. (And interestingly, there is frequently an inverse relationship between these two.)

#1: Stay Positive
The first thing seems blatantly obvious, but if you’ve ever watched your child struggle through a season of minimum playing time, or seen a child battling recovery from an injury (both of which are going on in our home at the moment), staying positive is frequently difficult, and sometimes almost impossible. The way to deal with this is to back up and consider where the negative thoughts and feelings are coming from. Do you have realistic expecations for your child? Are you wishing for them more success than you had (or to live up to your own)?

As a coach, the most common frustration for me has been hearing a parent complain about playing time or position, when the parent’s perception of the child’s ability far exceeds what they truly posses. As a parent, you have to make yourself stop listening to grandparents and close friends, as this can lead to a variation of the “reading your own press clippings” problem. If you allow your love of the child to artificially inflate your perception of their skill, you are setting yourself up for endless frustration. Once you have realistic expectations (see #3, below), then that will affect the things you praise, and the resulting expectations that your child will have. Once these are properly aligned, you’re on the road to staying upbeat.

#2: Don’t Undermine the Coach
What does it mean to “undermine the coach”? This is when you, the parent, either give your child instruction that directly contradicts that of the coach, or where you speak negatively about the coach on a regular basis. A good thing to remember here is what I call “the Coach is King” rule.

To clarify, sports teams are not democracies, they are virtually elective monarchies, with the caveat that the coach may not be there for life. There may be advisors (specialty coaches) or jesters (a primary assistant coach), but ultimately the Head Coach bears the weight of the decisions and generally makes the rules of the team. With this in mind, the coach must have a certain level autonomy, and generally expects a wide degree of latitude. (Whether a given coach deserves this is another matter entirely.) On the other hand, the coach will generally be saddled with the credit (or blame) for the team’s success (or lack thereof).

Because of these factors, the best approach is to treat the coach as your partner in parenting. How do parents deal with each other in such a partnership? Would you directly contradict your partner’s instruction to your child, or regularly speak negatively about them to the child? (Well, healthy parents don’t.) Why then would you do this with your child’s coach? Every year, studies show that players regularly perceive sports coaches as important influences in their lives, sometimes taking the role of a missing parent. Therefore, the primary way you can partner with the coach is to not undermine their authority or influence with negative comments or conflicting instruction.

#3: Keep Your Child’s Expectations Realistic
Statistically speaking, the odds of any particular child having a professional career in sports is extremely small. Looking just at football (as an example), there are fewer than 10,000 professional or semi-pro football players in the various leagues within the United States, approximately 75,000 college-level participants, and something in excess of 1,500,000 players at the high-school level and below. From those numbers, it’s apparent that only the tiniest fraction (10,000 of 1,500,000 = .66%) will play professionally at any level. Go to the local youth league field, see 200 players, and there may be one who will someday play semi-pro or pro football.

Even if your child is a stud at the youth level, this is hardly a guarantee that he will be one years down the road. In my experience, some of the best players in high school have been virtual “no shows” when they were younger. The best players, those who dominated games, frequently lost that edge compared to their peers by high school, and may not even stay with that sport (or sports at all). This seems to also continue through college, where motivation and determination has as much to do with playing time as pure athletic ability.

However, I am not advocating the “everybody is great… everybody is a winner” school of thought. Kids aren’t stupid, and they know who’s winning or losing, even when the organization intentionally doesn’t keep score. Instead, I’m suggesting that you find an aspect of the sport where your child exhibits competence, and regularly praise the efforts in that area. Saying “Billy, you’ve got a great three-point stance,” says nothing about the fact that he remained motionless for three seconds after the play started. Suggesting to this same child that he could “be the next Walter Payton” does not reflect anything connected to reality. In contrast, comparing his stance to that of Larry Allen may be accurate, and could be the best thing you could say.

#4: Think About the Long-Term
Children are notorious for thinking that a “long-term strategy” is something like planning where we’re going for lunch after church. As parents, we (generally) see further down the road, and should always be encouraging our children to consider the implications for tomorrow of the things they do today.

Given the numbers quoted above, what’s the long-term benefit that your child will most likely gain from playing an organized sport? High school fame? A college scholarship? A future occupation? Each of these are extremely unlikely outcomes, so what are the other things we can look to? Consider these:

  • learning to work as a team
  • learning discipline
  • accepting correction or negative feedback
  • overcoming your personal limits

All of these are benefits that a child can gain from participating, regardless of how much playing time they see.

Unfortunately, they won’t see these benefits unless you see them first, and help them to see them too. Also, remember that they won’t realize these benefits right away. They appear in the long term.

#5: Talk to the Coach
Last but not least, every parent should make sure they maintain open lines of communication with the Head Coach. This is difficult, because you frequently won’t agree with a particular appraoch that the coach is taking. (If these disagreements are significant enough, you should ask yourself why you aren’t coaching, and are instead sitting back and complaining.) Also, don’t make the mistake of sending e-mails or letters of complaints to the coach, and call that “communication.” Real communication demands “face time,” and not just when you disagree.

Communication only when things are bad has the same kind of negative effect on a parent/coach relationship that it has on parent/parent relationships. Do you sit quietly in the living room when your wife or husband just got a raise? How do you respond when they’ve put in long hours doing something beneficial for your son or daughter? Do you praise them, or just ignore their efforts? (Hint: If your wife is putting in long hours taking care of your children and you’re sitting at the computer reading this, turn off the computer now!)

Instead, look for opportunities for good communication with the coach. Praise him for a well-run practice, or for the fatigue you’ve seen in your child (since fatigue and improvement are frequent companions). Having done this, you’ll establish a relationship with the coach, and a basis for communication when things aren’t going so well. The coach will be less likely to go on the defensive, and most important, won’t draw a subconscious (or conscious) relationship between your behavior and your child, since that is almost always a Bad Thing ™.


1. Rod Smith, MSMFT - January 8, 2006

Hello — I am Rod Smith and you are listed as having referred people to my blog. I wanted to thank you and I enjoyed reading what you have to say about coaching. Sometime, (and this is not junk mail or an attempt tp sell you anything) after you trust me sufficiently, I’d like to surface mail you a free copy of my new book called “A Short Course In Good Manners” which playfully deals with the whole sports thng. It’s subtitle is “For Seventh Grade Students and Other Humans” — nice to meet you and thanks for sending people my way — Rod

2. timthefoolman - January 8, 2006

Rod, Thanks for the kind words! I’ll email you shortly.


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