By the time a child has reached early adolescence, athletic programs have typically shifted their emphasis from broad participation to focused competition. Coaches no longer divide playing time equally. Instead, they assess athletes to determine who will make the team and then reassess them throughout the season to determine their roles and their playing time.
The team experience now demands a larger commitment from participants – to train individually, to attend a full calendar of practices, to travel to competitions – and the experience itself is more challenging both physically and emotionally.
Remember, the abiding reason that sports are in schools is that they have the important capacity to be educational. In the athletic experience, individuals learn to develop skills and apply them in moments of “urgent effort,” and to work with others to pursue a common goal. In the hundreds of hours they spend with coaches and teammates, individuals can develop the habits of excellence, and can recognize the importance of honest effort, contribution and sportsmanship.
Parents play an essential role in helping their sons and daughters understand the expectations of team sports and the ways to succeed in those programs. They should model the virtues they wish to see in their children, practice good sportsmanship and remain adults in trying situations. Parents should cheer for their kids’ teams, not against their team’s opponents – and meet victory or defeat with grace.
There is controversy inherent in any sports season. A referee might make a questionable ruling at a critical, heart-breaking moment. A coach might call a risky play that does not succeed in the final seconds of a game. Parents should meet such moments with poise, and they should allow their children to own their athletic experience.
Psychologist Richard Grant reminds parents, “It’s your child’s activity, not yours. It’s their game, their match, their race. Most importantly, it’s their team.”
As much as parents desire to become involved in their children’s athletic experience, they must give them the space to have this experience on their own.
Sports Illustrated for Kids surveyed readers, and the young athletes offered frank, even blunt, advice to parents, paraphrased below.
• “Please don’t coach. Don’t tell me how to do this or that in the car to the game. Don’t yell instructions at me from the sidelines. Encouragement is fine, but not instruction. It’s distracting. And it makes me look inadequate.”
• “Please don’t try to get me psyched up for the game by talking about winning—let’s get ‘em tonight! Bring home a winner! I can’t control if we will win or lose. Instead, offer encouragement I can control—Do your best! Play hard!”
• “After a loss I will bring up the game on my own if I want to. But you can be helpful. Please don’t let me beat myself up, and don’t blame a loss on a teammate, the coach or a referee.”
Parents should help their sons and daughters understand the expectations of being a teammate. Every athlete has individual ambitions, and every team has collective goals. It is every team member’s responsibility to attend all practices and competitions, to remain “coachable” and to encourage teammates. Athletes experience satisfaction when they align their individual ambitions with the team’s goals and recognize that the ethic is the team first and the individual second.
The New York Yankees understand this ethic and promote it by not placing the names of individual players on their uniforms. Everyone contributes, and they win as a team and lose as a team. Parents can support their child by supporting everyone on the team.
Parents should encourage their children to advocate for themselves. With all that occurs in a sports season – tryouts, practices, challenge matches, injuries, wins and losses – it is important that coaches and athletes communicate well with each other. A student-athlete may not understand his or her role in an offensive or defensive scheme. He or she may wonder why a teammate who has been playing poorly is remaining in the lineup while they are sitting on the bench, or may wish to go out for a different position on the team. If an athlete believes he or she is not being treated fairly, or if the student has a question or concern, he or she should speak with the team captain or one of the coaches.
If a parent has a serious concern about some aspect of their child’s sports participation, of course, they should speak with the coach. As a general rule, though, wait 24 hours. If the call is made, the conversation should begin by relating the facts of the situation as the child has informed the parent. Give the coach the opportunity to confirm those facts and share additional information the parents may not have.
Parents should encourage their children to participate in more than one sport or in a second activity. In recent years, kids have specialized earlier and earlier in a single sport, and while they may achieve early success in that one area, they have not had the opportunity to develop physical, interpersonal or intellectual skills promoted by other activities.
In addition, parents should help their children understand the meaning of competition. The word “competition” means “to seek with,” not “to seek against.” Only in competition with a worthy opponent can an individual reach his or her abilities as an athlete. Indeed, competitors seek the stress of competition and welcome the excellent play of their opponent – because these are the circumstances that test them and summon their best performances.
In the end, parents should keep a healthy perspective on sports and enjoy their children’s participation. They should attend games, get to know the names of the other players, introduce themselves to other parents and, win or lose, support the team’s progress through the season. Of course, everyone wants their team to win, but in the end, what is important is the child’s education, family and the opportunity to spend time together.
William O’Neil, Ph.D., is principal of the University School, Hunting Valley Campus, in Hunting Valley, Ohio.