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What to Say to Your Child Athlete (And Five Things to Never Do)

While he was in high school, my husband Charles was the state champion in New Jersey for high hurdles (and he's an equally amazing athlete now). When I've asked him to tell me stories about his sports experiences, I was surprised that one of his strongest memories is a negative one.

During a track event in his junior year, a friend of his parents, Mr. A, attended the meet. Charles ran remarkably well and came in second. But that wasn't good enough for Mr. A, and he remarked to Charles shortly after the race, "I'm so disappointed that you didn't win first place. You let a lot of people down."

I winced when I heard Charles retell that story, and I asked him how hearing those words from Mr. A made him feel. He replied that he felt anger. Charles explained, "I was disappointed enough in myself for not winning, and that man piling on his own disappointment was uncalled for. It was like Mr. A was living vicariously through me, and somehow felt letdown by my performance. Whatever frustrations he had about things he never achieved, it was dumped on me."

Charles's experience reminded me of an article I read about Bruce E. Brown and Rob Miller, both longtime coaches who formed Proactive Coaching, LLC. They are staunch advocates for child, adolescent, and college athletes, and for the past three decades these men have asked thousands of young athletes two questions.

Their first question: "What is the thing your parents said to you that made you feel great?" The overwhelming response from the young athletes: "I love to watch you play."

Their second question: "What is your worst memory from playing youth/high school sports?" The overwhelming response from the young athletes: "The ride home from games with my parents."

Coaches Brown and Miller are especially devoted to helping adults not be a nightmare sports parent. The stereotypical sports parent - someone who screams at the referees, yells obscenities, and insults their child - is thankfully very rare according to Mr. Brown and Mr. Miller. What they state is much more common, and subtlety insidious, is the well-intentioned parent who speak to their child immediately after the game offering opinions, disappointments, and suggestions on how to play better.

Over the last three decades of their research, the most important things Coaches Brown and Miller discovered are:

1. Kid want to transition from athlete to child rapidly. They want their parents to do the same, to go from being a spectator (and in certain instances, coach) to just being a parent.

2. Young athletes prefer their grandparents being at athletic events rather than their parents. Grandparents are more content than parents to simply enjoy watching the child and typically withhold any comments other than loving and supportive ones.

3. Children and teens do not want any commentary about the game from their parents. They especially do not want to hear their parents insult their teammates, coach, or the game officials. Mr. Brown advises, "Let your child bring the game to you if they want to." Until then, keep silent.  

Most parents try to love their child in the best way they know how. But many times loving your child the best is giving them the freedom they need. Mr. Miller states, "Sports is one of few places in a child's life where a parent can say, 'This is your thing.' Athletics is one of the best ways for young people to take risks and deal with failure because the consequences aren't fatal, they aren't permanent. We're talking about a game. So they usually don't want or need a parent to rescue them when something goes wrong."

Seventy-five percent of kids who play organized sports quit by the time they turn 13 years. Although some end their participation due to their no longer finding the sport fun or having a change of interests, Coaches Brown and Miller discovered that the majority of children quit because of their parents. The child reasons that if they give up the sport, their Mom/Dad will give up being a sports parent and return to just being a parent.

Mr. Brown states, "Many young athletes indicate that conversations with their parents after a game somehow makes them feel as if their value as a person was tied to playing time or winning." 

I'm sure most parents do not realize the negative impact they are having on their child athlete. For those who may not be sure if they are a sports parent or not, here are five warning signs (and things to never do) courtesy of Coaches Brown and Miller.

1. Overemphasizing sports at the expense of sportsmanship.
2. Having more elevated goals than your child (most children and teens just want to have fun and enjoy time with friends).
3. Treat your child differently after a loss/win.
4. Undermine the coach, such as yelling instructions from the stands.
5. Living your own athletic dream through your child.

To the parents of the tens of millions of American youth who will be participating in sports this weekend: you would never want your children to treat you differently if you didn't get a promotion or pay raise at work. You would want them to love you just for you, regardless of your performance. Simply love your child athlete. Tell them you love watching them play, and let that be enough.

Resources for my Readers:

1. An article about Coaches Brown and Miller, part of which I quoted above, can be found here

2. The website for Proactive Coaching, LLC, which has many interesting articles, is here
By: Kristia Markarian