Parents are eager participants in their child’s education – and this extends beyond the classroom to the sports field. While both of these elements of a child’s development are important, youth sports competitions tend to generate more emotional reactions than a math test.
For a variety of legitimate reasons, kids today do not go out and play on their own as they did a generation ago. The proliferation of organized youth sports has led to ritualized play time. Unfortunately, this play time now (somewhat exclusively) takes the form of adult-run practices and games. Conducted under the ever-watchful eye of parents and coaches, kids’ play time has degenerated into organized competition where all too often adults take a more vested interest in the outcome of a game than the kids themselves.
Ask a 10 year-old how he feels about losing a game 5 minutes afterward, and a parent may be surprised that the child is now “over” it.
A child’s sporting experience should be a wonderful complement to their overall education. The values inherent in competition help a child learn about themselves, how to cooperate with teammates, and the need to respect both their opponents and authority. Learning these lessons does not occur overnight, nor does a player reach his full sports potential during one season.
Like any other aspect of a child’s development, athletic prowess does not appear on a uniform timetable. Some develop physically sooner than others; some are more naturally agile and athletic; some take longer to figure out how to solve problems within the game. This is normal. In fact, many professional athletes have had to persevere through challenges during their youth to reach their goals (e.g., the story of Michael Jordan being cut from his high school basketball team is well known). The point is that one defeat or bad game is not a disaster – it is simply one more opportunity for a child to learn something on his own.
Post-game comments for your child
It is natural for parents to want to talk with their kids immediately following a game. For many, there is a desperate need to “enlighten” children with parental wisdom. However, it is important for parents to remember that the number one reason children play youth sports is because it’s fun. Kids do not need or want parents to “coach” them following a game. They simply want support. When you were a child and you met your friends at the park to play pick-up games, did your parents greet you at the door with questions about how you played or if you won? Of course not. They simply asked, “Did you have fun?” That question is just as appropriate immediately after a game. If you add, “I love watching you play”, that is even better. If initiated by the child, a more in-depth conversation can always be held later.
What should you be looking for?
As a coach and a parent, I continually look to see if my kids are having fun and if they’re improving. If the answer to both is yes, then all is well. For the first part, parents can see if their child is enjoying themselves. The question, I think, for parents is how to measure improvement, which is not as simple as it sounds. Participation on a winning team is not necessarily indicative of individual progress.
One of the reasons soccer is the world’s game is because it can be interpreted differently. For instance, a youth team can win games by playing “directly” – hitting long balls to a fast forward and not using the midfield or playing the ball along the ground. Their record may look good initially over a few years, but ultimately young teams learning good skills will surpass such teams, who will be left behind because they relied solely on athletic – not soccer – ability.
So as a parent, what are you looking for? What are your goals (More importantly, what are your child’s goals)? Begin with these questions, but remember – the number one reason children play sports is because it’s fun and the number one reason children quit sports is because it just isn’t fun anymore. According to the National Alliance for Youth Sports, 70% of kids quit organized sports by the age of 13.