My son’s club soccer team, defending state champions at age 11-12, had an undefeated season the following year until they lost in the finals. As we were walking over to receive the second-place medals, the father of one of the players was lecturing his son in the parking lot.
“Son, they are picking up their silver medals,” he said. “We are not going. Our family only collects the gold ones.”
Certainly, this was a prime example of a parent spiraling out of control.
Most parents – even parents like these – want the very best for their children. But even with good intentions, many moms and dads are doing their kids a disservice with their overzealous approach to youth sports. A few of the biggest issues:
- Kids join organized leagues administered and coached by adults too early, sometimes at ages 4-5. That’s a lot of structure before first grade, and it usually goes hand in hand with an overemphasis on winning and an often unrealistic pursuit of a college scholarship. This earlier-is-better mentality began surfacing in the late 1970s and early ’80s, and I believe it had a lot to do with parents having more free time and a surplus of discretionary income. My parents were too busy working several jobs to pay the bills to micromanage my sports career.
- Parents have a my-child-is-best attitude. This began with the Baby Boomers who decided their kids were special. I call it the “trophy kid syndrome.” Everyone has to be a “winner,” everyone has to collect a trophy, everyone needs to be top dog at everything: school, music, dancing, sports.
- Many club coaches have little experience teaching kids. Often, they are former players without much knowledge of child development. And some aren’t parents, so they have little perspective on how to deal with parents.
- Parents have become consumers. They pay for their kids to play, so, naturally, they want them to get great coaching and become starters and eventually earn a full-ride to a notable college. Time on the bench is unacceptable.
- Families are sold a bill of goods that the kids will get a return on their club investment by earning a college scholarship. That rarely happens. Only about 3% of high school athletes go on to play in college, and only about 1% earn college athletic scholarships.
- The youth sports genie is out of the bottle. Youth sports is not going back to where it was 30 or 40 years ago, so our mission should be to work with the existing model to make it better. (Two intriguing books on today’s world of youth sports are Tom Farrey’s “Game On – The All-American Race to Make Champions of Our Children” and John O’Sullivan’s “Changing the Game.”)
- Make sure that the administrators, coaches and parents know that youth sports is first and foremost “about the kids.”
- Understand that kids play sports for the following reasons:
- To have fun
- To socialize
- To learn skills
- To feel worthy
- Provide a safe environment for “unstructured play” when the kids are 3-6 years old. Let them decide the activity without an adult coaching or setting rules.
- Help parents to understand and heed the following points:
- Persian poet/philosopher Kahlil Gibran had a wonderful description of parenting in his book, The Prophet. “Your children are like arrows and you are the archer. Put the arrows in your bow, point them to their target and then let them go.”
- One of my very good friends, the late psychologist Martin Gipson, told me this when my son turned 13: “Strap yourself in for a wondrous and tumultuous ride for 8+ years, and then your son will come back to his core values.” The key: You must establish and hone these core values in your child.
- Do not enable and entitle your children. Instead, teach them:
- The Golden Rule.
- A work ethic. As I learned from my father, Taras M. Liskevych: “You must work hard to get what you want. However, even if you work hard, there is no guarantee that you will get what you want. But you will NEVER get what you want if you do not work hard!”
- Being tolerant and patient with others.
- Giving back.
6. Work on creating a “lifelong leisure mindset” – 97% of youth participants won’t play on a college varsity team, so encourage them to enjoy and love their sports. Teach them skills that they can use for recreation/leisure activity as they grow older. Have them play both an individual and a team sport.
7. Educate parents in your high school and/or club program by:
- Organizing a pre-season parent meeting.
- Presenting school and club guidelines.
- Giving them copies of your coaching philosophy.
Establishing a pathway for the athlete and/or parent to communicate with you.
Terry Liskevych, who retired last year as the head women’s coach at Oregon State and is one of the founders of The Art of Coaching Volleyball, coached the U.S. women’s national team at three Olympics, including 1992, when they won a bronze medal in Barcelona.