I love this time of year, when spring sports begin: We watch the fields being prepared, we feel the anticipation building. Kids are excited, families are cheering. It’s so inspirational. And then…enter the Nightmare Parents. Screaming from the bleachers, arguing with coaches, berating their kids—or, yikes, other people’s kids. When I was a hockey mom, I saw dads climb over the boards and go onto the ice to yell at a ref. As a competitive figure skater, my daughter once had someone loosen all the screws on her skates.
We see the best and worst of human behavior on display during youth sporting events—and both are behaviors that kids learn from their parents. The bad stuff can cause kids to become frustrated or depressed, or turn them off of sports altogether. But when sports are good, they’re really, really good: strengthening kids physically, improving coordination, teaching cooperation, and offering just plain fun (remember that?).
That’s why it’s so critical for parents to model and teach the fine art of good sportsmanship. Here are my tips for good sportsparents:
First, explain what it means to be a good sport. It’s as simple as the Golden Rule: Treat others as you would like to be treated. That’s all you need to say.
Remember, Mom and Dad: It’s not about you. This is not the time for parents to relive their glory days as high school athletes, seek vicarious success through their children, or focus on a future college scholarship. Look at your child’s goals, not your own, and let your kids take the lead in choosing the sports they want to play. That may not be a team sport—and it may not be a sport at all. It’s important to be attuned to your child’s nature, and his or her strengths and interests. Forcing a miserable child into a sport he or she doesn’t want to play is an exercise in futility. Childhood is all about finding an activity that your child relates to and feels good about.
With younger kids, keep the focus on fun. Five- to seven-year-olds should be enjoying themselves, making friends, learning new skills, trying a variety of sports, and discovering how to play cooperatively with teammates. Winning and losing is not the object here. In fact, according to Daniel Gould, Ph.D., director of the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports at the University of Michigan, “Studies have shown that most 5 to 7 year old children do not have the mental capacity to compete in the adult sense.” Too much pressure too early can also cause burnout—one study showed that 75% of children who started soccer at an early age quit by age 13! So chill out, parents, and let your kids have fun.
Respect the coach. Leave the strategy to the person who’s been hired to do that job. Don’t be one of those parents yelling instructions from the sidelines. And never discuss with your child the amount of playing time he or she is getting (“Ashley played the whole game, and you only played the first half”). That’s between the coach and your child. Children must respect their coaches and abide by their decisions. Hearing critical remarks from you undermines the athlete-coach relationship. If you have a serious issue to discuss with the coach, take it up with him or her privately.
Watch your mouth—and your child’s. I’m not just talking about bad language (although, unfortunately, we’ve probably all heard some of that on the field or the sidelines). Making derogatory remarks about the other players is a strict no-no, both for you and your child. If your child is criticizing and blaming others, or being a braggart or a sorehead, it’s time to pull them aside and say, “We won’t tolerate that.”
Keep the car an interrogation-free zone. When your child gets in the car after a game, are you drilling him all the way home? Are you throwing strategies at her before you’ve pulled out of the parking lot? A child trapped in the back seat of the car facing an onslaught of questioning and strategizing feels frustrated to no end. Just get in the car, keep the conversation light (“I like how fast you ran today”), and go for ice cream.
Listen with empathy. Of course kids are going to come home with complaints (“The ref’s call was so unfair!”). First, let your child know you hear them. But never make excuses for your kids. Instead, focus on the future: “This time you didn’t win, but you can work hard and practice in the backyard, and you can do better next time.”
Denise Daniels is a Peabody award-winning broadcast journalist, parenting and child development expert and author who specializes in the social and emotional development of children.