How to be a Good Sports Parent
There may be no greater joy in life than ringing a cowbell in a cold arena and shouting “Go Gryphons!” And surely our kids are having fun out there too. Along with the promise of fun, sports participation holds opportunities for our children to develop in so many ways. Here are some tips for parents to foster their children’s growth through sports.
- Let your child choose. Choose their sport, decide to change sports, or choose to try a new one every season if they like. Be open to their preference to not play sports at all. Be on board with your child for this journey of self-discovery. Which activities will they find out that they enjoy? Which activities did they used to love but now are ready to take a break from?
- Model discipline. Show them through your behavior what it looks like to work at something and place value in achievement. Are you involved in sports, exercise, or other interests requiring discipline? One of the most powerful ways children learn is by observing your behavior. What does your child see when they observe you doing your thing?
- Develop life skills. Help them develop life skills by ensuring their daily lives set them up for developing independence. This can include activities related to their sport, such as packing their equipment, getting enough sleep, or learning about nutrition by helping prepare their meals before games. This can also include skills such as time management: allow them to decide when they will finish school work on a day when they have practice. Do you want your child to make the NHL but not know how to make a sandwich?
- Let them make mistakes. Help them develop coping skills, especially the ability to fail. Sports are a safe place to make mistakes and learn how to cope with them. There are many occasions when kids will feel frustrated, disappointed, envious, mistreated, and all of the emotions. Let them know by your reactions that it is okay to have a range of emotions, even to cry when they are in emotional pain. Help them name these emotions. Then help them to manage them, whether with hugs, talking it out, or taking action in some constructive way. What other risks in life will he be able to take once he learns that it is okay to make mistakes?
- Support their sense of belonging with other people. One of the most important tasks in psychological development is developing a sense of connectedness and true belonging with other people. Sports participation offers many chances to connect with teammates, coaches and even other competitors. Children benefit from our guidance and modelling in how to interact with other people. For instance, children need to take responsibility for their own behavior rather than blaming teammates or officials. How can your child be a good teammate? How does your child respond to a teammate when they make a mistake? How does he talk with his coach about a concern? How does it feel to be a part of a team or an effort with other people?
- Strive for personal balance. This means balancing athletic excellence with personal excellence in terms of health and overall development. This can include some downtime, social time, and time for other interests. Research supports the idea that filling multiple “baskets” in one’s life promotes well-being. A child’s sport is one basket and they benefit from filling other baskets such as friends, academics, quiet time, family time, etc. One way to assess whether your child experiences balance in their life is to think about how your child would answer the question, “who are you?” or “what do you do?”. Alternatively, what do you hear when you describe your child to friends or– how much is it focused on their sport versus other aspects of them?
- Be realistic. Less than 2% of children who play a sport at a high level in childhood go on to play that sport at an elite level. What are your child’s abilities? What are her goals? As one of my young clients asked me once, “If you have a superpower, does it mean you have to be a superhero?”
- Invest in the process. Children are already good at keeping score. They don’t need us to track the standings. Success in sports and in life has been shown to be much more related to the ability to focus on the process, rather than focus on outcomes. If parents can keep their focus on the effort a child applies to learning a new skill, or how much they are enjoying their sport, or how they are getting along with others, then children will learn to invest in the process too.
- Teach your child to respect the coach and officials. In turn, she will learn to respect other authority figures. As hard as it may be, don’t shout directions during a game, as that can distract from the coach’s coaching and indirectly give the impression that the coach isn’t in charge or doesn’t know what they’re doing. When an official makes a questionable call, refrain from expressing your views publicly. Similarly, in the car on the way home, keep critical thoughts to yourself. Instead, if your child wants to talk about the game or practice, let them take the lead. It would also be appropriate to ask open-ended questions like, “how did that go for you?” “what skills are you working on right now?”
- More cowbell. Encourage your kids. Cheer them on and unconditionally support them. Cut out the criticism. This is an opportunity in your life as a parent to sit back and observe, to support, but not have to take a lead role. And at times, supporting them can include not paying close attention, as kids can feel pressure if we are too glued to their every move. Their sense that you are behind them, even when you’re not physically watching, is a great indicator of psychological health.