All four of my kids play and compete in sports. Me and my husband felt participating in a sport would be fun for the kids and help them learn new skills and build appreciation about the importance of contributing to a team. We hoped that by them being part of a team, my kids would learn about good sportsmanship - how to win and lose gracefully and how to support each other, no matter the outcome.
Little did I know that while at my kids’ sports games and tournaments, I would witness parental emotions boiling over again and again, like water in a kettle: anger, shouting, and swearing at the officials, game participants, and opposing fans (primarily other parents). Another time, I would also overhear a parent threaten his six-year-old son that he would not get that soccer scholarship if he did not improve. (Seriously? I moved my lawn chair back to the tree line where it was easier to keep my opinion to myself.)
Parents of young athletes invest enormous amounts of energy, time (driving and waiting; practices; attending local and out-of-town events), and resources (team uniforms; additional athletic and safety gear; coaching expenses; club, game, and tournament fees; hotel and meal expenses for out-of-town events) into allowing their kids the opportunity and privilege of playing sports. Given these investments, it is understandable why some parents may feel they are entitled to act as they do during their children’s games and matches. However, unbecoming conduct can negatively affect and distract, leading to stress, anxiety, and burnout in their kids.
As a parent of a young athlete, what can you do to keep the ‘beast’ within calm during the game?
Check your ego. As parents, we are emotionally vested in our children’s successes and failures. Because of this, we are often guilty of overlooking what our kids are enjoying and learning along the way. We place far too much emphasis on their performance and outcomes (winning).
The game or match is not about you, about what you did or did not accomplish as an athlete, or dreamed about what you might have been able to achieve as an athlete. In other words, don’t compete with your child or add yourself to their team. You are not participating or competing vicariously through your child; you are only watching and supporting your child and their teammates.
Focus on your child’s interests and strengths. Focus on helping your child build self-esteem. Focus on their enjoyment and learning of playing a particular sport.
Focus on the positives aspects of the game. Leave the coaching up to the coach. The coach will go over what your child did well and what can be improved upon. Coaching from the sidelines, telling your son to “mark up” or “take it down the line” during a soccer match can confuse your child (they are trying to please you and their coach) and undermine what their coach wants them to work on, individually and as a team. Your sideline coaching can also add stress to your child and the other team members.
Trust in the process. Allow the coach and kids to grow and gel as a team unless, of course, you witness any abuse.
I have watched my son’s coach improve right alongside him. He was ‘green’ when he began coaching but turned into a great coach, and all the boys he coached responded in-kind.
Focus on relationships and friendships. Focus on your child’s efforts. Focus on what your child is learning and how they are developing physically and emotionally by participating in a team sport.
Model good sportsmanship. Good sports are ‘good sports.’ Swallow your negative opinions and feelings, regardless of how the game or match is officiated. I have had to do this numerous times, and I have had to correct my kids when they have voiced their negative opinions, too. Negativity begets bad attitudes and poor sportsmanship, and it can spread like wildfire throughout your child’s team.
Praise the coach and the skills of your and the other players’ team. Any disappointment and frustration you experience about the outcome will begin to fade as soon as you begin to do this.
Physically and/or emotionally remove yourself from being drawn into the fray of poor sportsmanship by other parents. Bring some suckers or gum to the game to keep your mouth busy, physically distance yourself from the other team’s parents, or take breaks during the game or match.
Model what you want to see in your child; what you want them to emulate.
Check the ‘reality’ metre. How often have parents arrived calmly to a game with their child’s gear in tow, only to leave the game in a fit of rage? How often have parents shown up at a game with the intention of supporting their child, only to act belligerently toward the officials and the opposing team’s parents? Or they leave after the game feeling upset with themselves or their child?
Remind yourself that what you’re watching is only a game. Enjoy watching your child participate. Remember: when you lose it, everyone loses.
Judy Miller, MA, is her kids’ biggest sports fan. She is a Certified Gottman Educator and the author of What To Expect From Your Adopted Tween and Writing to Heal Adoption Grief: Making Connections & Moving Forward.
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