Car rides home from sporting events have caused more kids to give up a sport than injuries ever have. Many youth sport participants have dreaded that time after the game, held captive in the family car with no immediate escape, when they’re forced to listen to their parent’s analysis of the game and their performance. Hearing critiques of not only of how they played, but also of their teammates and coaches, has a way of zapping the fun right out of the sport.
The parent/player relationship is critical during youth sport activities with the car ride home experience being just one example of a critical touch point. With participation levels in many youth sports on the decline, parents should be looking at ways to give their kids every opportunity to develop a love of the game. Players who have fun with the experience will play longer and reap the positive benefits of sports.
How then can parents make sports more enjoyable for their children?
Suggestions for helping your child in sports
1.) Create traditions. Whether it’s having pasta feeds the night before big games or playing the same pump-up song from your car’s stereo in route to the game, kids thrive on traditions. Traditions can get players in the right mindset and can go a long way to creating lasting, positive memories about the experience. I know one mother who would manicure her daughter’s nails before tournament games. A father packed his child’s favorite snack for between games. Kids are more apt to remember some of these ancillary experiences than wins over rival teams. Traditions bring us closer together – and, that’s a good thing.
2.) Understand your role during games. If you’re a new parent to youth sports, here’s some advice for your game time behavior: Let coaches coach, referees ref, players play and parents parent. Coaches will sometimes try to ref and it doesn’t work out well. Parents will sometime try to jump roles to coach or ref, or both. That doesn’t work well either.
What do players want from parents at games? The answer: a quiet presence. Be there, but don’t stand out from the crowd. Cheer good play from both teams. Be supportive. Demonstrate poise. Don’t shout player instructions or ride the refs. Get along with other parents. Support teammates and coaches.
3.) Play the game with your player: In your backyard or driveway, play the sport with your kid. If you’re not very good at the sport, that’s even better. When my daughter took up lacrosse, I wasn’t in a position to give her any coaching tips, as I had never played. When we play lacrosse catch, she loves it. The roles are reversed. She shows me what she had learned in practice from her coaches. I’m on the receiving end of coaching tips. Even if you know the sport, try playing more and coaching less. Let your child come to you asking for advice. Advice yields better results when you have a receptive audience.
4.) Look for ways to help the team. From bringing snacks to helping coach at a practice when the assistant is outing of town, there are many ways parents can help the team. When parents, beyond the coaches are involved with a team in a positive way, it makes for a better overall experience. Connect with other team parents in the stands. I’d be a little worried if parents of teammates sit in different parts of the gym at an away basketball game. Reach out to parents of new players on the team and include them in the conversations. If the parents are unified, if just at a basic level, it’s easier to keep the players unified.
5.) Know what to say. Pre-game suggestions: “Have fun!” and “I love watching you play.” You can’t go wrong with those two lines. Kids will be excited and nervous enough – no need to ask them if they’re ready for the big game. You want your child relaxed and confident going into games.
Increase the Fun Factor in Sports
During the game suggestions: Remember you’re a quiet presence. Offer no coaching advice. Cheer good play from both teams. Smile a lot. Relax. Enjoy the experience. Go with a steady diet of: “Way to go,” “Great job,” and “Nice play!”
Post-game suggestions: For the car ride home, you need to shift roles from sports spectator to parent. Offer no performance analysis on the ride home. Listen. Tell your child you’re proud and that you enjoy watching the game. If there’s some priceless piece of advice you’d like to pass on to your child, wait a day – let’s call this “the 24 hour rule.” Give your child a chance to unwind. After a day has gone by, weave your playing tip into a sandwich compliment. For example, (the compliment) “Your goal was fantastic, I don’t think the goalie really even had a chance…great job! (the opportunity) Hey, one thing to think about during practice this week: when you’re dribbling try to look up more frequently, it will help you see your teammates. (the finishing compliment) Your hustle and determination was impressive! It seemed like you were everywhere on the field! It’s fun watching you play.”
A big part of knowing what to say to your child involves knowing the importance of listening. Sports provide opportunities for a lot of different experiences: the thrill of competition, playing with a team, having great games, having poor games, hard work, being on the field when it counts, not being on the field when it counts, etc. Before reacting too quickly to any event, hear your child out. An understanding parent who listens well can teach a child a lot when it matters the most.
In addition to praising your kid, look for opportunities to compliment other players and the coaches. Well-timed words of praise can go a long way. Remember, the best model for your child’s behavior is you.
—Mike O’Halloran. O’Halloran is the founder and editor of SportsFeelGoodStories.com. His focus on creating fun and memorable experiences through youth sports is showcased in his Well Prepared Coach™ line of coach’s practice plans, MVP offseason workout plans and customizable award certificates for players.