How to be a sports parent and “not quite ruin your child”

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A swim meet where college coaches were present for recruiting.

I read an interesting book a few weeks ago about how to parent without really trying. Called Bare Minimum Parenting: The Ultimate Guide to Not Quite Ruining Your Child,  it was written by James Breakwell. He is a popular author and humorist who can be found on Twitter. His theory is the opposite of helicopter parenting. He believes that all children will turn about the same — mediocre — regardless of parenting techniques. So why knock yourself out with trying to be a perfect parent, raising perfectionist children? He believes in a hands off, bare minimum approach.

As a relentless, overachieving swim mom, I especially enjoyed Chapter 11 “The Path to Athletic Glory” which he crossed out and renamed “Benched.” Breakwell’s advice on sports parenting is to sign your kids up for sports and let it go at that. At some point, they’ll tire of it and you can all move onto something else.

Here are a few excerpts from his sports parenting chapter that gave me a chuckle or belly laugh:

“The real danger sports pose is to you, the parent on the sideline. Kids will damage their bodies and minds. You could lose your immortal soul.”

“The competitive pull of youth sports is hard to resist. Deep down, we all have a primal urge to see our child do better than other people’s kids. It’s the ultimate secondhand validation. If your kid wins, that means you’re better than those other parents, or at least that you passed on better genes. Whatever it was, your kid triumphed because of you. Brag about it to everyone you know. That never gets old.” 

“But while sports parents know everything there is to know about succeeding as an athlete, none of them agree on how to pull it off. There’s more than one way to ruin a childhood. To sports parents, steamrolling their child’s youth will be worth it when their kid hoists whatever arbitrary medal or trophy now defines that kid’s entire existence. Ultimately, sports parents just want their kid to have fun — as long as they win or die trying.”

On Breakwell’s section about parents’ dreams of Olympic glory, he writes that the dream is out of reach. 

“Parents of top gymnasts and swimmers enroll their kids in Soviet-style sports gulags the second they leave the womb….The bottom line is kids don’t just roll out of bed and pull off world-record swimming times or gymnastics scores. Instead they give up their entire childhoods to achieve greatness at those arbitrary scoring metrics.”

If you’re a bare minimum parent, you shouldn’t touch Olympic training with a ten-foot pole. Unless you use that pole to pull your kid out of the training pool. If they swim like me, they could use the help.

So what should you do if your child says they want to be an Olympic athlete? Here’s a sample conversation:

Kid: I want to be an Olympic swimmer.

Parent: No.

Then buy them ice cream. Ice cream fixes everything. Note: This also works on adults.

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Having fun in the pool.

Our own family pursued swimming for years — literally from the time my kids were six months old in “Mommy and Me” swim lessons to my daughter’s senior year of college. It took up an enormous amount of our family life, but I believe it was worth it. All children want to be Olympians when they’re young. It’s a great dream and worth encouraging. At some point, they understand that only a few, and I mean two people in the United States, per event, every four years, actually make the Olympic team. With 400,000 swimmers registered in USA Swimming, two per event really is out of reach. But the kids do figure it out on their own.

Not being an Olympian doesn’t mean that swimming isn’t a valuable experience and worth every minute. I guess the point is we didn’t go into the deal — as parents — with any illusion of our kids being Olympians. Funny thing though, one of of their teammates from their age group club team made it to the Beijing and London Olympics, and a college teammate of our daughter has two Olympic medalists for sisters. It can happen, but it’s not the point of enrolling and being in a sport.

Later in the chapter, Breakwell talks about how college scholarships is making your kids work for their college educations. He doesn’t think it’s such a good deal after all. “The problem with college scholarships is that otherwise intelligent people forget that nothing is really free.” I’ll save my thoughts on college scholarships for another day.

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Cheering for a teammate at PAC 12’s.

What are your thoughts about bare minimum parenting as an approach to sports parenting? Can the two co-exist?

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Team loyalty versus splintering teams

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I wrote this article several years ago and I still wonder about this today. In our LSC, Southern California Swimming, we’ve always had new teams splintering off from older teams. It’s a phenomenon that I see as unhelpful because it takes so much support to keep a team afloat. Also, there seems to be little team loyalty and parents are always jumping from one team to another. I say parents, because I’m not convinced that kids are driving the issue.

In the 16 years I’ve been involved in swimming, several new teams have cropped up. I wonder, did a child say, “Dad, I’m really unhappy with my coach, I don’t believe I’m getting the training I deserve, so why don’t you start a new team?”

No. I highly doubt it.

When a group of parents fracture off and start a new team, many unexpected things happen. First, they learn that it’s not as easy as they thought—most of the teams I’ve seen crumble in under five years (not all, but most). Second, friendships and relationships are divided, loyalties are developed—you’re either on one side or the other—and there’s a lot of unhappiness all around.

If a situation is bad, or you see fault with it, why not address it? If you have an issue with a coach, why not talk about it with the coach? If you’re unable to do that, or don’t feel comfortable, then why not talk to the board, or at least send an email?

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Is there something you can do to help the situation? Can you volunteer your expertise or time to make your team better? That’s what I’d do and what I’ve practiced through the years. New teams usually start, because of a private agenda or ego issue with an adult—and it’s not always with the best interest of the kids in mind.

When new teams begin, the resources of the community are spread too thin. Without a large population of families, communities cannot support a number of teams. There are only so many families willing to make the commitment to swimming. A well-known club, college and Olympic coach told me that you need a million families to have a national championship level team. You need a large pool of families for kids to come in and out of the program as they move onto college.

Plus, coaches are highly trained and there aren’t a lot of them around who have gotten kids to national levels. If you want the best for your kids, then it would seem you’d want a chance for your child to improve, learn new skills, build friendships and have the opportunity to swim in college and beyond. It makes sense that you’d want your child on a team with a proven track record of getting kids to those levels.

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My son learning to dive with the swim team.

Speaking of friendships, how does it help your child to be put on a new team away from the kids he or she has bonded with on a daily basis? Do you want to ensnare your child in the drama that’s sure to come when the kids come face to face at a meet? Do you want to be the parents dragging in their own food in coolers to a meet hosted by your former team—because you refuse to support their snack bar?

When I talked about this years ago with my son, he felt that teams splitting up and new teams starting were a good thing. His viewpoint was that competition is always good and will make the existing team even better and more committed to excellence. I agree with that concept, but sometimes the process is painful.

I think it all comes down to one thing, the swim team should be for the kids. How does creating turmoil and drama help your child? Maybe you can take a look at where you are and realize, hey, it’s not that bad! Or better yet, jump in and make it better.

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My daughter with her first swim instructor.

What are your thoughts about creating new teams? Do you think it’s a good thing, or not?

When did “playing” turn into “performing?”

My daughter diving in a competition with her club team at the East LA City College pool.

My daughter in the yellow cap.

Back in the ancient days when I was growing up, all our neighborhood kids gathered in the evenings on our dead-end street playing work-up softball. I was one of the younger kids at five or six years old while the kids controlling the game were in junior high and high school. I stood for countless hours in the outfield and never once made it up to bat. The big kids were at the pitcher’s mound, catcher, short stop, first base and swinging the bat, of course. It did bother me that I never left the outfield before our moms would stick their heads out their kitchen doors and call us in for supper. But, I was happy to be included with the big kids. We were playing a game. And guess what? There were no coaches, no officials, no parent volunteers and not a single parent watching!

Fast forward to today and you don’t see kids playing pick up games around the neighborhoods. They aren’t playing football, softball, basketball or any games at all. Instead, moms and dads drive their kids to ball fields, swimming pools, gyms, etc. to practice with other kids on organized teams. These teams have coaches, referees, uniforms, fees and parents. Yes, parents are all over the place — watching, volunteering, providing snacks — and in some sports, coaching.

I’m not saying this is a bad thing in itself. I just miss the days when kids played outside. Of course, kids in my day and age were on teams, too — but they also had time to play without adult supervision just for the fun of it with their friends.

What happens when kids aren’t out playing with their friends, but instead are playing in front of an audience of overly involved adults? Playing becomes performing. Parents are sitting watching their kids’ practices and more than ready to give them the full low down critique on the drive home. At meets and games, parents fill the stands and are yelling, cheering, pacing and showing their displeasure at officials’ calls, other kids that are competing and even their own kids. They are also ecstatic when their kids do well. I should know since I went through the gamut of emotions myself with my two kids.

I didn’t realize that kids aren’t out playing on their own these until I read a book called “Why LESS is MORE for WOSPs* — *Well-Intentioned, Overinvolved Sports Parents” by John M. Tauer, Ph.D. Because my kids were swimmers and we have to take them to the pool for their sport, I didn’t notice the lack of kids playing in the park. Dr. Tauer, a psychologist and college basketball coach, talks about how kids he coached in a summer basketball camp would rather sit on the bench than play in a game without adult officials. He had five groups of kids rotating in four games with officials. He gave the kids a choice to sit out the fifth game or else play the fifth game on their own. All of the kids chose to sit it out, mainly because they had no experience just “playing” without adults supervising.

From the book:

“One of the consequences of parental involvement is that parents watch many of the games their kids play. That means many parents know if Billy has been in a hitting slump, if Jenny has been struggling with her shooting, or if Tommy made a mistake that allowed the winning goal. Thus, children may feel their performance is being evaluated and monitored not just by teachers and their parents, as with school, but also by their peers and other parents. Instead of playing, children are performing, which can undermine one of the major goals of sports. This shift from playing to performing affects both children and parents negatively. Most children don’t take math exams with dozens of parents watching, cheering, hollering, encouraging, yelling, or even criticizing the performance. Imagine how odd it would be to see parents show up for exams at school and then spend hours dissecting their child’s performance at home. Why then, do we accept those same behaviors as normal for WOSP’s at sporting events?”

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My son in front wearing the yellow cap.

Some interesting things to think about: Why do you think we’ve shifted in our society to no longer letting kids play to having them perform? Have children changed so drastically through the years, or is it our parenting? I’d like to hear your opinions, so please share your thoughts.

Can parents make their kids swim faster?

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My daughter swimming in college.

“Dad! It Doesn’t Help!” is a sports parenting book to “Become the Ultimate Sports Parent” by Mark A. Maguire. Although the book is based in Australia with a dad figuring out how to be a better sports parent for his son with USA Major League Baseball dreams, I could relate as a swim mom.

Maguire explains in his book: “The title came about after my son used this phrase when I asked him how he feels when I holler out at his baseball games. His response stunned me. His response and my first blog must have stunned a lot of sports parents and coaches, because it was read and shared during 2017 (through the COACH UP website in the USA) over a million times.”

So what did his son say that stunned him? Here’s an excerpt from the first chapter:

During the baseball season a few years ago I asked my eleven-year-old son what do all the kids in the dugout think when their parents urge them on with instructions and encouragement as they are playing the game?

He said bluntly: “they don’t like it.”

I further pressed him. What about when I call out some last second reminders just before you bat, you know, the things we’ve talked about during the week and to help you remember what to do.

Again, he didn’t mince his words and said, “Dad, it doesn’t help.”

He went on to say: “When I’m in the batter’s box I follow the instructions from my coach. I put myself in the zone to block out every other noise. It doesn’t help me, or any other kid when our parents are yelling things out.”

Okay. That one struck home. As a swim mom who used to search frantically for my kids before each one of their races to impart some last minute instructions, I am frankly a bit embarrassed. I honestly thought that whatever wisdom I was going to tell them right before they got on the blocks was helpful. Not only helpful but would be the determining factor on whether or not they won their heat, got their coveted cut to the big meet, and would earn a college scholarship. Well, I’m exaggerating a bit with the outcomes, but I thought they wouldn’t do as well without my input.

In truth, I was probably a distraction. An annoyance. A royal pain in the behind. My stress level was running high, I was climbing over parents, pushing through crowds to grab my kids and do our little last minute good luck ritual. Ugh. Yes, that was me. Eventually I calmed down. Or at least I wasn’t so obvious about my nerves—and let the coaches coach while I sat in the stands or at the end of their lanes and cheered.

I asked my daughter what she thought when we yelled and screamed for her. We’d yell at the top of our lungs “Kick!” “Keep your head down!” or my husband’s favorite “Go now!” — like she wasn’t doing all those things without us screaming. It’s funny today looking back at it. I wonder if she heard us when she was under water. She said, “Yes, dad is really loud. But it didn’t help.”

I do think cheering has some small affect on our kids’ sports. It shows our enthusiasm for the sport. Cheering helps us release tension. And it shows we care.

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Teammates cheering at PAC-12 Women’s Championships.

What things have you done as a sports parent that you’d never dream of doing today?

Why our kids need to play sports

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My kids at the last PAC 12 Championship Meet.

I’ve written extensively that one of the best things we did for our kids was sign them up with the Piranha Swim Team, our local USA Swimming club team. There are too many benefits to list, but here are a few: physical fitness, self confidence, friendships, teamwork, good sportsmanship, and time management.

I found a parenting column written by syndicated columnist Armin Brott in the Courier from Waterloo, Iowa where he’s asked “You’ve talked a lot about kids and sports. Why are sports so important?”

His answers touch on several different areas including how healthy sports are for kids. I agree that the health aspects are great. My kids have always been physically fit and never battled with being a couch potato or being overweight. My son who left swimming after high school works out like a mad man. He wakes up at 4:30 a.m. to row in the Bay area’s Estuary with a rowing club and he works out at a gym. My daughter swam through college and likes to try other activities like spin classes, kick boxing and yoga. Their high level of fitness began when they were young kids and it’s an integral part of their life to feel good physically.

Here’s what Brott said in his article:

One in three children is now overweight or obese — triple the rate it was for us — and school shootings and other violence committed by children, which was largely unheard of in our day, is startlingly common.

The question of what we can do to, quite literally, save our children (or at least improve their lives) is a popular one. Despite all the debate, one of the most effective solutions to so many of the problems that affect young people these days rarely comes up: sports.

Kids who get involved in sports during middle and especially high school are better off in a variety of important ways. Compared to non-athletes, sports-involved kids are less likely to be obese, smoke tobacco or take drugs, and have better cardiovascular fitness, coordination and balance. Student athletes also get better grades and are more likely to graduate high school and go on to college; they handle stress better, have better self-esteem and are less likely to report feeling lonely or anxious or to become teen parents.

Sports also teaches kids valuable skills in communication, cooperation, teamwork, goal setting, problem solving, learning to lose, resilience, respect for authority, controlling their emotions, patience, self-sacrifice and more, says Graham Clark, a retired high-school football coach in Kingsport, Tenn.

Another topic the author touches on in his column is Title IX. Although the purpose of Title IX is admirable–allowing more opportunities for women in sports at the college level–like most things a bunch of politicians come up with — there are unintended consequences. The unintended consequences are less opportunities for men. Because of the large rosters of football teams, and Title IX require a proportional number of female and male athletes, lots of smaller men’s teams get the axe. In the PAC 12, the conference my daughter swam in, there are nine women’s swim teams while only six for men. In Division 1 Swimming, there are 136 teams for men while there are 196 women’s team. As for scholarships, men have 1,346.4 and women 2,716.

Here’s what the column says about Title IX:

We also need to develop policies and procedures to ensure that children and young adults have access to sports at every level. Right now, colleges around the country, and a small but growing number of high schools, are using Title IX — which is ostensibly designed to promote equality — to cut sports programs, especially those for men and boys. They’re using the concept of “proportionality,” which states that percentages of male and female student athletes must be the same as the percentages of male and female students in the institution as a whole.

Nationwide, the on-campus female-to-male ratio is 57:43. However, since those percentages are roughly reversed for student athletes, institutions are resorting to cutting men’s teams to produce “equity.”

“With all the known positive benefits that boys gain from participating in sports, it makes absolutely no sense to cut male athletes from high school teams just to comply with Title IX’s gender quota,” says Eric Pearson, chairman, American Sports Council.

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My kids and their teammates at a meet in Irvine years ago.

What other benefits do kids get from playing sports?

9 Tips on How Not to Fail as a Sports Parent

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Seniors!

Sports are so great for our kids. They keep our kids active, socializing, learning new skills and life lessons. Unfortunately, some parents take the fun out of sports by not following the list of nine tips  I read in Psychology Today by  Frank L. Smoll, Ph.D. In fact, if you’re tired of driving to practice and games or meets, try to do the opposite of the nine tips and your kids will be back on the couch in no time!

In an article posted a few years ago in Psychology Today called “Moms and Dads; How to help your son or daughter get the most out of sports” he has a list of nine tips that make a lot of sense:

“There’s no set formula, but the guidelines below are designed to increase the chances of producing favorable results.

ONE

Set a good example of an active person

TWO

Let kids participate in determining when they are ready for sports.

THREE

Give priority to your child’s own interests.

FOUR

Don’t use sports as a babysitter.

FIVE

Emphasize the process of enjoyment rather than the product of winning.

SIX

Emphasize striving to improve skills rather than comparing oneself with others.

SEVEN

Establish and maintain open lines of communication.

EIGHT

Evaluate your child’s coach.

NINE

Don’t live your dreams through your children.”

Of course, he goes into more detail on each point, but the basic list is helpful. For example, if you’re not moving and don’t value exercise like “number one” says, then your kids aren’t going to think it’s of much value to exercise either.

In “number eight on the list,” evaluating the coach, Smoll asks the following questions:

“Parents should talk to the coach, regularly go to games, and occasionally attend a practice. Additionally, they should ask themselves the following questions:

Are the young athletes treated with respect?

Are they being taught?

Are they given a chance to perform?

Are they made to feel what they’re doing is a fun activity?

If not, it may be necessary to find another team for your child.”

 The National Alliance for Youth Sports, did a stury and found that around 70 percent of kids in the United States stop playing organized sports by the age of 13 because “it’s just not fun anymore.” We can be one of the major reasons why the fun disappears. If you’re more into than your kids, then chances are they’ll be part of that 70 percent.

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In it for the long haul.

What can you do to become a successful sport parent?

We can teach our kids to be good sports

 

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Open Water Nats–being good sports after a close 5k race.

Nobody likes a sore loser and I think it’s even worse to have a gloating winner. In an article on CNN called “If I Were a Parent: Teaching kids to be good sports” by Kelly Wallace, the number one way to teach good sportsmanship is through role modeling.

“Losing is not easy for many kids, and being a graceful winner can in some ways be even harder, so the question becomes: what can parents do to teach their children good sportsmanship?

“Rule No. 1 seems simple enough but is too often overlooked by helicopter parents who are living vicariously through their children. Parents should model the behavior they want to see in their kids, said John O’Sullivan, author of “Changing the Game: The Parent’s Guide to Raising Happy, High Performing Athletes, and Giving Youth Sports Back to our Kids.”

“Kids are not very good at listening, but they are fantastic at imitating,” said O’Sullivan, founder of the Changing the Game Project, which says it seeks to “put the ‘play’ back in ‘play ball.’ “

“And so if you want your kids to display good sportsmanship, you should. If you don’t want your kids to yell at referees, you shouldn’t yell at referees.”

The article goes on to talk about the flip side, lousy winners:

“And as for teaching your child how to win and win gracefully, remind them how it felt when they were on the losing side. “The biggest thing that I always say to my team when you’re winning by a lot is, ‘you know what, you’ve been on the other side of it where you’ve lost by a lot. Do you remember how that felt? So don’t do anything that’s going to make your opponent feel any worse right now,’ ” O’Sullivan said.

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Cheering on a teammate.

What do we mean when we talk about being a good sport? It’s easy to point out kids and parents who aren’t. They are mean, rude, usually loud and they do not care about how they affect those around them. Parents who are bad sports are causing fights these days with coaches and landing in jail! With social media catching every incident of bad parent behavior, it seems like it’s happening more frequently, but I haven’t seen any stats to know if that true or not.

Being a good sport is simple. It’s treating others with respect. It’s not talking badly about others behind their backs or throwing your equipment down. I remember when my brother was on the golf team in high school, there was a player that broke their golf clubs more than once when they lost. Staying composed and not getting too caught up in the moment helps us be better role models. In our kids’ sports, the process is just as important–or more so–than winning.

I think another important element in teaching good sportsmanship, besides being good role models, is to compliment our kids when you see them being a good sport. In swimming after races, you often see swimmers reaching over lane lines to hug the winner or you see the winner reaching out to competitors to shake hands. When you see your child being a good sport, point it out and say you’re proud of them. If you see other kids showing good sportsmanship, be sure to tell your child how much you admire them for their actions.

How do you teach your children good sportsmanship?

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My daughter showing good sportsmanship.