The Five Most Important Sports Parenting Words

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Relay start at the All Star Festival at the old Belmont pool.

While writing about swim parenting, I have interviewed a lot of swim parents and coaches. I also read sports parenting books and listen to webinars like David Benzel’s Growing Champions for Life. There’s a phrase I keep hearing from all these sources. The five most important words to tell your athlete: “I love to watch you play.” 

I read an article in The Times Union, a paper in Albany, NY, called Youth sports parenting model is simple: I love watching you play by Joyce Bassett.

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Teammates.

When my children played sports, I told them two things before they left my car to step on the playing fields or lace up their hockey skates or ski boots.

Good luck. Have fun.

I spoke these four words from an early age through their college playing days. For the latter, it often was in a text. I didn’t coin the phrase, I remember reading a story about youth sports that recommended those four words to say to young athletes before a game.

The latest more popular version of that four-word guide is “I love to watch you play.” Nicole Roberts, a soccer coach and state soccer Hall of Famer I wrote about in last week’s column, told me about the “I love to watch you play” website geared for parenting of young athletes.  She also forwarded to me the TEDx Talk by soccer player and coach John O’Sullivan called “Changing the game in youth sports” which has garnered more than 375,000 views.

The website —  Ilovetowatchyouplay.com — features a video of young athletes talking about their parents. It’s called “The truth about sports parents …” More than 500,000 people have watched that video. You should too.

The columnist wrote about some of her personal experiences as a mom of kids a fe years older than mine. She asked her daughter what she remembered and could say about sports parents.

She was mostly positive. She said she remembers cheers and only a couple of parents stood out as being annoying sideline screamers. She said she learned early on to focus on the game, not people yelling in the stands. (Although she also mentioned being a spectator for her brother’s hockey and lacrosse games and said those times were “crazy.”)

She reminded me that “Good luck. Have fun,” was my way of saying “I love to watch you play.” She even wrote an Instagram post about it three years ago in a series of inspirational graphic designs.

Bassett said she gets asked questions from sports parents from time to time and her advice has changed through the years. I understand that well because the further we are removed from the roller coaster of youth sports, the more we can look at situations objectively. We have learned through our mistakes and our feelings that magnify problems as much bigger than they actually are. Time is a good filter.

Here’s her advice to a mom who’s enjoying sheltering in place with her kids and wondering what’s going to happen when youth sports start up again:

Another friend said she has enjoyed the pandemic stay-at-home pause because she would be coaching right now, struggling to get her children to and from practices, while working full-time as a teacher. On top of gymnastics finishing up, soccer entering the outdoor season, and track, spring became overwhelming. It was too much, too hectic.

When the time comes to get back to practices and games for children, there will be a push to make up for lost time by hiring personal trainers or sending kids to expensive camps or showcases. Parents and young athletes must resist FOMO (fear of missing out).

My new advice: Continue to pause and enjoy fun activities with your family. Don’t let youth sports get in the way of family time.

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When they first joined the team.

What are your thoughts about returning to sports parenting. Will this break give you a new perspective?

Great Tips for Kids in Sports–and Parents

IMG_3931I read some great tips for sports parents on a website called Chicago Health. In an article called Healthy Sports Parenting Starts with These Tips, author Jeanette Hurt offered helpful information that I wish I had known when my kids were young–especially the tips about overuse injuries and health. As a parent, I thought swimming and exercise is healthy and I didn’t anticipate there could be a downside to athletics.

From the article:

Coach and author Sharkie Zartman remembers coaching at a youth volleyball tournament and observing a match between two very good teams of 10-year-olds when the parents started behaving badly.

“It was just a battle, going back and forth,” she says. “After it was over, the parents were still yelling at the coaches, officials and other parents. Meanwhile, the kids from both teams went outside to play some kind of circle game, and they were all laughing and having fun. I was thinking, ‘Oh, my gosh, who are the grownups, and who are the kids?’”

As numerous memes on social media suggest, badly behaving sports parents are not uncommon. In an effort to foster healthier sports parenting, Zartman teamed up with Robert Weil, DPM, a sports podiatrist based in Aurora, to write #HeySportsParents: An Essential Guide for any Parent with a Child in Sports.

It’s important for parents to stay calm and be supportive while helping their kids navigate the perks and pitfalls of youth sports, the authors say.

Zartman says many parents look at sports with a competitive mindset, while their kids just want to enjoy themselves. “Kids play sports because they’re fun, and they want to be with their friends,” she says. “But what do most parents focus on? Winning, getting the trophies or dreaming of scholarships.”

I have the Zartman and Weil book on my shelf and it’s definitely worth a read. They each write a section from their perspectives and then have sports parents share their stories as well.

kat groupThere is a lot more to learn in the article including what happens when parents bribe their kids for performance and abusive coaches. Following is the list of tips I found so helpful. You can read the rest of the article here.

Tips for sports parents

Follow these tips for a healthier approach to sports for parents and their children.

  • Check safe sport guidelines. Guidelines should be available through the individual sport’s governing body or through the U.S. Center for SafeSport. Parents can also look to uscenterforsafesport.org to report concerns and to find more information.

  • Avoid overuse injuries. Too much pressure from year-round training can lead to physical harm, such as overuse injuries. Plus, sports carry the risk of concussions. Practice safely.

  • Keep an eye out for burnout. Many kids drop out of sports by age 13, Conviser says. “They leave if there’s injury or too much stress and strain on their bodies, their families, their well-being or finances. The more hours per week a sport requires usually means that there’s a greater likelihood of early burnout.”

  • Watch for signs of disordered eating. Some sports, especially gymnastics and wrestling, put children at risk for eating disorders. “Parents need to be aware of the pressures facing their kids, whether it’s peer pressure or pressure from their coaches,” Breslow says.

  • If injured, see a doctor. If the injury doesn’t respond to rest, ice and over-the-counter medicine, it should be checked out, especially if there is continued pain, excessive swelling or other persistent symptoms, Breslow says. “If you miss an injury early on, sometimes a simple situation becomes very complex,” he warns.

  • Consider going to an orthopedic clinic. If parents suspect that their child has an orthopedic injury to the bones or joints, Breslow recommends taking them to a walk-in orthopedic clinic, where they can be immediately evaluated by a specialist and get the right type of imaging, bracing or other therapy.

  • Be prepared. Parents should make sure their children wear the right footwear, get enough sleep and consume a balanced diet.

  • Stay hydrated. “A lot of times, kids aren’t drinking enough, especially in [cool] weather, because they don’t know they’re sweating as much,” Breslow says.

  • Learn to stretch well. Many athletes emphasize strength instead of flexibility, Breslow says. But stretching warm-ups are important. “A significant number of injuries occur because of a lack of flexibility,” he says.

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What other tips do you have for sports parents and student-athletes?

What NOT to do as a sports parent

kat underIn a website called sheknows writer Marshall Bright has some tips for sports parents in Is Your Kid Starting a Sport? Here’s What NOT to Do:

Back-to-school season is also back-to-sports season. While there are summer leagues, many sports time their season to the school calendar. By entering a new grade, many kids may also qualify for a local league or sports team. But before you sign on the dotted line for another season of soccer or basketball, there’s one thing you should do first: Make sure your kid actually wants to participate.

This may seem obvious, but many parents want their children to (or assume their children will) participate in the same sports they loved as kids themselves. And parents of older kids may also just assume their child will stick with whatever sport they’ve already been playing — especially if they’ve been successful in it for a few years. Hopes of seeing your child play varsity, or at the college level, or even just sharing in a sport they love, can cloud what parents should really be focusing on: where your child will have the most fun.

Matt Thompson, the Branch Executive Director of the Gateway Region YMCA, has worked extensively with youth sports during his career with the organization. He has seen firsthand the benefits of sports, which include statistics that show active kids can score up to 40% higher on tests and are 15% more likely to go to college. He also sees statistics on how likely kids are to drop out of sports: most will quit by age 11.

“What’s most important to the kids is having fun,” he says. That means finding sports your kids will actually enjoy.

“One of the things parents tend to lean towards is looking at traditional sports like basketball, baseball, football, and soccer. A lot of our kids these days are very interested in other activities,” Thompson continues. He includes individual sports like swimming, martial arts, and gymnastics, as well as other physical activities like dance that might interest kids. If you allow your children to find activities that they enjoy, they’ll be less likely to drop out later.

If your child isn’t sure what they’ll like, see if there are ways you can explore different options together. Martial arts studios may offer a drop-in class before commitment, for example. That also may mean trying out a few sports for one season until you find the fit. If a child has been an enthusiastic soccer player for several seasons, it also may mean having an ongoing conversation if they’re feeling lukewarm about it suddenly. By making it an ongoing conversation, rather than letting them quit (or insisting they keep playing), you can hopefully support them in finding a better fit, rediscovering their original passion, or even deciding together that it’s time for a break.

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Early days at the pool.

I think this is good advice to make sure your kids are interested in the activity first — before making a huge commitment. I put my daughter in activities she despised — ballet and piano — and it of course didn’t work out! One day, the ballet teacher pulled me aside after several months and said, “I know she can do it, but she won’t. She just stands there and doesn’t move.”

I loved ballet and I was so surprised that my daughter didn’t love it too! In fact, as an adult, I took up ballet again taking four classes a week and even did a few shows. Our children are different human beings than us and will have their own interests. Give them a chance to try different things and perhaps a passion will take hold.

Our kids ended up in swimming after trying different activities. It was nice they both settled on swimming and we went full bore as a swim family. My son also liked his piano lessons and formed a band plus took lessons until he graduated from high school. He liked music more than swimming the last year or two and we didn’t see it. Or, he didn’t want to disappoint us because we were so invested in the aquatic life. I’d sign him up for swim meets and he’d be a no show because he had other activities going on. It should have been an obvious tell to me when he continually missed practice. We probably could have saved a lot of aggravation and money — if only we’d be honest with each other — or open to a talk that his interests had changed from second grade to a senior in high school!

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She didn’t want to be a ballerina. She wanted to swim!

What advice do you have for new sports parents?

 

An Open Thank You to Coaches

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My daughter with one of her coaches.

I wholeheartedly agree with “An Open Letter to All the Coaches Who Get Yelled At: I Want to Say Thank You” in Popsugar by Angela Anagnost-Repke. My kids have had all sorts of coaches throughout the years. I counted 14 in their age group swimming years alone. Mostly because they started really young and got new coaches as they grew older. Also the assistant coach job is one that turns over frequently. It’s low pay and and not many hours. Then when a long-time head coach switched careers and it took our team a few tries to get a coach who stayed.

From all the coaches my kids had, not one of them was perfect. But my children looked up to them and learned from each and every one. Some were better with parents than others. Some were better at technique or training. Some were better at team spirit and team administration. But all had something valuable to offer my kids. And like the open letter says, they played an important part of my children’s development.

Here’s an excerpt of the open thank you to coaches:

Dear Coaches,

Sometimes you get a bad rap. Parents will say you didn’t play the right kid at the right time. Or that you let little Johnny sit the bench for too long. Maybe you don’t push them hard enough . . . or you push them too hard. On and on. The complaints about coaches seem endless. But I want you to know that there are plenty of parents out there who are truly thankful for the dedication and time that you put into our children — because it not only affects them on the field, but is carried off of the field, too.

As a parent, I’ve sat on the sidelines and watched my children play football, basketball, swimming, and gymnastics. Sometimes they excel naturally at a particular sport, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they have a great game, and sometimes they play downright bad. I know that’s part of the cycle. And while I provide constant encouragement, it doesn’t mean as much as the encouragement that comes from you, their coach. I truly believe that you coaches ignite a true love of the game (whatever that game may be) within our children.

And I’ve seen it firsthand. My son recently started playing travel football, and thanks to his coaches, he’s improved tremendously. He went from being a kid who haphazardly toe-kicked the ball, to one who willingly goes out in the backyard to practice his new moves. He sets up his little orange cones and encourages his friends to join along in a spontaneous pickup game. And that’s all because of you. His coaches have not only helped him improve, but instilled in him the intrinsic motivation to succeed. And most importantly, they’ve done it at an age-appropriate level, allowing him to fall in love with the game of football — instead feeling pressure to succeed.

I don’t think many parents realise how difficult coaching a sport can be. As a former coach myself, of both high school players and little kids, I know that it is one of the toughest jobs out there. And many of the coaches of little kids are unpaid. They volunteer their Saturday mornings, weekday evenings, and more — all for our children. I think it’s time we gave you the credit you’re due. Because its coaches like you who are doing their best for our kids. You organise the practices, the very important snack schedule, and drills. You encourage our kids, teach them the rules, and help them learn to love exercise.

You also do something very important for our young children — you get them excited about sports. Athletics have come a long way, and it feels like today’s kids can face a lot of pressure about excelling at a sport. But it’s you who takes the time to show them how much fun being on a team can be. You teach them that the real joy from sports comes intrinsically, from the love of the game, not through reward or punishment.

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My daughter with her college distance coach watching a teammate’s race.

I think the role and influence a coach has on our children is immeasurable. I will admit that we weren’t always the best parents to have on a team, but we did learn as the years progressed. We wanted our children to be successful and happy. We wanted them to love their sport. With the exception of one or two coaches, our children’s coaches wanted the same things. They were invested in our kids and truly cared.

What are some of the traits you admire most about your children’s coaches?

How to Keep Your Kids in the Game

34614_1556248309940_4797539_nIt’s a hard lesson for sports parents to learn, because we do get all excited watching our kids, but we can put too much performance pressure on them. When we do this, they may lose some of their passion for their sport, play half-heartedly, or quit.

When my son was young, I learned that he listened to his own drummer. Tee ball practices were spent building dirt castles. When I put him on a summer league swim team, I was surprised to see him and a friend out of the pool, sword fighting with sticks. As he got older and focused on swimming, he was hard enough on himself. I didn’t need to add any pressure. He said he still has nightmares about me forcing him to go to a meet that he wasn’t prepared for. I thought meets were fun–at least they were for me. I didn’t see an issue with signing him up for a meet after he had spent the last two months in a school play with little or no practice.

I believe we have to keep in mind our children’s competitive natures and their passion. They have to like their sport. It can’t be done to please us. It’s their sport, not ours. According to a recent poll, 70 percent of kids in the United States stop playing organized sports by the age of 13 because “it’s just not fun anymore.”

Here’s an interesting article in PopsugarUK.com from a mom who wants her kids to enjoy their sports, but is afraid of the culture. Written by Angela Anagnost-Repke, she points out some of the great things about youth sports, as well as the problems. Unfortunately, a few overzealous parents can ruin the sports experience for everyone.

Here’s an excerpt of “I Want My Kids to Play Sports, but Worry How the Culture Will Affect Them:”

I signed my kids up for team sports because playing sports teaches kids more lessons than I can count: how to set a goal and work to achieve it, how to function as part of a team, and how to find that grit we all have deep within us. It also demonstrates that when you’re working with others, on anything, those same people will depend on you. So, it’s on you to bring it every single day — to training, to practice, and to games. I personally have many fond memories of playing football with my teammates, and I want that for my kids, too. But the culture has shifted dramatically since my days on the field, so I’m a little nervous about the whole thing.

I find the pressure to be “the best” in their specialised sport — which I also think kids are forced into choosing far too young — is too intense for kids today. It feels like kids are expected to be a standout athlete before they reach 10 years old. They’re expected to get outside and practice instead of running through the sprinklers with the neighbours, give up going to birthday parties to play in weekend-long tournaments. And the older these children get, the more burned out they become. I’ve seen kids get so worn down from trying to be “the best” that they stop playing sports all together. While they loved it once, that love has diminished, or died altogether, and they can’t bear to play any longer. And, this societal pressure is not the only kind of pressure I see young athletes facing, either.

Today, I also think kids involved in sports receive too much pressure from their parents. As I stand on the sidelines to watch my son play on his travel football team, I hear parents yell at their 6- and 7-year-old boys constantly. “Get up!” “Get your head in the game!” and “You better start trying!” The little boys stiffen up as their parents scream at them and then try just a little bit harder. I can’t help but think that these parents should be yelling praise and encouragement. This pressure carries through to when these kids become young adults. It wears them down. As a high school teacher, I’ve seen it far too many times. These young adults are so burnt out from trying to please everyone around them. They’re crumbling, and it’s a damn shame.

We can cheer and love the life lessons our kids get from their sports. But, we need to keep the pressure to perform in check. If they are having fun, they will stick with their sports.

robkatwaterHow do you help your kids in sports without taking over or adding too much pressure?

When should kids specialize in sports?

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It takes grit to become an elite-level athlete. Not every athlete has it. And it can’t be developed without internal motivation.

Both of my kids began swimming when they were young. My daughter began swimming with a year-round team at five, while my son began swimming at age eight. (He’s three years older).

They did do other activities for a few years before they decided to specialize. And that is the key: they decided. My son was running between t-ball, tennis, karate and swimming and felt like he wasn’t making progress in any of them. He got the swimming bug and wanted to compete. So, we dropped the other sports.

My daughter was being shuttled between the ballet studio and the pool. She honestly thought that ballet was some weird form of punishment — especially putting on pink tights and a black leotard in the 110 degree heat — while her brother got to dive into the pool and have fun!

Eventually, the ballet teacher pulled me aside and said, “I know she can do this. But she chooses not to. She stands and does nothing at the barres.” As much as I wanted my daughter to love ballet as much as I do, I realized we’d both be better off letting her pursue what she had a passion for — namely swimming.

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I listened to a podcast by Ritter Sports Performance on early sports specialization and the main thing I took away was that an athlete has to be internally motivated. They can’t be putting in the hours and training to please their parents or their coach.  If they have the passion and are hardwired to compete at their sport, then they will reach the elite level regardless when they start.

In swimming, two examples are Rowdy Gaines and Ed Moses, who both started late in high school. They did a lot of other sports before they found the pool. Once they started swimming they excelled and loved it.

(photo: my kids on the swim team many years ago)

So, why do we insist on sports specialization a young age? It’s because some sports like swimming or gymnastics take a lot of time to develop technique. Parents naturally want their kids to have a head start.

Then there’s the 10,000 rule from Outliers: The Story of Success that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to be good at something.  But, an interesting theory is that it’s not the quantity, but the quality of practice. Our kids can’t be looking at the clock waiting for practice to be over. They have to be in the moment giving it their all.

There are certain guidelines that kids should do a lot of different activities before they specialize, but that by the time they turn 12 or 13 years old they need to focus on one sport.

I say, follow your kids’ lead. They will know what sport ignites their passion. By allowing them to follow their passion, they can develop the grit it takes to be successful.

What sports are your children in and at what age did they specialize in a single sport?

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When Should Children Specialize In Sports? Part II

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This is one of my earlier posts about sports specialization. I still agree with most of this, but I see one factor about earlier sports specialization that isn’t so great–repetitive use injuries. However, I don’t know if a swimmer’s shoulder would still be injured if they started at ages 9 to 11, versus age 5. That’s a tough question to answer.

 

“Do you ever get tired of trying and coming up short of your goal? You’re just not getting where you want to be and you’ve tried and tried again? For many people the capacity to push through obstacles to get where they want to go demonstrates a strength of character trait groomed and implanted in their early childhood. Changing one’s character later in life happens, but it’s usually difficult.” ***

Two common complaints against specializing in a sport at an early age are: it causes burnout, and there’s no clear advantage to it. (Last week I wrote about isolation and specialization.) 

I disagree with both based on my experience as a swim parent. What I find odd is how many athletes are going to burn out if they are achieving success? If they’re winning races and moving on to the next level, they will feel a sense of accomplishment.

I have a friend who was captain of his golf team at Harvard. He has a zero handicap. I asked him if he ever got bored playing golf.

He said, “I never get tired of hitting great shots.”

There appears to be a clear advantage of specialization in a single sport — at least sports like golf or swimming, where there are specific skills and techniques. If a child is jumping from sport to sport, rather than focusing one sport, that child probably won’t progress much — unless they are truly gifted athletes.

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When swimmers hit a plateau and don’t improve for more than a year — which is like multiple years to a person 11 or 12  years old — but they stick with it and eventually break through and improve — the life lessons learned are incredible! Talk about a reward!

Take my daughter who is turning 18 this week. She began swimming at age five. She had lots of improvement until about age 11 when she couldn’t break the one minute mark for the 100 free for more than a year and a half. I’ll never forget her frustration, but she also showed determination. She didn’t quit. She didn’t try another sport for a season here or there. She worked very hard and rarely missed swim practice.  At a Junior Olympic swim meet — she went 57 seconds in the 100 free.

Her coach asked her, “What happened to 59 and 58?”

She said with a smile, “They are highly over-rated!”

The lesson she learned was that with hard work, success will come eventually. In the meantime, perseverance was nothing to sneeze at. She’s still swimming, by the way, and earned a college scholarship.

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Regardless when a child starts a sport, they have to love it! They can’t be putting in the hours to please their parents or their coach. Also, when they are very young, it has to be fun. If they aren’t having fun, it’s tough to keep them in the sport.

Building character and strength in our children can be a part of their specialized sports experience!

***The quote is from SWIMSWAM: Jason Lezak & Seeds of Third Effort (worth reading!) by Chuck Warner, coach and author of And Then They Won Gold: Stepping Stones To Swimming Excellence: This article is about Jason Lezak’s difficulties in college swimming and how it prepared him for the most amazing Olympic relay. Ever. 

More valuable info for parents about swimming can be found at USA SWIMMING.

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When do you think children should specialize in a single sport? What advantages and disadvantages do you see?