I was listening to a webinar from “Growing Champions for Life” sports parenting expert David Benzel and he went through a list of nine of the worst sports parenting mistakes. It was during a talk about whether to push our kids in sports–or not.
Who is David Benzel? He’s a former sports parent himself, whose kids were athletic, loved their sports and made it to the pros—as he says—in spite of him. He felt like kids were coached in sports, but felt he was sorely lacking in knowledge about being a sports parent. He said that he and his wife changed throughout the years and now he coaches sports parents in many different sports including gymnasts, tennis, baseball and swimming.
I discovered Benzel on USA Swimming and have read his book from Chump to Champ, plus I have several copies of his little booklet “5 Powerful Strategies for Sport Parent Success” lying around the house in case I need a refresher.
I too changed through the years as I learned from my swim mom mistakes. I continued to grow as a parent, and looking back there are many things I’d never dream of doing today that I thought were perfectly normal years ago.
The list of 9 awful things sports parents do that Benzel presented was from the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports at Michigan State University.
Here’s the list:
Exhibit an outcome orientation.
TWO Are critical, negative and overbearing.
THREE Apply pressure to win or perform.
FOUR Make sports too serious.
FIVE Are over-involved and controlling.
SIX Compare child to other athletes.
SEVEN Distract child during competitions.
EIGHT Restrict player’s social life.
NINE Too much sports talk.
Between me and my hubby, I think we’ve got this list covered. We’ve been guilty of every single one on the list.
Junior Olympics for my daughter.
How many on this list have you done? What are things you’ve done in the past as a parent that you wouldn’t do now?
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.
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.
When they first joined the team.
What are your thoughts about returning to sports parenting. Will this break give you a new perspective?
From time to time, I receive emails from swim parents asking me for advice. I am always surprised and flattered when that happens — they obviously care about being a helpful parent — and they think I might have something useful to say. One parent wanted to know how to help their child handle disappointment after missing a cut for a big meet. This is something I know all too well. I talked to my daughter and son about it and they definitely remembered those days, too. My son said, “That was my life!” Here’s a link to the SwimSwam.com article “Ask Swim Mom” I wrote about it. It also reminded me of this post I wrote six years ago!
One of the most important things they learned is perseverance. That stick-with-it never give up attitude that is ingrained in their brains after years of trying for swim goals and just missing them. Then trying and trying again and again until they make them. The very nature of swimming 50 weeks a year, six days a week, makes kids tough.
I’ll never forget my daughter’s frustration of missing her junior national cut by fractions of a second for two years. She didn’t give up. She worked hard. She would still miss.
“Are you kidding me!” She said looking at the scoreboard to see her missing the coveted junior national cut by mere tenths of a second after dropping three full seconds on an 800 meter freestyle race.
The next race, she said, “I’m so done with this!” She dove in with more determination than ever, and yes, she made her cut, dropping seconds on her 200 meter free and coming in second place to one of the fastest girls in the country.
So, what does all this have to do with life? Take her hardest class, AP Stats. She knows that she can do it. She just has to put in the work and time. That may mean getting up and into the classroom at 6 a.m. for extra help, rather than staying warm tucked into her bed. But, she does it — all on her own — without me suggesting it. Her teacher told me, “I know that she will do whatever it takes to be successful, so I am not worried about where her grade is today.”
My son also swam. He worked so hard for every goal, trying to qualify for meets through ten years of year-round swimming. I’ll never forget his determination as an 8th grader. I was a chaperone for his Washington DC trip with his class. He knew he’d be missing too much swimming, so he would run up and down through the Mall, up and down the steps to the Lincoln Memorial, while everyone else strolled. At night in the hotel, he ran the gray cement staircases, up and down the five flights.
When he returned to the pool, he did it! He made his first Junior Olympic time.
Now he’s in college and he knows how to persevere. He wanted to work at the campus radio station. He put in his application as a freshman and was declined. As a junior he has been assigned a time slot on the FM station, moving up from his prior show on the AM.
He wanted to be in the College of Creative Studies, “a graduate school for undergraduates.” He applied and was devastated when he was declined. I told him to move on, it was okay, get a ‘normal’ degree. But, he didn’t give up. The next year he applied again and was accepted. Learn more about the UCSB CCS program here. Just click.
I’ve had friends ask why my kids spend so much time in the pool, aren’t they missing out?
I beg to differ. Spending most of their lives in the water has served them well. Being mostly wet has given them skills for life.
Photo credits: The Palm Springs, CA Pool — one of the most beautiful views while swimming ever. My daughter diving wearing the yellow cap. Yellow-capped swimmers sometime at some club meet. And a great meme for a distance swimmer.
One thing popped out at me after reading two articles about sports parents. The first article was a Q&A from a disgruntled softball dad, the other from a sports psychology expert and golf dad who realized he was being THAT parent. What struck me was the ages of their kids. The softball player was 10 years old and the golfer was seven! Yes, 10 and seven!
Isn’t that a bit young for parents to go completely nuts at their kids games and tournaments? I was surprised that neither parent realized that if their kids stick with sports, they’ve got close to 10 years ahead of them and they might want to pace their emotions. The amount of anxiety and angst these parents go through remind me of myself when my kids were around 10 years old. I saw a spark of talent in their sports abilities and we went hog wild with private lessons, swim camps and frantic cheering at meets.
Here’s a bit of the letter from the baseball dad in “Coaches Keep Putting My Talented 10-Year-Old Catcher in Center Field! A softball dad seeks advice on playing time and sportsmanship,” by Nicole Cliffe in Care and Feeding. You can read the entire outrageous letter here and the pointed, strong response here.
Dear Care and Feeding,
My 10-year-old daughter, Victoria, has been playing softball for five years and competitive travel ball for four. When she first started and was placed in the outfield, I told her that, even if she would rather be an infielder (who wouldn’t, in youth ball?), she would be the best outfielder she could be. We went to the park on off days for me to hit her fly balls and work on her throwing arm, and she became really good at both skills. It worked, and even coaches from other teams gushed about her ability.
First thought — competitive travel ball for four years — and she’s 10? Is putting your six-year-old child on a travel team considered child abuse? Also, the dad is coaching her during her downtime and working on her throwing arm? Okay, there’s more:
At the end of the 2019 season, another local organization invited Victoria to come play for a team they were putting together just for a major tournament being hosted in their city. They specifically invited her because they heard she was a catcher and they did not have any experienced catchers, and her star pitcher friend recommended her. We paid the (rather substantial) registration fees and went to the somewhat inconvenient practices because it was an opportunity to get catching time, and she was very enthusiastic about it. Apparently, after we agreed to participate, so did another, somewhat less experienced catcher.
The tournament started yesterday, and, of course, she was in center field. I bit my tongue and figured I would make the best of it. She made a running catch of a fly ball and walked, stole a base, and scored in her first (and only) time at-bat. Then, as the game became a bit lopsided, she was benched to get a sub some playing time. Victoria was never reentered as the game became a blowout—the sub got three at-bats and dropped an easy fly ball (although she recovered to throw out the runner at second). I was pissed off and angry—this is a tournament that gives prestigious individual awards for offensive and defensive players, and you can’t win those from the bench—and Victoria knew it. I didn’t say anything to the coach, because I don’t want to be that parent.
I had a beer at lunch and calmed down before we had to reconvene for an evening tournament event where each coach chose four players to represent the team on the field with professional ballplayers. However, when I saw the list of players from our team, I melted down. There were three legitimate choices, and the girl who was subbed in for Victoria. I didn’t think Victoria should be out there—she didn’t have the chance to contribute more, after all—but the kid who struck out twice and botched a play was being recognized?! I basically threw my kid in the car and headed for home. She convinced me to turn around and bring her back because she was worried that her nonpresence would negatively affect the coach’s decisions and she didn’t want to let down her teammates. (So, my kid is a better human being than I ever will be.
Yes, sir. Your kid is a better human being than you are. In fact, it seems she’s the parent and you’re the child. I don’t blame you for being over-the-top, because I was once in your shoes. But now that I’m a “recovering sports parent,” I know that when your daughter is in college you may get a good laugh at your letter. Hopefully, you can step back — sooner rather than later — and let your child take over softball. Cheer for her, support her and tell her you love to watch her play. The writer who answered this question had quite a lot to say.
The other article I read had a parent with expertise in advising other people and he did realize and understand that he was putting too much pressure on his seven-year-old golfer. Rob Bell gives some good tips in the story “How to Stop Being a Terrible Sports Parent. Hint: Quit trying to relive your glory days through your kids.”
My 7-year-old son loves golf. He watches it. He plays it. He wants to be on the course every chance he gets. And while he’s a good golfer, like most, he has his bad days. It is golf after all ⏤ the toughest sport out there. One day during a recent tournament, though, he was having a rough go at it. I was caddying for him and felt bad.
Now, I care about my kids more than anything else in the world, and I want them to succeed and do well. But there is something I value more important than results: It’s effort! He can control his effort and when I could see he wasn’t making it that day, I struggled to watch. He was off. He would be over the ball to hit and would stop and look at me and ask, “Is it my turn?” My frustration built as the round went on. On the eighth hole of our 9-hole round, he did it again. I didn’t yell, but I was stern with him and he started to tear up and said: “Quit yelling at me, daddy.”
Frankly, it didn’t matter if I was or wasn’t yelling, he thought I was yelling and that’s all that matters. During these instances, it’s much easier to destroy our kids’ confidence than it is to build it up. I immediately felt horrible. I broke my own rules. I thought, “Oh, no, I’m a terrible sports parent!” I’m the exact parent I’m usually trying to help. See, I’m a Sports Psychology coach. I work with kids and parents all the time to improve athletic performance. I’ve even written a book on Mental Toughness for sports parents entitled, Don’t “Should” On Your Kids: Build Their Mental Toughness. And even though I know and preach the utter importance of staying positive, not riding the emotional roller coaster, and focusing on the shot in front of you, here I was yelling at my own flesh and blood.
And I realized that no matter how hard we try, just as our kids make mistakes playing sports, we also make errors as parents watching them.
Our kids had one swim coach who laid out the law to us (me and a fellow swim mom.) We weren’t allowed to follow our kids to the starting blocks, nor stand at the end of their warm-up lanes with water bottles and towels. We weren’t even allowed to sit on the same side of the pool with them at meets. They had their own space with their coach and no parents allowed! Can you guess how old our kids were at the time? I’m embarrassed to tell you they were in high school — and yes, I was still chasing my kids around with their towels!
It seemed really harsh and crazy to me at the time. Looking back, the coaches my daughter had during her teen years were trying to help our kids gain skills and independence they’d need in college. Yes, my daughter missed an event during this period of time. Something she’d never done before. Of course, how could she not miss an event with me standing by reminding her and her brother when to warm up, go to their lanes and get on the blocks?
When kids get involved at an elite level in sports, most likely their parents are by their sides ensuring they make it. It gets a lot crazier than my simple stories when you’re talking about the major sports and the possibility of millions of dollars. Instead of acting like a Ball, be more of a Darnold parent. I wrote about those parents here and here.
In Sports Illustrated, I read The Rise of the Snowplow Sports Parents By Kalyn Kahler. There are a lot of great examples in the story about parents overly involved in their kids’ sports careers and how many are turning their children’s athletics into full time jobs. Read the entire article here. I’ve included a few excerpts below:
In football as in other sports, they’re drawing up business plans, starting marketing agencies, turning up at practice and even monitoring phone use. But by clearing out every obstacle on their kids’ road to stardom, hyperinvolved moms and dads threaten to deprive young athletes of critical life experiences. And they’re driving coaches and agents nuts.
Arriving at his draft-night party, Dwayne Haskins Jr. steps out of a gray van with a large logo affixed to its side: a black circle with two white H’s that connect in the middle. The Ohio State quarterback makes his way past fans and media down a red carpet, printed with the same logo, and walks under a banner displaying the two H’s. The symbol is everywhere and—to the uninitiated—could be more than a bit confusing: There is, after all, only one Dwayne Haskins about to be drafted. So why two H’s?
As Haskins Jr. wades through 300 of his closest friends and paying customers inside the Bowlmor Lanes in Gaithersburg, Md.—$40 covered bowling, food and drinks—the person responsible for that second h stays attached to his hip. It is his dad.
Dwayne Haskins Sr. has meticulously planned the draft-night event not just to launch his son’s career but also to launch their new family endeavor: Haskins & Haskins Group, LLC, an entertainment, branding and event agency that he registered shortly after Junior declared for the NFL draft in January. He has the two-H logo tattooed on the inside of his wrist, as do Dwayne Jr.’s mom, Tamara, and 18-year-old sister, Tamia, an aspiring actor. (The QB plans on getting it later.) The second h technically refers to Tamia, according to Dwayne Sr., but there’s little doubt who the driving force behind the company is.
Haskins Sr., it turns out, is not unique. One NBA agent said two out of his eight clients have their own LLCs to handle marketing and branding opportunities, set up by parents soon after their college careers ended.
The article describes how parents now show up for basketball camp and stay the entire time watching in the stands. When we sent our kids to USC Swim Camp, they were gone for an entire week. We kidded them that we’d hang out and watch, but we did manage to rip ourselves from their sides and head home. They loved that week so much! I wonder why?
Here’s more from the Sports Illustrated article:
The overactive parent is as old a concept as sports itself, but coaches and agents across football, basketball, baseball and hockey say that over the last few years, parents have become more involved in their children’s athletic careers than ever before—and it is reshaping sports. After all, this is a burgeoning age of player empowerment. Salaries are higher, athletes can force trades and recruit teammates. Business opportunities are everywhere, from the phones in players’ hands to the shoes on their feet. But that also means there are more complex decisions to make. So parents are stepping in to ensure that not an ounce of potential is wasted.
The phenomenon also reflects what’s happening in the rest of society, says psychologist Madeline Levine, an expert on the topic. “It used to be helicopter parenting,” she says. “And now it is snowplow parenting, which is much more active: It means you are doing something to smooth the way for the child. It’s not just that you’re hypervigilant—it’s that you are actually getting rid of those bumps, which robs kids of the necessary experience of learning and failing.”
Not surprisingly, the trend is driving many coaches nuts. “When I think about my next coaching job, I think it should be in an orphanage,” says Notre Dame basketball coach Mike Brey. “I use that [line] at coaching clinics, and high school coaches give me a standing ovation.”
Call it the age of the sportsplow parent.
I’m thankful for learning how not to be a sportsplow parent. It certainly helped my daughter when she went off to college and swam. The coaches she had in high school taught us well — even if we didn’t understand it at the time. We needed to be trained to let our kids make it on their own. My mom liked to say that her job as a parent was to allow us to fly from the nest. She was right.
My daughter’s pug Waffles on deck and ready to go.
What are your thoughts about sportsplow parents? Do you know any — or are you one yourself?
My kiddos jumping in the waves in Laguna Bach, CA.
I received a question from a swim mom the other day about families that team hop. “Why do they often want to destroy the team they left behind?” she wondered. This mom said that if her own family were to make a decision about leaving, they’d do it and not look back. Their decision would be their own and they wouldn’t need to tear down the team or coach. I wrote about that question in an “Ask Swim Mom” story. You can read it here.
I received a text from a swim and dance mom friend who read the story and whose daughter went to college with mine. She said it’s easier for us to see a better way to handle things because our girls are no longer involved. “For these people it’s still very personal and real.”
That’s it. It’s all so personal when your kids are young and you’re involved. I regret many things I did–not only as a swim mom–but as a school parent, too. Every day I didn’t need to put on armor and fight each battle. Some things could have been left alone. I really felt the need to solve each issue, from a parent not fulfilling volunteer commitments on the swim team, to a teacher who wasn’t great at teaching. I wish I would have known that “this too shall pass.” I barely remember what caused me such inner turmoil in younger years with my kids.
Relax, stand back, and enjoy each memory you’re creating with your family. If we could convince newer parents to take a step back and not hover quite so closely, they might be able to enjoy parenting even more. I think it’s okay to helicopter parent, just do it from a higher altitude so you can see the big picture.
What regrets do you have as a parent or in life? What would you do over if you had a second chance?
I believe it was easier to raise toddlers than young twenty-somethings. The reason why can be explained in one simple word: control. I had total control when my kids were babies. Yes, I was a wee bit tired, but hey, I’m tired today. I realize now I have very little say so. I no longer get to decide what my kids eat, what activities they do, who their friends are, what they wear and when they go to bed. I look back fondly on the days when I could tell my kids what to do and they’d do it. I wrote a SwimSwam story about 10 Things Parents Can and Cannot Control.
Of course, I’m not “raising” my twenty-somethings anymore. In theory, they’re raised and my job is done. My job now is more of a sounding board. And they take my advice from time to time, but not always. I worry a lot about them, but they are okay. It stresses me out when I give advice and they don’t take it. After all, I do know a few things about life. Of course, life doesn’t work in a straight line without some ups and downs along the way, although I expect and want my children’s lives to be perfect.
If I look back closely on my kids as toddlers, I will admit that I didn’t have total control. Toddlerhood is when they begin to test the boundaries. And my two kids pushed back from time to time. For example, we had a car without door locks and my toddler son could open the door while I was driving. Thank the Lord for the car seat! I tried to explain to him in words he could understand, that if he opened the door while I was driving he could go “splat” on the road. For the next few days, he’d open the door and yell “SPLAT! Mommy SPLAT!” and giggle uncontrollably.
With my daughter, I really wanted her to love ballet. I wanted more than anything to be a dance mom. My daughter hated it. She thought I was punishing her by making her dress in tights and a leotard when it was scorching hot outside. Her brother got dropped off at the pool with the swim team, and that looked like way more fun to her. My daughter’s ballet teacher pulled me aside one day and said, “I know your daughter has the ability, but she stands at the barres and refuses to do anything.”
I took ballet lessons as a child but when I lost a ballet slipper at age 11 or 12, my mom said, “I can tell you aren’t really interested” and she took me out of ballet class. The biggest issue with my ballet class, wasn’t the missing ballet slipper. She enrolled me in the Bellevue Ballet School with Gwenn Barker, which was a 45-minute drive from Snohomish, our home town. My mom always believed in the finding the best of everything, and I had no idea how great a teacher Ms. Barker was until I ran across her obit and read her life accomplishments. Mom had to pick me up from school before the bell, with some fabricated note of why I needed to be excused–which the school figured out pretty quickly. Then, it was a hassle when I moved from ballet class one day a week up to three or four days a week. So the missing ballet slipper was the nail in the coffin to my dancing.
But, I loved it enough that when I went to the University of Washington, I enrolled in ballet from day one. After I moved to So Cal, I enrolled in ballet at the local community college and eventually at a dance troupe downtown Palm Springs. As I got older, my bones and joints found swimming to be a good substitute. In the end, my daughter and I both ended up as swimmers. Funny how that worked.
What I’m trying to say through all the reminiscing, is we really can’t control what our children do and it’s not healthy for them for us to try. We need to support them in their passions, even if they might not be ours. We need to let them take ownership and learn from their decisions and actions. Just my two cents worth.
What are your thoughts about controlling our children’s lives and letting go?