Positive Sports Parenting

Staff Writer
Columbus Parent

She was a gifted high school athlete. She enjoyed the benefits of being great at a sport. She often carried her teammates to victory.

And when her family was in session with me, she grimaced and said, "I hate this sport so much. Everybody expects too much from me. It's no fun anymore. I just want to quit."

Of course, she didn't quit. She didn't want to disappoint anybody. And deep down, she was still the little kid who fell in love with the sport in the first place, back when it was just for fun and she didn't worry about carrying the team to victory, winning awards and trying to earn a college scholarship.

I understand how families find themselves in those spots. My kids were athletes, too. Between them, they played high school water polo for seven consecutive years, and much of our lives revolved around tournaments each fall. (I didn't see a live Ohio State football game in September or October for seven years. Talk about sacrificing for the children….)

As parents, it's normal to be engaged in your children's activities. You want to be supportive of your kids. You want them to get everything they can out of playing a sport. Heck, you just want them to be happy. But it's important to keep sports in balance. Sports are part of a child's growth but not the only part, and a child's overall development can suffer if sports become overly important.

Before becoming a social worker specializing in family therapy, I was a stay-at-home dad, a freelance sports writer and a volunteer baseball/softball coach. I've seen these situations from several perspectives and, occasionally, even the best-intentioned parents can push their kids too far.

For example, I remember a high school freshmen baseball game where our pitching coach was talking to that day's pitcher as he warmed up. Soon, the pitcher's father strolled to the bullpen and started coaching his child as well, openly contradicting the coach. Not knowing what to do, the pitcher didn't last through the first inning.

You really can't blame the kid for that. He already felt pressure to pitch well. He felt embarrassed by his father. He was stressed, anxious and confused, and he couldn't win no matter what he did. It's no wonder he symbolically yakked all over the pitcher's mound. Imagine if his dad felt that way at his job - he'd want to quit, too.

So how can parents support their athletes without putting too much pressure on them? How can parents help their kids maintain a healthy relationship with sports?

Leave the coaching to the coach. His job is hard enough when players wanttolisten to him. If parents really want to contribute, they could volunteer as an assistant coach; their children (and the rest of the team) will see them as appropriate authority figures on the field. When I coached, I loved when parents volunteered. I always found something for them to do, even if it was just hitting fungos to the outfielders or keeping the scorebook.

Focus on the positive. Repeated studies show that giving attention to behaviors that you like is more effective than focusing on mistakes. Studies also show that offering specific praise is one of the best ways to help a child (or anyone, really) learn a new skill. If a child boots a ground ball, for example, remind him of what he did well the last time that he caught the ball. I once had a player who struggled because he dropped his hands when he swung the bat. If I focused on the negative ("Don't drop your hands"), he just dropped them more. But if I focused on a specific, positive behavior ("Take your hands directly to the ball"), his hands didn't drop. It's easier for children to try to do something rather than to try not to do it.

Watch for signs that the children are enjoying themselves. Even at the high school level, sports are just games, and kids should still have fun. Watch for a smile when things go well or when your child hangs out with teammates on the bench. Parents know their kids better than anybody else does; they'll know if their kids are happy.

This might be tough to do, but it helps when parents honestly assess what they want their kids to get out of sports. Are sports just for fun? For exercise? Part of a balanced childhood? Or are they important for another reason - say, to possibly earn a scholarship? A sport should be challenging, but it shouldn't feel like a job.

It's important for parents to have balance with the sport in their own lives. For example, has the natural community surrounding the team taken over the parent's social life? It's natural to become attached to other parents when you spend endless hours with them, but sometimes, parents fear the loss of the social group as much as they wish their kids would miss the sport if they quit.

Finally, it's normal for kids to quit playing at some point. Most athletes don't play in college or the pros. Sometimes, they quit because it takes too much time, or because they've lost interest, or they want to try something else. Those are normal parts of growing up, too.

- Carl Grody, LISW-S, is a licensedindependentsocial worker who works with families at Grody Family Counseling in Worthington.