Youth sports are presumed to be about the mental, physical, emotional, and social development of kids; however much of today’s youth sports culture is no longer about the kids. It’s been hi-jacked by adults. My experiences with youth sports—as a parent, a coach, and as a consultant to parents and coaches—tell me that the majority of parents involved with youth sports mean well. Many have simply been misguided.
According to a poll taken by The National Alliance for Youth Sports, 70% of kids quit sports by the age of 13. The No. 1 reason? It isn’t fun anymore.
For either competitive or recreational level athletes, the first priority is that kids enjoy sports so they’ll keep participating. Fun and competition can go hand-in-hand. At the same time that sports can be physically and mentally demanding as well as competitive, kids can be having fun.
A parent’s role in youth sports is to be a source of encouragement.
Through my education in the areas of sports science, human growth and development, sports psychology, and coaching—as well as through my experience coaching young athletes—I believe the following approaches by parents contribute to kids feeling a lack of enjoyment in sports.
As an ultra-competitive youth sports parent I have behaved—at one time or another—in some of the ways described below. These parenting descriptions are not meant to judge. As parents, we all have work to do. The key is to recognize when we’re acting in ways that may be detrimental to children, and work to change.
The Side-Line Coach:
Parents who constantly give their child advice from the sidelines, who interfere with the athlete’s ability to think for him- or herself or to hear and react to the coach’s directions.
The Side-Line Coach will correct every swing at the plate, position every movement on the field, and contribute constant feedback—positive and negative. The Side-Line Coach parenting style causes confusion, anxiety, and frustration for athletes, leading to declines in mental awareness, skill development, and, eventually, enjoyment.
Parents who examine every detail of their child’s athletic performance.
The Analyzer will incessantly lecture their child with the particulars of what needs work to improve. When they’re not lecturing, they’re working with them on technique in the backyard or sending them to private lessons with professional coaches. The Analyzer parenting style causes athletes to overthink, which can lead to anxiety and errors on game day and eventually a lack of enjoyment.
The Delusional Fantasizer:
Parents who maintain a belief that their child is better than all their peers and destined for a career in professional sports, despite evidence and generally accepted views from experienced coaches.
The Delusional Fantasizer will question their child’s team placement, playing time, and position; make negative statements about other athletes that they see as a threat to their child; and attach their own self worth to the athletic success of their child. The Delusional Fantasizer parenting style causes either embarrassment or entitlement in the athlete, both of which leads to alienation from teammates and eventually lack of enjoyment in sports.
Parents who push their child to train beyond what is safe and developmentally appropriate, based on the belief that that pushing will give their athlete a competitive edge.
The Over-Trainer, one of the most destructive parenting styles, will send their kids to multiple private coaches, require that they constantly work on their skills at home, and push them while in the weight room and/or during practice time to go beyond what their bodies are ready to achieve. The Over-Trainer parenting style leads to injuries, mental burnout, and eventually lack of enjoyment. Depending on the child’s personality, this parenting style can also lead to anxiety and depression.
Parents who make disparaging comments about their child’s athletic performance—directly to their child and to others.
The most emotionally destructive parenting style is The Belittler, who makes only negative comment’s about their child’s performance and contrasts their child’s abilities to higher performing athletes. The belittler parenting style causes low self esteem, anxiety, and depression. Children of belittling parents can experience a lack of enjoyment in sports and in life.
It’s time to give youth sports back to the kids—and consider what THEY want.
In a survey of 20 youth athletes of various ages, I asked the following three questions. I encourage you to ask your kids these three questions—without leading them in any way—and to listen carefully to what they have to say.
1. Why do you play sports?
Whether elite or recreational athletes, the top answers across all age groups were “to have fun” and “to be with my friends.”
2. What would you like your parents to do—if anything—at your sports competitions?
Every answer I heard was some variation of either “cheer and say positive things” or “just sit there and be quiet.”
I guess if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.
3. What would you like your parents to say to you—if anything—on the car ride home after a sports competition?
Most kids told me they’d like for their parents to not say anything about the game on the car ride home.
Other surveys reveal that the car ride home is a child’s least favorite part of sports.
Focus on Long-Term Athletic Development Over Short-Term Success
An important responsibility of a parent is to give children opportunities to develop—physically, mentally, and emotionally—in an age-appropriate context and with a vision toward long-term athletic development.
Today’s youth sports culture is misguided in the way of evolving athletes. Parents and coaches sometimes demand—at an early age—that kids quit other sports that they love in order to focus on intense, specialized year-round training for a single specific sport. The problem with early specialization is that kids miss important steps in the process of development. In the early years, learning and growing fundamental movement skills is more important than sport-specific skill development. Studies support kids engaging in free play and multiple sports early in order to develop coordination, speed, quickness, and general athleticism—all skills which eventually lead kids to reach their full athletic potential.
A science-based program for the advancement of athleticism, mental awareness, strength, agility, mobility, power, and speed is long-term.