Teaching parents to be
Parents must learn to tread a fine line between caring
too much about whether their children excel and taking too
By Lisa Cohn, Christian Science Monitor, August 7, 2002
During a girls' soccer game in Portland, Ore., Sue Mak gaped
in horror as the coach for the opposing team screamed at his
9-year-old daughter for playing poorly, and then ripped off
her shirt. The girl wrapped her arms around her bare chest and
"I was mortified," says Ms. Mak, a volunteer coach for more
than 20 years. "I stopped the game and saw to it that the
father never coached again."
While this is an extreme example, it illustrates the intense
desire that some of today's parents have for their kids to
excel in sports and attract recognition as top athletes – as
all- stars, heavy hitters, offensive greats, and most-valuable
"We have made children's sports comparable to pro sports,"
says Fred Engh, founder and president of the National Alliance
For Youth Sports, in West Palm Beach, Fla.
Too often, he adds, parents fail to focus on the benefits of
sports: physical exercise, social interaction, teamwork, and
the opportunity to learn discipline and good sportsmanship.
"What sometimes gets lost in sports for children is the basis
of it – the ethics and sportsmanship – in the name of winning
at all costs," Mr. Engh says.
The 25 million American children who participate in sports
each year generally begin playfully, at the age of 5 or 6, by
batting, kicking, and pushing a ball around. But by the time
they are 9 years old, competition heats up. Even at that age,
many kids try out for all-star teams made up of gifted
athletes, or join "traveling" teams that compete across the
state and sometimes across the nation.
By the time young athletes are in middle school, some families
spend as much as $1,000 or more a year for their children to
join private "club" teams that focus on competitive play, says
Today's youth sports scene no longer resembles the old days of
pickup games in the park, says Rick Wolff, chairman of the
Center For Sports Parenting and a former professional baseball
player in New York.
"Youth sports have changed so dramatically, we are really
getting into uncharted territory," he says. "I'm a very strong
proponent of parents being proactive in sports, because there
are a lot of situations where things aren't run the right
In fact, 75 percent of youngsters drop out of athletics by the
time they are 13 because taking part in sports is no longer
fun, Mr. Wolff says.
When today's parents were kids, sports elicited more smiles.
Dressed in T-shirts and shorts, children trotted out to a
field or basketball court, chose sides, and played without the
aid of or interference of adults.
"When I was a child in the 1950s and 1960s, the park or the
basketball court was the place of social justice," says Daniel
Doyle, founder and director of the Institute for International
Sport, located at the University of Rhode Island in Kingston.
"Kids had to learn how to negotiate and compromise. It was not
a perfect system; it was Darwinian, but it was Darwinian in a
way that did not hurt kids."
But in recent years, kids' sports have become more demanding
and more influenced by adults' values. Kids purchase expensive
uniforms and attend adult-run practices two to three times a
week. Athletic children ages 6 to 13 generally spend about 80
hours each three-month season participating in sports, says
Many of those youngsters commit Saturdays to playing in games
and whole weekends to tournaments, where competition for
championship trophies and most- valuable-player awards is
overseen by trained referees and officials.
These changes in the youth sports scene are due in part to the
growth of Little League baseball, which introduced parents as
coaches, says Mr. Doyle.
"Historically, before the Little League was founded in 1938 or
1939, parents did not play ball with kids. It was not part of
the sports ethic," he says. "Little League grew and grew, and
by the time you were in the mid-1950s, moms and dads were
coaching Little League teams."
The popularity of sports has increased dramatically over the
years, and so has the nation's preoccupation with superstars
like Michael Jordan.
"For some parents, there is the sense that my child is the
gifted one who will be the next Michael Jordan," says Wolff,
the former ballplayer who has a master's degree in psychology.
"Some say, 'Maybe he won't be a pro, but he will get a college
scholarship.' Some parents also have a free-floating sense of
keeping up with the Jones family."
To ensure that children benefit from their athletic
experience, parents must learn to tread a fine line between
caring too much about whether their children excel and taking
too little interest in their athletic activities, experts say.
Need for perspective
That distinction is different for each child, he notes. Some
children play basketball or golf eight hours a day in the
summer because they love it so much – and that's fine if they
manage to retain their focus on friends, academics, and other
aspects of their lives, he says.
Take the young Tiger Woods as an example.
"His dad was not the pushy parent people thought he was,"
Doyle says. "He was always encouraging Tiger to play other
sports and to have fun on the golf course. He encouraged him
to be a fine student, and Tiger went to Stanford University."
When parents are too pushy, they focus too much on their own
dreams, he adds.
Barbara Stahl, a sports parent for 15 years and the author of
"Parenting, Sportsmom Style," says that she sometimes found
herself in that position when her son played youth sports.
For many years, her son's soccer team beat its archrival, a
team from a neighboring town. The first time her son's team
lost, Mrs. Stahl was upset, and asked her son if he was sorry
about the loss.
"I realized, for my son the game had ended 10 minutes before.
I was the one who was wrapped up in the emotional rivalry,"
Mak, the youth coach, says that she, too, found herself
emotionally involved at times in her son's athletic
experience. She often yelled if her son was in danger or if
referees failed to watch for fouls, she says.
"If someone would jump on my son, I would say, 'Open your
eyes. You almost killed my kid.' If I saw a kid fouling
another player, I would yell, 'Ref, watch what's going on!' "
When Mak's son, Justin, was about 12, he told her that she
embarrassed him when she challenged referees' calls. "I
realized I was overzealous, so I tried to tone it down. I
tried to back off," she says.
She continued to attend all of Justin's games, but she often
sat on the opposing team's side, where she felt more inhibited
"I tried to find a way to still be involved in the game, but
to be a real positive part of the excitement," Mak says.
Playing for the love of it
Savvy sports parents not only strive for balance, they try to
ensure kids take part in baseball, hockey, or soccer for the
joy of it.
Parents should let children lead them, says Wolff. Children
who excel in sports are those who are passionate about it. And
these kids' drive comes from within, he says.
"All you need to do is be supportive," says Engh. "You need to
tell your child, 'Win or lose, you are doing a great job; I
want you to have fun.' "
To support a child, parents should attend their children's
games, whenever possible, and cheer them on, experts say. They
should provide positive feedback to coaches, referees, and
"Good sports parents realize this sport is a tool to teach
your child about life," says Mak.
As a rookie soccer coach 20 years ago, Mak struggled to find a
balance in how she gave feedback to her team. First, she says,
she was too loud on the sidelines and often too negative with
the kids. Even though her team won, victory seemed to carry a
After experimenting with a number of styles, she discovered
that children benefit most if they receive mainly positive
feedback. Her job, she decided, was to be a master
Not all coaches strive for a balance that is appropriate for
young team members. For that reason, parents should seek out
coaches who are most likely to suit their child's needs.
Do your homework
Parents should inquire about the coach's philosophy, and
attend enough practices and games to feel comfortable that the
coach's style is compatible with their child's personality.
Parents should also find out if the league has checked the
coach's background to ensure that he or she has no police
record, says Dan Reidy, a parent and director of recreation
services for Lantana Recreation, in Lantana, Fla.
"You don't just take your kid to a doctor's office, or drop
them off at school without knowing the doctors or teachers are
competent," says Mr. Reidy.
The National Alliance for Youth Sports offers communities
nationwide a program, "Time Out," that establishes guidelines
and standards for coaches, referees, and parents participating
in sports. It also provides a mechanism for reporting bad
Once parents feel comfortable with a child's coach, they
should brush up on the fundamentals of the game. They're more
likely to enjoy watching the game and be better equipped to
cheer the child on.
They will also be better prepared to discuss with their
children the emotional, social, and political lessons that are
critical to playing on a team.
"It's really great if you can talk to your kid about ...
what's happening out there, if you can understand it when he
says, 'I saw Calvin cut for the ball, but I didn't give him
the ball and should have,' " says Marshall Pile, a coach in
Ultimately, these discussions are about the important rules of
life, says Engh. "Lose with grace. Focus on discipline. Abide
by the rules," he says.
Parents need to follow one more rule, too, says Stahl: "I
think the perfect sports parent is someone who can always
remember and never forget: This is the child's experience, not
Interviewing a coach
Coaches can either motivate a child to excel or crush a child
with negative feedback and too-high expectations, experts say.
That's why it's critical that parents choose a coach who best
suits their child's goals and personality.
Before a child begins a season with a new coach, parents
should seek out answers to these questions:
• What's the coach's philosophy? According to Rick Wolff,
chairman of the Center For Sports Parenting and author of
"Coaching Kids for Dummies": "If the coach says, 'I'm here to
win at all costs,' you have the right to say, 'This isn't the
best team for my child to play on.' "
• How does the coach divide up kids' playing time? Many
recreational leagues require coaches to give each child a
minimum amount of playing time during games. In more
competitive environments, though, coaches give the most
talented players the most playing time.
• Is one of the coach's children a team member? Ask the coach
how he treats his child. "When I coach my own kid, I make a
point to have my kid sit out the first half of a game," says
Mr. Wolff. If the coach favors his own child, be sure you are
comfortable with this before allowing your child to play on
• Ask the coach if and how he gives children constructive
feedback. Or watch the coach during a practice. If you
discover he yells at or berates the children, consider finding
another coach or starting your own team, suggests Wolff.