The game is over, and now you are riding home. Victory or defeat — what do you say, Dad?
One of the hardest parts of having a child play sports is the inevitable ride home from the game.
While you likely mean well, and simply want your child to have on-field success and be the best player they can be, the results can be problematic as most athletes find the ride home to be the worst part of playing youth sports. This is also true for the players who ended playing college or professionally.
For me personally I had some of the best conversations with my dad after games, but also had some very frustrating ones that I knew were coming. This was especially true if I had a bad game. It created a lot of anxiety when the game ended and we headed for the car.
There are a few things that parents should not do during that fateful drive home with their children.
- Do NOT Bring Up the Game if They Don’t
Think about your job and how you likely do not like talking about it at home (or even outside the office in general), why would you do that to your child?
When the game is over, kids tend to like going back to being kids. They do not want to always be in athlete mode. They may want to decompress after a game. This would include the normal activities they might do in the car: read, listen to the radio, talk/text their friends (if they’re a bit older). If they are doing the things they would normally do, let them go. Sometimes in the heat of the game (and its aftermath) it can be forgotten that they are children first and athletes second.
They will bring up the game to you when they’re ready, or if they want your opinion on something (this is what I did as a kid, when I was allowed to decompress for a bit, I would almost always willingly bring the game up. Not even always about my play, just simply about the game because I just loved the sport.
Now, there is an obvious exception to this guideline: when your child does something that would not be acceptable at home. Things such as cursing, throwing or breaking equipment, or being disrespectful to authority figures (i.e. coaches and umpires) all are grounds for discussion on the car ride home.
The key is to address them as parent to child and not parent to athlete.
Also, be mindful about letting that discussion blend into a way that brings up the rest of the game. Let your athlete come to you to discuss the game. There’s a good chance they will eventually, just let it be on their terms.
- Do NOT Treat Them Differently After a Loss than a Win
It is sad that this still needs to be said, but: your kid’s career does not make up for yours. His career is his alone and it is your job to facilitate it the best that you can. Nothing more, nothing less.
If they want to play in high school, you help them with that.
If they want to be elite and play in college, you help them with that.
If they are just playing the game to have fun and spend time with their friends, you can still help with that.
And all of these are fine. Not every kid is going to want to excel at every sport. The reality is that the vast majority of young athletes will never play professionally or even earn a college scholarship, so allow them to enjoy the game. If they want to take their athletic career to another level, they will make it obvious.
Which is why treating them differently after a game can be disastrous. It tells them that they alone are not good enough for you as they are, and that they also must be a good athlete for them to be loved. Instead, show them that you support them no matter what.
Treat them the same no matter the outcome of the game. If you were going to go get ice cream after the game, and his team loses 50-0, then you still go get ice cream.
Emphasize the right things for them: hard work, effort, teamwork, integrity, fair play, and having fun. Everything else will take care of itself (depending on the player’s goals).
Again, the exception would be if they did something similar to the problem mentioned in #1 (i.e. cursing). Then you can punish them for that specific instance in a way that you deem appropriate. Just be sure that you aren’t doubly punishing them if they did not have their best game.
- Do NOT Undermine the Coach, Officials or Other Players
As Bruce Brown said in his book “Teaching Character Through Sport”, “ athletes do not need adults to question their actions, the actions of other players, or the coach’s decisions concerning strategy or playing time.”
One of the worst things you can do after a game is start tearing into the coach, the officials or even a teammate in front of your child. They might see it as an attack on the person themselves, and could put them in the awkward position of defending a teammate/coach while also being against their parent.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Instead (and we are already assuming that you will be following #1 above) focus on the specific things that your child asks you about. It could be his specific play, it could be trying out a new position, or it could be a specific call or decision by the coach/official.
If they do ask about a coach or an official/referee’s decision, you can discuss them without attacking. Going after either could create confusion and uncertainly for your child. You can say the coach is doing what he thinks is best for the team (and then if you do have an issue take it up with the coach…in PRIVATE), or that the official is doing their best, bad calls happen and the best players will learn from those situations, and adjust.
- Do NOT Bombard Them With Questions
If your child does decide to discuss the game with you, another huge problem that comes up is that instead of discussing the player the player gets hit with question after question after question from their parent.
Kids do not want to be interrogated with question after question following the game.
To make matters worse, parents don’t let the kid even finish their answer to those questions. But what you need to realize is that the sports are their thing, it is their opinion that truly matters. So when they start speaking, LISTEN, do not interrupt them. Robert E. Fisher, author of” Quick to Listen, Slow to Speak” wrote that “interruption is basically a self-serving and egotistical act. It blatantly states that what I have to say is more important than what you have to say.”
To your child, it makes it seem like their feelings and opinions don’t really matter. Instead, be a quiet and reflective listener that is making sure he can see the bigger picture rather than focusing on just the outcome of any single sporting event.
- Do NOT Coach Them on the Ride Home
I hope you are starting to see why #1 was given the first spot. Kids do not always want to talk about the game immediately after. And if they wanted coaching, they already have a coach who should be giving them proper instruction (now whether your coach is doing a good job or not is a separate conversation). They do not want to be coached on the ride home, and if they do they will ask you.
One the biggest mistakes is pointing out the obvious mistakes your child made during the game. Do not do this. The kid knows he messed up, give him some credit for knowing what is actually going on at the game. Asking him about those mistakes is only making matters worse, not better.
Instead, be their source of positivity, confidence and comfort in all situations, whether they played well or not. This still applies if you are the coach. You need to be able to draw the line from coach to parent, and you cannot always be both. After the game, give your kid some time to decompress, recover physically and emotionally from the game before getting into any learning opportunities.
So what is a parent to do?
How should they react after games?
Well those same athletes from above who said the car ride home was what they dreaded most? They also said (overwhelmingly) that the #1 thing that they wanted to hear from parents was “I just love watching you play.”
This is something that grandparents are able to do easier than the parents. They are much better at simply smiling, giving the kid a huge and telling them how much they enjoyed watching them play.
But this should be your goal. Your kids are not going to be playing youth or even college sports forever. Eventually the opportunities to watch them play will stop. They have coaches and can get help from them if needed. If they want your opinion or help with something, they will ask you for it.
But the most important thing is to let them play the game, learn, and enjoy it. And support them unconditionally as they journey to be the best player they can be.
That’s your only job. Enjoy it while you still can.