Hank Zona tells parents what questions they should ask of themselves to navigate the world of youth sports.
In Part I of his Parents Behaving Badly series on adults and youth sports, Hank Zone highlights the negative attitudes that parents bring to youth sports and how that can negatively impact our children. In Part II, he tells parents the questions we should be asking themselves and where to go from there.
So what do we need to ask ourselves as parents, as coaches, as members of communities and of a society overall?
1. Are we being honest with ourselves?
Kids know – almost always before their parents do – when they have reached their peak of interest or athletic ability. Be honest with them and with yourselves. Support their interests and needs, not yours.
One thing I have seen and heard often: if someone always tells you about the level of success they had in their own youth with sports, there is a good chance they really didn’t. You almost never hear it from those who have had some greater success with sports. Why? I think this is because so many try to hitch their wagons to that person’s star, so to speak. The former college All-American who ran a successful sports program in his town was criticized by some for stepping down, because it was going to hurt their kids’ chances of…making it. It didn’t matter that he wanted to step back and spend more time focusing on his own children’s development.
Those who have really reached a level of success also know the pitfalls and problems, and it usually involves adults. It is worse today because of all the money out there today, both real (in the form of fees families pay for training , the latest top of the line equipment and team fees) and perceived (in the form of “can’t miss” scholarship money and contracts).
Someone close to me was a New York City two sport All-Star in high school and went to college and played ball on a full athletic scholarship. From grade school to college, he could do things athletically that most could not. Yet today, unlike thirty years ago, there is no guarantee he would get a significant Division I scholarship. His middle school aged son is extremely talented, even dominant, in his sports, and not just in the backyard or in the local grade school rec program. Having been there, he spends as much time protecting his son from the feeding frenzy as he does guiding and training him, shielding him from the a range of adults trying to vie for his attention and commitment. One coach even once asked him who his son went to for training. He told the coach he was the trainer. He didn’t have to say anything else.
While most of us have never been in this situation – either as young athletes or as parents- the bottom line is we need to be realistic, and honest:
Honestly assess your role and interest in your child’s sports endeavors. Honestly assess your child’s talent with a variety of sources.
Support them to the fullest extent you can if their talent and interest level are truly exceptional. Accept it if it is not.
Are you paying for additional training, clinics and camps as part of your child’s development or to curry favor with the high school coach? Is your child truly as talented with the potential for success that some “experts” say? Are you the person overseeing this important aspect of parenting or have you farmed it out to someone else? Know it may not be enough for them to attain success at the next level.
Finally, can you honestly say they are happy and doing what they want to do?
2. Why are you supporting your child / Why are they participating?
We want our children to make a commitment, work hard, enjoy the positive aspects of the socialization of a team environment, and learn that competition is a good thing to learn how to prepare for and deal with. We want them to play for the joy of it, the reason I still participate in sports today in my fifties.
Sometimes, we support them because we want them to fit in, be included, be popular, even be hip. I have seen kids choose a sport not because of their acumen but because of some perceived coolness factor. Those sports may vary by community, but rest assured, they are often the incubator for bad behavior and worse news stories. One mother used to lament to me about her son and daughter being shunned by the popular kids who all played one particular sport. She stopped lamenting when her kids started participating in that sport and were then welcomed in. And yes, they eventually espoused those negative group attitudes unfortunately.
We also support our children sometimes because we are of the belief our child will make it someday. That may mean a high school team or a college team or even to the professional level. I have had some tell me their child will make it to the professional level when their kids were barely into double digit ages.
If by “making it”, a parent means their kid may attain similar or greater success at the next level up from where they are (a middle schooler approaching high school for example), then that is a reasonable thing to support. But for the most part, your kid is not going to make it, at least not to the extent many mean when they say it. They will not have the talent, preparation, work ethic, commitment, desire, drive and luck in order to make it.
Yes, it takes luck too. I heard one junior college baseball coach in the area once say he had a choice of over 300 student athletes who he could have picked to play for his team. That is a northeastern junior college. It also takes some luck to stay healthy and avoid serious injury (as well as proper training and rest). Sports can be great, are great, but sports also hurt. They hurt physically and emotionally. As a parent we have to be aware of that and also make our children aware of that and guide them and go back to the previous point by being honest with them and ourselves.
3. How do you support your child?
I do not have a problem with a parent paying for private lessons if it is within their means and if the child is getting something out of it. Again though, there has to be some inherent talent and desire for it to make sense. You can take a piano lesson once a week, but if you really aren’t any good, or have an interest in practicing beyond that one hour, then you aren’t getting a bang for your buck. I do have a problem with a parent who loves to toss around the numbers they are paying or the hours driven or the number of teams the kids play on. Statistically though you are no longer elite in this regard.
Also, ask yourself, if you wear a jersey with your kid’s name and number on it are you supporting the team, supporting your kid individually, or saying “look at me”? There is nothing wrong with being proud, but almost all these sports are team sports. If a kid is truly dominant and exceptional, they still need the framework of a team to succeed. Don’t confuse pride with arrogance and ego.
The best way to support your child is to listen to them and really be there for them. It is about them.
Pre-teen and teen years are difficult, even for a kid who has most things moving in a positive direction. Be there for your child, even early on when the games can really be excruciating to watch.
After my father passed away, I found a number of old scorebooks from when he coached me. Looking through them brought back memories, but an even greater appreciation and respect for him, because he sat through and guided us through all these games, and not many of them were diamond classics.
It isn’t easy, but it is important.
Coaching a co-ed teeball game of first graders, one boy hit a squibbler in front of the plate and ran as hard as he could to first base where I was coaching. He looked up at me, the helmet barely showing his eyes, but they were still full of excitement, and he asked me, “did my father see me get a hit?”
The father was standing up on the sidewalk talking with someone, so I said, “he was so excited he went to tell that man standing next to him now!” I told the father after the game. He not only thanked me for covering him, he signed up to coach the next year.
Remember, almost always it is a team sport so not only do you need to support your own child but other children too. Your child may rightfully be your focus but should not be your sole focus.
At almost every level of youth sports, we ought to all be in it together.
Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Groundhopping Merseberg
Jump to Part I of Parents Behaving Badly, to get Hank’s take on the 5 Bad Parenting Attitudes in Youth Sports.
Jump to Part III of Parents Behaving Badly, to get Hank’s take on When Parents Coach Their Own Kids.
Jump to Part IV of Parents Behaving Badly, to get Hank’s take on Why He’s Rather Be Coaching.
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