We’ve all seen them. We’ve definitely all heard them. Perhaps on occasion we’ve even been one.
I’m talking about the loud and obnoxious “Sports Parent.” On the mild end of the behavior spectrum, they’re the ones loud-talking in the stands during a game, spouting off opinions like, “Geez, that kid is so slow,” or “Don’t these boys want to win!?” On the extreme end of the spectrum, they’re the ones screaming at a referee, or making their child feel shamed and horrible in front of their teammates.
As a parent whose kids played a lot of sports growing up and also worked as referees, I’ve witnessed both parental behavior that is heartwarming, and some that causes you to actually fear for the safety of a child when they are alone with their parent.
Youth sports is a huge industry. According to a Time magazine article from August 2017, American families spend over $15 billion a year on their kids’ sporting activities – some handing over as much as 10% of their income. No wonder there are parents who get a little too emotionally invested in their children’s wins and losses.
It’s easy for parents to fall into the trap of going overboard trying to “coach” and motivate their kid, thinking this will push them to perform better. Many times, I’ve seen a parent pulling a child aside before a game and spending minutes giving them instructions – in essence, overriding the coach’s role and reinforcing the idea that winning is the only goal of the activity.
The best advice I ever read about parenting kids who play sports came from Tom Kuyper, the former ASU basketball player and “Kids in Sports” columnist for the Arizona Republic.
He advises parents to say only these three simple phrases before their kid participates in any sporting competition:
1. “Play hard.”
2. “Have fun.”
3. “I love you.”
Because when you boil it down, that’s really all a child needs to know before they start a game. Their coach is there to recap the fundamentals and reinforce what they’ve worked on in practice. We should be there to just remind them to try their best, enjoy the activity for the sake of fun and exercise, and to let them know our love for them does not depend upon how well they play a game.
Coach Kuyper, who still runs basketball camps in Phoenix, also offers this sage advice – if you harbor any negative thoughts or feelings, do not talk about the game or your kid’s performance with them for at least 24 hours after it’s over. This can truly be challenging for some parents, but it allows for a necessary cooling off period, and hopefully provides an upset parent with some perspective that we all need to remember at the end of the day: these are games and these are kids.
When parental pressure becomes so extreme, a child can easily lose all sense of enjoyment for that activity and may begin to harbor feelings of resentment towards a parent that can last for years. Youth sports can be a wonderful part of childhood – as long as us parents can behave like adults.