The title says it all. Although this article has been taken from an American source and in the UK we do not have college scholarship programmes, it would be naive of us in the UK to think that we are not suffering similar issues. In many ways the message to parents is very much the same.
Youth sports long have been seen as a ticket to a college scholarship, and as college costs go ever higher, parents may be putting more pressure on their children to snag some of that cash.
“It’s become a win-at-all-costs culture,” said Jason Sacks, executive director of the Positive Coaching Alliance, a Chicago-based national nonprofit organization founded at Stanford University to encourage positive coaching experiences for coaches, teachers and parents.
But as the stakes grow, the children are the ones losing, according to Sacks. Seventy percent of children drop out of sports by age 13, and a big reason is that their parents are putting too much pressure on them, he explained.
“Parents are putting in all this money and time,” he said, “and they think that if they put it all in, they’ll see a light at the end of the tunnel in the form of a college scholarship.”
But there’s a balance between encouraging a child’s athletic abilities and stressing him or her out by becoming a second coach.
In a July 2014 study published in the Journal of Physical Activity & Health, researchers interviewed children who played organized soccer and found that, for them, winning was less important than having fun. In fact, having fun was the primary reason for the children’s participation in an organized sport, according to the study.
Winning was just one of 81 determinants that makes playing sports enjoyable for children, and it was rated 48th, which means that there are 47 more important things that children, coaches, parents and league administrators should be focusing on, said Amanda Visek, lead author of the study and associate professor of sports psychology at George Washington University in Washington.
“While surprising, this is positive,” Visek said. “Sports by definition includes competition, and the outcome of a competition results in winning and losing. But the findings from our study highlight that the fun experience is not determined by the end result of a game but rather by the process of physically engaging in the game.”
Striking the right balance
Wendy Grolnick, co-author of “Pressured Parents, Stressed-out Kids: Dealing With Competition While Raising a Successful Child” (Prometheus Books, $18.99) and professor of psychology at Clark University in Massachusetts, said parents still can be highly involved with a child’s team without pressuring or pushing. In fact, it’s when they find balance that their children are most likely to enjoy sports and to persist at them.
“Being involved is great, but it is important to do so in a way that is not pressuring,” Grolnick said. “I like to say that parents should be just behind the child, matching their level of interest to that of the child.”
Those interests should not be marred by whether your child won or lost a game, said Alan Goldberg, a Massachusetts-based sports psychology consultant and author of “This is Your Brain on Sports.”
Instead, parents should give consistent support and excitement regardless of the outcome of the game, because the actual outcome isn’t important.
“Most parents lose sight of that,” Goldberg said. “You want to go to your kid’s games, to enjoy the experience, to cheer for them and for every one of their teammates and to be a good role model.”
Many parents push their children too much, thinking they are doing the right thing when, in fact, they are causing damage, Goldberg said. They’re actually creating performance problems that can be avoided if they simply stay quiet and calm and happily cheer on their little sports player from the sidelines, he explained.
“Don’t push your kids to do extra training, evaluating your kids after practice and telling them what to do differently,” he said.
Look for signs of stress
It’s especially important to show the right level of support after the game if your child loses or doesn’t do as well as he or she envisioned, said Bruce Brown, cofounder of Proactive Coaching, a company based in Washington state that coaches other coaches, parents and businesses nationally.
Brown, who previously coached football, baseball, volleyball and basketball, always asked his players what their best and worst memories were of playing so he could continue what he was doing right and fix what he was doing wrong
Consistently, however, he found that their worst memory of playing a team sport had nothing to do with him; it happened during the car ride home after practice or a game, when their parents would grill them about their performance.
“Even college players would remember, ‘I just didn’t want to rehash the game,’ ” Brown said. “What they really need is time and space. The more competitive the kid, the more time and space they need.”
In addition to paying attention to signs of needing space after a game, parents should be alert to when a child has had enough of a sport entirely or needs a break. Signs of emotional strain such as headaches, stomachaches and fatigue may be physical evidence that it’s time to reevaluate whether the sport is too stressful, Grolnick said.
Not wanting to attend practice or games also may be a hint that the child isn’t enjoying the sport anymore, and this may be a time to sit down with a child to see whether he or she wants to cut back or switch to a different team or league.
After all, it’s supposed to be fun.