The inspiration for this article was from John O’Sullivan of the Changing the Game Project based in the USA. I have had the pleasure of connecting with John and hear him speak a few years ago . The full and original article can be found here:
“What happens to us parents and coaches,” I often get asked, “that turns us from sensible, relaxed people to stressed out adults roaming up and down the touchlines and screaming instructions and support at every opportunity?”
I see it every Sunday when watching my own children play football and the volume of noise surrounding multiple pitches in a close proximity is deafening. Sometimes the noise can be so much that I have had to ask if there is some big cup final going on or a relegation decider? Guess what no there isn’t it is just a normal U10 football game.
When we set off our children in sport at a young age on the whole the environment is a relaxed, child centered environment. At what stage does this environment change and what causes this change to the ultra-competitive, win at all costs one we see far too often these days?
It undoubtedly is caused by the balance of patience and expectation from parents and coaches. At the youngest ages it is great fun, no pressure, a real focus on learning, no big deal is made about mistakes and everyone just accepts that it is just part and parcel of the learning process. Winning and losing seems a long way away.
The moment an opposition arrives, a league table or an all day tournament is on the horizon the environment can change dramatically.
As parents begin to invest more time and money in their child’s sport and it looks like their child have a modicum of ability often fuelled by an over enthusiastic coach who wants the children to continue playing hence should be supportive , this patience dwindles. It does so must faster than it should.
In the UK in particular with football they see the race for 9 year old football contracts and worry that their kid is falling behind, or go into panic mode when their team loses a few games.
They forget that development is not a sprint; it’s a marathon.
At the same time, we see adult expectations rise too fast. We want instant success, abundant victories, and perfection on every play. We want focus on long-term goals, instead of the moment. We forget that these are not mini-adults; they are children. They do not value the same things we do, nor should they.
Pretty soon, we reach the children’s sports tipping point, where all of a sudden our expectations for our children’s success and playing ability surpasses our patience and understanding of development. We reach a tipping point, as shown by the image below. Beyond that point things have started to get out of control.
Sadly, this tipping point is moving younger and younger. Parents are trying to get their children to the best clubs, the so called best coaching academies at the expense of playing with their friends and really falling in love and developing a lifelong passion for their sport. Many parents are even moving their children away from better coaches and coaching sessions just so they have more chance of winning at the weekend.
We have children being selected in pre-football academies at the age of 6 or 7, this can lead to more training, parents finding more and more different sessions in a week just to ensure their child is getting as much practise as possible and often specialising in the one sport all year round. There are many articles on the WWPIS website which try to explain the perils of specialisation and over training at a young age.
Unfortunately, many parents have become so engrossed in the short term gains and successes.
No one has really asked the children if this is what they want. Sure, they like competitive games, but they want to also play with their friends. Sure sport is fun, but every weekend? Yes, they understand they need to practice, but it still MUST BE FUN. Yes, they want to win, but they still want the freedom to be creative, explore, try new things, and yes, even make mistakes!
They never said they wanted to stop playing sports and turn it into a job!
Our patience is gone!
As a result, parents worry more about every loss or bad game. Coaches worry that children will jump ship to the team that won or who win the most tournaments and trophies. The adults on the sideline get anxious over results, angry with officials, and stressed out when their “investment” is not paying off.
Expectations are sky high, patience is low, and we reach the tipping point.
Everything changes. Well, almost everything.
The one thing that has not changed at the tipping point is the fact that the athletes are still only kids.
They are children who want to play, and not sit the bench because of some misplaced emphasis on winning! They are children who want to enjoy themselves, and have the games belong to them, and not the adults who incessantly yell, scream and micromanage every play. They are children who want to learn, and not fear getting yelled at and criticised for every mistake. They are children who have not yet grown, or are growing and trying to figure out how to move in their new body. Some of them are even children who care more about the post game snack than the result! We have lost patience with them too!
If we want to take some of the madness out of children’s sports we must rebalance patience and expectations. It should look more like this:
We must maintain a high level of patience, and keep our expectations in check.
In fact, perhaps our patience should never go below our expectations.
That should only happen in the hearts and minds of our children. When they expect more then they can give, and they no longer have the patience and persistence to keep plugging away, perhaps they will step away. But it should be their decision.
We need all the adults involved in childrens sports to take a stand on behalf of our children, and we can do this by keeping patience and expectations in their proper perspective. Here are three ways to make this happen:
1. Have patience for the process:
Investing time and money and participating in a single sport all year round does not change the fact that talent development is a long drawn out process with many strands. You cannot buy success and you cannot take a shortcut, nor should you!
Think about it this way; do you want your child to win every single game they play this season? That can be arranged. Put all the best players in one team, play against inferior teams, in a lower league, or against younger and less experienced kids, and voila, undefeated!
But why? The competition is not good, the players will not be challenged, improve as quickly, and will eventually get bored. Winning all their games or matches is NOT CONDUCIVE to developing an athlete for the long term. They need challenge, failure, tight losses, tight wins, some easy games, some difficult ones, but always they need a carrot dangled ahead that says, “good, now do this.”
So if we can agree that winning all games from here to eternity is not a good thing, then why do we get so freaked out when we lose a few? Why do we lose patience when our kids have a bad game, or a bad week, or a bad month? This is not only supposed to happen, it is a great thing when it happens! Embrace this!
2. Have high expectations for the right things
Instead of expecting instant development, abundant wins, and flawless performances from our children, how about we start expecting a few things that sports should be delivering, namely coaches who are positive role models and organisations that emphasise character, good values, proper long term athletic development, and put winning in its rightful place!
I am consistently amazed that well-intentioned adults put their children with “winning” coaches that treat their children poorly, do not display any positive character traits, and do not act in a way that they would ever allow their child to act. Bad sportsmanship, poor role models and trying to shortcut player development are things we should have little patience for, but often I see parents turning their backs on this type of behavior if the team wins.
Parents should expect more character development and positive life lessons from their coaches and sports organisations, because they are capable of delivering those in abundance. If your coach tells you that this is not his or her job, run, and run fast. That is not the type of coach you want for your child.
Far too many coaches simply choose not to teach character through sport because it is hard, and hide behind the façade of “developing winners” and being in the “top league.” It is total rubbish they are feeding parents, and if parents start focusing and expecting the right things, coaches will start delivering.
Likewise if organisations and coaches set the culture and the tone of the organisation then parents will follow suit and buy into it. If winning is all you are focussed on then parents will simply follow suit.
We have had many parents contact us here at WWPIS asking what to do when they have been told not to yell lots of instructions, shout at officials and act as a positive role model yet they are watching their child’s coach do exactly this.
We must align the organisation, coaches and parents to create the best environment possible.
3. After every match,training session or tournament always ask “What’s good about this?”
Whether your child’s team wins or loses, ask “why is this a good thing, what did we learn?” If your child makes a mistake, or misses the game winning penalty, there is a laundry list of items that can be positive about that experience if you help them frame it correctly. When you start finding the good, you start lowering your expectations of perfection and your fear of the bad. When you start finding the good, you will feel your patience rising and stress level dropping.
Most importantly, when you start finding the good in every situation, and help your child do the same, you develop your child’s character, grit, persistence, integrity, gratitude, and more. You reduce fear of failure. You build confidence. And you make your child optimistic, one of the greatest gifts you can give a child, and one of the characteristics of the world’s best athletes.
It’s high time to demand more of the right things (values, role models, character, and development on and off the field), and less of the wrong ones (immediate linear development and weekly success). Its time for more patience, and tempered expectations.
Lets push that tipping point much further down the road, and keep our sidelines behaving in a way that actually helps, instead of hurting our children’s development and love of sports.
In fact, why not get rid of that tipping point all together. If we do that, it will keep more children in sport for longer. It will develop more athletes who perform better and enjoy themselves while playing. It will reduce our stress level as parents and coaches. And it will return childrens sports to its rightful owners, the children!
Now that’s an idea that needs to tip!