After years of seeing the struggle and challenges youth sports parents deal with to keep up in the world of their child’s sports careers, something needs to change. And, the children are really struggling not only in sports but in life. Part of this is the current state of youth sports and part of this is relational.
THE CURRENT STATE OF YOUTH SPORTS
Over the past ten years, youth sports has changed. We continue to see a rise of youth sports programs globally. We have pay-to-play sports outside of the school system, and the opportunity for all to access school sport is declining. The status of sports is still all encompassing. Many children start playing sports around 4, 5, or 6 years of age and continue to try to play through college or as a professional (which is typically why they were put into the sport at such an early age).
Some of the problems associated with it is that youth sports has taken over the lives of youth. It’s no longer fun for them and these youth do not have the skills to deal with the pressures. Not to mention, youth are burnt out by the time they are in middle school and high school because they are playing year around.
WHY CHILDREN WANT TO PLAY SPORTS
The #1 reason children play sports is to have fun. Up till the age of 10 or 11, there is still an element of fun. Children are running around the field playing. From one moment to the next, this quickly and drastically changes. Around 11 or 12 years of age, children become more conscious and experience the mental aspects of the game, and this progression sucks the life and the fun out of the experience for many of them. And, then their game starts to go downhill. My informal research has shown, the more fun an athlete has, the better they play. “Many children as well as their parents are turned off by the seriousness of youth sports in America,” said Tom Cove, president and chief executive of SFIA. “What should be play becomes work. Sometimes we lose the most essential element of sports: fun.” (Washington Post – April 19, 2017)
This is not just a US phenomenon it can be seen across many sports globally.
The #2 reason children play sports is to be social. Children want to be social. They want to be with their friends. It’s one of the many reasons they get into sports. The current state of youth sports has not only taken children’s fun away but also their ability to be social in a sports environment. Competitive sports environments are serious. Parents and coaches are serious and children are conditioned to believe they need to be serious to be good at their sport. They are also conditioned to believe that at some point their friends become the enemy; everyone is a competitor.
THE PRESSURES OF YOUTH SPORTS
Earlier I talked a bit about the pressures but that’s only a tiny tip of the iceberg. Right now, today, the top 3 challenges children, aged 11-14, deal with due to the pressure of sport is perfectionism, anxiety and doubt. Perfectionism is ingrained at a young age when children may have a natural ability to play. Wow, you are so good; you are perfect. The problem is, at a young age most children have a natural ability to play sports. As the status of sports changes, young children are conditioned to think that they need to continue to work hard and be perfect at their sport so they can get a college scholarship or play professionally.
I work with 12-year-old children who are already dealing with severe anxiety and panic attacks. The rate of anxiety in adolescence has doubled in the last 30 years. 1 out of 8 kids will be diagnosed with some form of anxiety. This anxiety comes from perfectionism, doubt and overloaded schedules.
Confidence (the opposite of doubt) is an elusive concept. By the time children are 11 years of age, they develop this unconscious concept of confidence – if we win, I feel good and I am confident. If we lose, I feel bad and I am not confident. If I don’t make any mistakes, I am confident. If I make mistakes, I am not confident. Unfortunately, in these scenarios, the ability to have confidence is tied to perfection and because there is no such thing as perfection (it can’t be attained), there’s no room for error and it leaves a large margin of doubt.
THE PRESSURES FOR YOUTH SPORTS PARENTS
Youth sports has another dynamic to it – the triad, or better known as the connection between the youth athlete, the parent, and the coach. An important component of this triad is the child’s relationship with their parents. I always come from the perspective that parents are doing the best they can. The problem is, parents sometimes feed into the current state (crisis really) of youth sports. Some exhibit poor communication and behaviors around children’s sports, that feeds on itself and bleeds into how your child feels about themselves and their ability to play their sport.
The most foundational aspect of the parent-child relationship is communication but I find that so many parents and children don’t really communicate. Sure, they talk about dinner, their sport, and school but not much else. This makes it hard for either, parent or child, to talk about anything else. Further, because children are so used to parents, coaches and teachers telling them what to do, as they get older, many of them don’t understand or learn advocacy skills – support of one’s own interest which requires skills that include problem solving, communication, influence, and collaboration. Both parties complicate the relationship and the process. Parent’s don’t talk to children. Children don’t talk to parents. Children don’t know how to stick up for themselves with anyone. And the struggle emerges and gets out of control.
HOW TO CHANGE THIS TREND
With this age group, it is difficult for parents to know what children need, so they give what they have. Unfortunately, 99.9% of the time that is not what children want, but they don’t know what they really want either, or how to talk to their parents and express their needs. The great aspect of being an outside, neutral party providing mental coaching is that it opens up the conversation. Children listen to a different perspective and start to become aware of what they want and need. Then we get to role play how to have the conversation with parents and coaches (teachers, friends, etc.) and start to express their needs and advocate for themselves.
- Alongside that, it has been critical to bring parents in at a variety of levels
- Sessions with one or both parents
- Sessions with child and parent(s) together
- Email and phone communication to support questions and concerns
To help youth sports parents who are struggling with this and to create the best flow of communication and understanding, I bring children and parents together to work through the communication process, how to support the mental skills work I am doing with their child, and how to deal with competition day. This also allows parents to discuss and resolve their questions, concerns, or struggles they have in their relationship with their child.
It’s time to better help parents manage the sports arena. Part of that is understanding how to support their children and part of that is understanding exactly what their children are going through, why and what that looks (and feels like). The good news is that there is a solution and it can change lives and relationships.
This guest blog was contributed by Dr Michelle Cleere. In her own private practice as an elite performance expert, Dr. Michelle Cleere helps top athletes, musicians, and executives in competitive fields unlock the power of the mind and create the mental toughness to be the best. As a 15-year USAT Coach, she developed simple and effective tools to mentally train her athletes, and they are used by coaches all around the world.