Like most dads (and many moms), I’m a huge sports fan. I grew up playing baseball and watching all kinds of sports. I have also lived in PA for my whole life, near Philadelphia and Pittsburgh- two of the greatest sports cities in America. So I’m competitive, and having kids who play sports, I love watching them compete too.
The oldest of my three sons is a high school freshman and played ice hockey on three teams this year. He loves hockey more than life itself, and like a lot of kids, he hopes that one day he’ll play in the NHL. He’s played nearly every other sport, but he’s all about the hockey. We drive all over the Northeast, at all times of the day and night, for practices, clinics, games, and tournaments. The younger brothers seem to be following suit, with hockey (did I mention one of them is a goalie?), other sports, and now lacrosse. This all takes up most of our weekends, and many of our evenings- not to mention tons of hours at work to pay for it all. We don’t mind, though, as long as the kids are having fun. That’s what it’s about, right?
I was inspired by an article I read yesterday by an emergency room physician, which can be found here. The doctor was talking about some of the absurd things he’s heard from parents in the ER when they brought their kids in with sports injuries. I have also read many articles and have seen videos with parents who seem to forget that sports are supposed to be fun, and they get into all kinds of trouble. And being a hockey parent, I have seen most of it firsthand…players, coaches, and parents getting tossed from games; people screaming obscenities at each other; fighting (players, anyway- no parents or coaches yet); and more. Most of all I think about the kids- how it’s taking away from their experience, embarrassing them, and teaching them all of the wrong life lessons.
To be honest, I have let my emotions get the better of me before. It’s exciting when your kids get to a level where they have some skills and the games get really fun to watch. When you love your kids, want to see them and their teammates do well, and you have your own competitive nature, it’s easy to get caught up. For me, this tends to be when my child gets hit illegally (for example, in the head, but it doesn’t get called); gets penalized for something that didn’t look like a penalty at all; when coaches seem to be encouraging dirty play by their team; or when the referees seem to be calling a really one-sided game. But these things will happen, and refs are human, and thus prone to mistakes like the rest of us. It’s hard to remember that sometimes. For the record, I have never been tossed from a game…except for that one time in Pittsburgh when one of the dads screamed, “Ref, you suck!!” (just as the rink grew totally silent) and then wouldn’t admit to it. The ref threw the whole team out as we all waited for the dad in question to say something. But I digress…
I thought I would present some strategies here, because I know we love to watch our children, and it’s easy to lose focus and get a little too into the games or the overall experience. It’s just for fun, though, right? We all hope our kids will go pro one day or get that college scholarship. I hope that happens for at least one of my kids, if not all three. But, most of all I hope my kids have lots of fun and learn all of the great lessons that one can learn through sports. So keeping this in mind, here are 10 strategies that any parent can employ to help improve their child’s sports experience (in no particular order):
1. Leave the coaching to the coaches. Even if you’ve played professionally, you’re a coach yourself, or you think you know more than the coaches, refrain from coaching during games. It undermines the coaches and is distracting for your child, sending mixed messages and surely impacting their play (and fun). Save it for after the game, but try to keep it constructive.
2. Never boo or make disrespectful comments. Don’t call names, tease or bully, or argue with refs or coaches during or after the game. It sets a poor example, makes you look bad, and ultimately hurts your child and the team. If you have feedback or a beef with a coach, wait until you’re calm and then e-mail or call the coach, or ask him or her if they have a few minutes to talk at a later date.
3. Don’t confront officials. Jawing at officials during a game is not only annoying for other parents, but embarrassing for the kids. And confronting them after the game is, of course, worse. These instances can turn ugly very quickly, especially if your team just lost or if you feel your child was somehow wronged. Emotions are likely to be high, and what you say is bound to be negative- perhaps even threatening. If you really think you have a case or a point, take time out to think about it and calm down. An official is much more likely to listen to you if you’re not beet red and screaming in their face. Don’t embarrass your child, your family, the coaches, or the team. You might even get them penalized (or arrested) if you’re not careful. And most likely you and the team will see that ref again. Surely, he or she will remember you when that happens, which could potentially lead to more of whatever you complained about in the first place.
4. Don’t overcheer. Sure, you can say, “Go (insert team name here)!” or “Go (insert player’s name here)”, “nice job/play”, or other supportive comments, but use it sparingly. For one, overcheering becomes noise. No one hears it. Secondly, your child is bound to be bothered or embarrassed by it (especially if you call them some nickname from when they were young). It can also be distracting to the team or coaches. In psychological terms, cheering = reinforcement. Parents who walk behind their child saying, “Good job!” at their every move are rarely effective. It’s much better to reinforce the times when your child really does do something great, or to praise his or her effort when you see them trying, but they don’t quite make it. Too much praise becomes meaningless, and kids either tune it our or they stop believing it.
5. Prioritize your child’s safety. Make sure he or she has the right gear, including helmets, pads, or mouthguards, and that it is in good condition. And if he gets to practice or a game and doesn’t have it, hold him accountable and make him sit out (be sure to say that ahead of time). Encourage your child to tell you if he or she is hurt or having pain. If so, follow up about it. Ask your child later how he or she is, and if needed call the doctor or go to a hospital. And if your child has an injury, look at the big picture and be sure he or she has enough time to heal before returning- especially in the case of a broken bone or a concussion. It’s not worth it to risk major injury just so your child can get back in action more quickly. You want your child to play as soon as possible, but you also want him or her to be able to walk or to remember their name when they’re 30.
6. Don’t criticize your child. Like anyone else, your child is going to have good days and bad days, good games and bad games. Most often, he or she will do some good things, and some not so good things in a game. Don’t use the post-game as an opportunity to break down your child’s every move or to focus on everything he or she did wrong. If you noticed something good- he or she hustled, persevered when it got tough, or did exceptionally well, then feel free to comment. Or, if your child is down on himself, find a bright spot in the game or encourage him to focus on the next one. If your child asks you for honest feedback, then offer it to him, but chances are he won’t.
7. Don’t criticize other players in front of your child. This not only sets a negative example, but it may lead your child to do the same thing, which makes for a bad teammate. Keep it to yourself, or emphasize how the team did. Sports are a great way for kids to learn leadership, teamwork, and how to be a good friend. Sure, we all believe our children are special, but most of us don’t want them to become raging narcissists who truly believe they are above others or deserve special treatment.
8. Emphasize hard work and effort. This is one of the greatest life lessons in sports. Work hard and you’ll get results. Don’t work hard, and chances are you won’t. This is true in sports and in all areas of our lives. As parents, this is a great opportunity to instill this in our kids.
9. Be prepared. Believe me, it’s the most annoying thing in the world when you drive an hour and a half from home at 6am for a hockey game, only to be told by your child that he forgot his helmet. I’m sure most parents can remember a similar story. By the way, I don’t recall the exact game, but an opposing player was gracious enough to lend my son his extra helmet for that game. And similarly, our kids are likely to get upset when they’re habitually late or arriving at the last minute for practices or games- especially as teenagers and the coach makes them run, do calisthenics, or sit out for part of the game. Sports is a great opportunity to teach our kids about being prepared- planning ahead, having what they need, and being on time…all crucial skills in the adult world.
10. Maintain perspective. Sure, your child might make the NFL, NBA, or MLB one day, but that is beside the point. He or she should be playing sports, above all else, for fun. They’re games, so remember that and don’t get too caught up in the future, how much time or money you’re spending, or in winning. I don’t mean to say that you shouldn’t encourage your child to take it seriously, but just remember why you got into it in the first place. Whatever the future holds, you want your child to look back on his or her playing days- however long they last- with lots of good memories.
I hope these tips are helpful. If you’re interested in further information, there are lots of great books and websites on this subject. And if you try some of these things, but just can’t seem to calm yourself down, maybe you would benefit from talking to someone like a psychologist. We all have things we’re passionate about, and it’s easy to get distracted and forget what’s really important- no matter how hard we try. Take care and enjoy your kids’ sports experience. In my opinion, it’s one of the most fun parts of being a dad.
Dr. Jesse Matthews is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Chester Springs, PA. He helps people of all ages to address many kinds of issues. You can view his Psychology Today profile here. For any questions or to arrange an appointment, please contact him at 610-482-4496 or firstname.lastname@example.org.