My son scored on his own soccer goal this past season. More than once.
He’d get turned around at midfield and dribble the wrong way until he put it into his own net.
Each time, he was thrilled. And I was mortified.
He didn’t mind that he scored a goal for the other team. He is, after all, five years old and they don’t keep score.
His teammates didn’t mind. They congratulated him.
His coach took it in stride. He complimented his dribbling and gently reminded him to dribble the other way next time.
No one seemed to be upset but me.
So why did I care? Why was I letting this ruin my time watching him play and have fun?
And what impact was my behavior having on his interest in sports?
The Downside of Parental Involvement
“We don’t stop playing because we grow old, we grow old because we stop playing.” – George Bernard Shaw
I was a terrible baseball player as a kid. My fielding was poor. My hitting was worse. My skills earned me a permanent right field position.
But I loved to play. I looked forward to the anticipation of each play. I enjoyed the fact that I was (slowly) getting better. Mainly, I just loved being out there with my friends.
Yet there was one thing I hated. I absolutely hated the car ride home. It was a torturous time in which I heard about every mistake I made and received a detailed critique on exactly what I should have done.
The benefits of playing couldn’t overcome that dreaded car ride home.
So I quit. I hung up my cleats and would only pick up my glove thereafter for random games at the park. I was seven years old.
I took up soccer and hockey instead. Neither of my parents had a clue about these sports so I was safe to actually learn the game before the “expert” critiques started again.
Unfortunately, my short-term baseball career isn’t an anomaly. Research conducted by Michigan State University’s Institute for the Study of Youth Sports found that more than 70% of kids drop out of youth sports by the age of 13. And for anyone who’s attended a youth sporting event, it shouldn’t be any surprise that one of the main reasons is adults.
It’s easy to get caught up in our kids’ sports. We want them to do well and we associate doing well with winning. Yet when MSU also asked boys and girls aged 10 to 12 why they played sports, they found the top reasons to be:
- To have fun.
- To do something I am good at.
- To improve my skills.
- To get exercise and stay in shape.
- To be part of a team.
Winning wasn’t one of the top reasons. Kids don’t play sports to win. They play to have fun. And when it stops being fun, they quit.
As parents, we have a significant role in this determination. Our involvement often determines whether kids see sports as play or start thinking of them as work.
And seeing as how most of us wouldn’t continue in our day jobs if we didn’t need the salary, we shouldn’t be surprised when kids become disengaged in sports if they become less like play and more like that future office job they’re already dreading.
We’re Costing Our Kids More than Sports
“There are more important things in life than winning or losing a game.” – Lionel Messi
Looking back on the experiences I gained from sports, it’s easy to see the benefit was much more than having fun with my friends.
I learned commitment, responsibility, and focus. Playing sports helped me to better handle pressure and make decisions in competitive situations. I learned to be humble in victory and (somewhat) gracious in defeat.
Sports helped teach me about leadership and teamwork and how fun it can be in learning to master an activity. But most importantly, sports taught me that life is not fair – that despite doing everything right we may still end up with a failure. And what matters most is how we choose to handle that adversity.
All of these things made me a better player. But more importantly, they made me a better person. It seems a shame if kids are missing these opportunities because we as parents decide to make sports more about us than our kids. As sports psychologist Rainer Martens put it,
“Sport is like a double-edged sword. Swung in the right direction, the sword can have tremendously positive effects, but swung in the wrong direction it can be devastating. The sword is held by adults who supervise children’s sports. Whether sport is constructive or destructive in the psychological development of young children greatly depends on the values, education, and skills of those adults.”
And I think the only real difference between these outcomes is having the right perspective. And acting in accordance with it.
Have a Vision
“Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others.” – Jonathan Swift
After coaching one of my daughter’s games, a parent walked over and asked me if I thought his kid would have a shot at a college scholarship.
I don’t know man. She’s eight. Come talk to me in seven years.
I realize that college is ridiculously expensive and any help with keeping our kids out of hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt is more than welcome. But given the minute fraction of kids that actually receive scholarships, if that’s our goal we’d be much better off just putting our money in a 529 savings plan. As Dr. Jim Taylor wrote in a 2011 Huffington Post article,
“If your objective is to turn them into champions, the odds are that you’re wasting your money and time and your children’s happiness. Sports are metaphorically littered with the scarred psyches of children whose parents tried and failed to do what Earl Woods and Richard Williams succeeded at doing. Your goals as parents are for your children to have fun, learn life skills to succeed later in life, value health and fitness, and develop a love of sports. If by some freak chance you give them world-class athletic genes, they love the sport enough to work incredibly hard, they get the right kind of support from you, and they become professional or Olympic athletes, then that’s just icing on the cake.”
What do we want our children to get out of sports? What values and behaviors do we want them to develop? And does our behavior align with those values?
I may want my daughter to learn the benefit of hard work and determination, but if I only praise her when she wins, I’m sending the wrong message. As Josh Waitzkin put it,
“Very gifted people, they win and they win, and they are told that they win because they are a winner. That seems like a positive thing to tell children, but ultimately, what that means is when they lose, it must make them a loser.”
If I want my son to understand the importance of agency and owning all of life’s outcomes, I don’t reinforce those values by criticizing the referees.
And if I want my kids to value sportsmanship and love being active in sports, I certainly don’t want to give them the impression that their worth is tied to how well they perform in some game.
When we consider the long-term values we want to instill in our kids, it’s easy to gain a healthier perspective regarding their sports. And it helps remind us of whether today’s behavior is reinforcing our long-term vision or detracting from it.
And Be Patient
“Patience is not simply the ability to wait – it’s how we behave while we’re waiting.” – Joyce Meyer
When our kids are learning to read, we don’t demand perfection after a couple of weeks. When they’re learning to add, we don’t start screaming if they forget to carry the one. Yet in sports we tend to forget that learning is a continual, long-term process.
Would anyone enjoy learning a new skill if they were criticized every time they made an attempt?
We all inherently know that development and growth is a long-term process. So it doesn’t make much sense to judge someone’s success based on one game – or worse, one play.
Most of us are action oriented. We want to push for constant growth and help correct anyone who’s struggling. Yet maintaining a long-term perspective keeps us from fixating on every mistake. It helps remind us that while today’s result may not have been ideal, they’re on an upward trajectory. And that’s really all that matters.
As Carol Dweck wrote in Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, following her groundbreaking research on fixed versus growth mindsets,
“If parents want to give their children a gift, the best thing they can do is to teach their children to love challenges, be intrigued by mistakes, enjoy effort, and keep on learning. That way, their children don’t have to be slaves of praise. They will have a lifelong way to build and repair their own confidence.”
Then Get Out of Their Way
“You will never fully convince someone that he is wrong; only reality can.” – Nassim Taleb, Skin in the Game
There are few safer opportunities for kids to take risks and try new things than in youth sports. Literally, the only potential negative consequences are those that we invent in our unrealistic expectations.
We want to protect our kids. And we want them to succeed. It’s one of our most natural instincts.
Yet there’s a fine line between protecting and coddling. And if we’re worried about them losing a youth sports game, chances are we’re well on the wrong side of that line.
Most parents tell me that they’d like sports to help make their children more confident. Yet they think that winning brings confidence and they work to help ensure their kids always make the right play and never make mistakes. You can often hear these parents from the sidelines, screaming instructions to their kids on the field – a tactic that not only confuses kids, but actually inhibits their confidence.
To emphasize this point, one of my high school soccer coaches once stopped practice when the spectating parents were getting out of hand. He invited all of the parents onto the field and asked them to start playing in our stead. He then proceeded to scream obscenity-laced instructions at them while they tried to play. After that, we had very quiet sideline spectators.
Confidence doesn’t come from winning or following someone else’s instructions – it comes from skill development. It comes when kids take control of their own actions and learn to overcome obstacles without someone constantly holding their hand.
If we’re hoping to develop confidence in our kids, we need to give them responsibility for their own decisions. And let them own the consequences. Allow them to take chances and fail. Once they realize they can develop in an environment where risk and failure are allowed, they’re less likely to fear challenges. And more likely to see them as opportunities to be conquered. As former Navy SEAL Eric Greitens laid out in Resilience,
“We become what we do if we do it often enough. We act with courage, and we become courageous. We act with compassion, and we become compassionate. If we make resilient choices, we become resilient.”
But Most Importantly, Have Fun.
“A little nonsense now and then, is cherished by the wisest men.” – Roald Dahl
At the end of the day, if it isn’t fun, we shouldn’t expect our kids to stick with it. More importantly, if it’s no longer fun, why would we want our kids to stick with it?
I’m not suggesting that we lose sight of competition and stop encouraging our kids to play to win. If they’re not playing to win, it means they’re not giving their full effort. And we need to encourage them to do that every game.
But long-term winning in sports doesn’t equal a tally of scores and records. It has nothing to do with how many trophies are collecting dust on their shelves.
Instead, it’s about whether sports helps our children be happy, healthy, and pick up valuable life lessons that will turn them into better people. And more often that not, this result doesn’t come from those who play the best, but those who play the longest.
So are we helping our children have fun? Are we cultivating a long-term interest in staying happy and healthy? And if so, should I really care whether my five-year-old scores on his own soccer net?