When my daughter Katie was 10, her Newport Beach AYSO team made it to the playoffs and they lost. She was crying on the field and my heart dropped and I rushed out to console her.
Katie looked at me and said, "Daddy, I'm not crying because we lost. I'm crying because I won't get to see my friends on the team as much."
It started me thinking about the difference in motivation and perception between parents and their children in youth sports. It's been reported 70% of children quit organized youth sports by age 13 and much of it has to do with the fun being removed by Type A parenting and coaching.
My three children spent a combined 22 years in AYSO in Corona del Mar, and many more in Newport Beach Little League, youth basketball and football. I saw a majority of coaches who were talented and giving, and I saw parents who were incredibly supportive.
I also saw some outrageous behavior by parents and coaches. I have decided to write a book, "The Golden Goal," on parenting youth athletes. The book is set to be published in the fall.
When I saw friends of mine charge out of the stands or coaching boxes to yell at kids, umpires or coaches, I knew it was time to discuss these issues. It is supposed to be about the kids.
Written and performance tests are not required to parent a youth athlete. No parenting license is required. But enormous amounts of time and focus go into participation in youth sports and the parenting it requires in a community like ours.
Soccer is usually the first experience a child has in organized sports and comparing his or her talents to other children. It can be a time of extraordinary empowerment. Sports can emphasize important fundamental values like self-respect, self-discipline, teamwork, resilience, perseverance and courage. But it can also be a discouraging time which crushes their self esteem. And the perception of someone as untalented and a loser can spread into teasing and bad treatment at school.
Children model adult behavior: when parents scream at coaches and referees and at their children, that is a powerful example. When coaches treat the composition of their teams with more scouting and maneuvering than NFL teams, and put so much pressure on kids to win, that is another.
What is the proper balance? Do we emphasize to young kids that they be junior Vince Lombardis and win at all costs? Or is enjoying participation the key? What if a child isn't getting much playing time, or the team is losing, or they play an undesirable position? Do we counsel young people to assert themselves for change or to "tough it out" and build character and patience?
Youth sports are supposed to keep the focus on the kids and their experience.
Parents should not confuse the endless hours they spend in attendance at the games and getting kids to practice with the one-on-one focused time that kids cherish with their parents. It is critical for kids to have a "safe haven" with parents, without their performance on the field being a major factor. Parents who see the success or failure of kids on the field as a reflection of their own needs should remember — it's about the kids.
This is a qualitatively more challenging group of young people to parent and coach. They grow up over-stimulated by big-screen color TV, surround sound, remote control, cell phones, along with texting, tweeting, facebooking, video games with headsets, digital music players, emails — moving rapidly from one stimulus to another. They believe they can control every moment of sensory input, and multiple inputs. This cacophony of visual and audio overload has a tendency to destroy attention span and patience. Getting this generation to pay attention and focus on coach input and parental input is infinitely more challenging.
We need to have some consensus on what the youth sports experience is designed to provide as a lasting legacy. Most of the kids that are participating at younger ages will never star on a high school team, receive a college scholarship or become a professional athlete. Different kids have different talent levels and interest and parents and coaches should use a flexible approach in recognizing those differences.
Studies show that high school all-stars in sports often have birthdates in the first three months following the initial sign-up cut off. They are nine months to a year more physically, mentally and emotionally developed than those kids with different birthdates. They appear more talented, stronger, faster in the early years, coaches covet them and they get more playing time and practice time. The late bloomer is considered untalented and less desirable.
We need a balance between allowing kids to be kids and enjoy their youth and teaching the most valuable life lessons.
Parents and coaches need to be especially vigilant to understand the impact of injuries on the joints of young athletes. As I wrote last week, concussions occur in all youth sports and have a long recovery time and higher risks for future concussions. Parents must insist on baseline testing prior to participation.