Kids’ sports: Competitive Parents

When my husband and I were kids, we can’y remember being involved in sports until we were at least 8-years-old.  However, these days, the programs are starting younger and younger.  Our two girls both started playing soccer at the age of 3.  But, we have discovered two very important lessons:  1.  Parents are WAY more involved in the sport than the kids, and 2.  Starting so young brings about burn out.

In our house, we have a rule concerning sports and physical activity.  Each girl MUST participate in at least ONE athletic activity.  Now, the younger one chooses everything under the sun; she plays soccer in the fall; basketball and swimming in the winter, soccer in the spring; and various camps throughout the summer.  The older one has given up everything except for swimming.  Whatever they choose is fine with us as long as they are somehow physically involved in something.  And, although this is our rule, as my husband and I watch some parents, we realize why children come to hate sports, why children burn out and tire of sports by the time they reach high school.

I will begin with soccer, the fall sport for our youngest.  Neither my husband nor I agree with settling an 8-year-old into a position at this age; however, already, winning is extremely important.  Our daughter is a great defender, so this entire season, she played defense.  We did not cause one stir about the fact that she never had an opportunity to score.  She played her role, and we kept our mouths shut.  We didn’t want the responsibility of coaching, so we did not–like many others–sit on the sidelines and criticize the coaches.  We did, though, have husband/wife discussions in privacy; that is okay.  But, there was one girl on the team who refused to play defense, even when put into that position.  Know why?  Her parents promised her $5.00 for every goal.  Now, if you were an 8-year-old little girl, you would want to play offense every game too!  Needless to say, however, the entire team suffered.  Mistakes were made, and the ball was NEVER passed to teammates.  Why would you pass the ball?  If you have the chance to score and earn $5.00, you cannot pass that up.  So, many lessons were learned this season.  It was our daughter’s first year playing on a travel team, and we discovered just how important winning is, even at her age.  Our daughter was at the point where she didn’t want to play offense, because she knew how dependable she had become on defense.  It’s a shame that at 8 they are already being molded into a position.  But, these days, winning is everything.

Now, I will move on to swimming, a winter sport for both girls.  The season has just begun, and our girls had a terrific first meet.  Our only advice to them is to try to beat YOUR own best personal time.  Win or lose; we really do not care.  We want them to give their best effort and make every attempt to better themselves personally.   Sure, we would love for them to contribute to the team by scoring points, but that is not our main focus.

My husband and I both really love swimming, even though neither one of us grew up around it.  I was a cheerleader and long-distance runner.  He played baseball, basketball, soccer, and others.  However, we really fell in love with swimming due to the fact that we felt the competitive nature of parents was not as great.  We found out last week that even swim parents have their competitive streaks.  A friend of ours shared with us that her son, who is the top breast stroke swimmer on the team had come home upset every night from practice.  He told her he loved the breast stroke; knew he was good at it; but really did not want to swim it any more.  Odd?  Definitely.  Do you know why his feelings changed about his best and favorite swim stroke?  Another boy who is almost as good was told by his father that if he beats my friend’s son, he will give him $100.00.  That’s a lot of money for a 10-year-old boy.  So, every night at practice, this boy talks about winning and earning the money, so much so that he has caused my friend’s son to feel upset.

Now, I realize all of us want our kids to be great.  We all want them to come home with ribbons, medals, trophies, etc.  But, we also need to keep in mind the lessons we are teaching them.  Swimming, though it is partly an individualized sport, is still also very much a team sport.  While it is important for young athletes to realize the significance of doing well, it is also important to teach them that when others are relying upon them, it is in their best interest to act with sportsmanship.  Sure, if our girls swim a great meet, we might stop on the way home and buy them ice cream, but we are certainly not offering them $100.00 to beat anyone on their own team, or even the opposing team for that matter.

I think often in today’s society we lose sight of what is important. We place so much pressure on our kids that they lose interest and passion.  I taught high school and middle school for 14 years, and you would not believe the number of excellent athletes who told me they quit their favorite sport because they no longer enjoyed it.  Their parents pushed them so much and focused so strongly on winning that they felt best not participating.  Therein lies the shame of this whole issue.  Sure, we as parents have a right to help our kids make decisions.  However, our help should be just that, guidance.  Not pressure.  Kids have enough pressure in their lives. We always tell our girls to go out, do their best, and have fun. 

One more quick example, and then I will be finished.  Last winter our oldest daughter played REC basketball.  She was cut from the travel team, a move we expected.  She had not played basketball in a long time but wanted to because her friends were playing.  After her experience last season, I don’t think she will EVER play basketball again.  Now, in the rec league, scores really don’t matter, and records just don’t count.  However, every coach in that league thought he/she were coaching in the WNBA.  My daughter would have two practices a week, each practice lasting TWO hours.  Then, on a third night of the week, they would have a game.  They would have to show up an hour and a half early to go over plays and positions–FOR REC LEAGUE.  The coaches bickered with other coaches every game, and parents were almost in fist fights.  Remember, this is all over REC league; nothing mattered or counted.  My daughter, due to her lack of basketball skill, rarely played during games.  But this is the kicker; she was hardly allowed to participate in practice.  Seriously?  In our community, the REC league is supposed to be for those girls not quite good enough to make travel team.  The goal is to teach them skills and fundamentals in order to improve their basketball playing.

As you can guess, that did not happen.  When it came time to sign up for basketball this season, we inquired.  Our daughter looked at us as though we were crazy.  She said, “I didn’t have any fun last year.  I don’t want to waste my time this year.”  What a shame.  A ten-year-old girl is already turned off to a great sport because of fanatical parents and coaches.  We as adults are to set the example and inspire our kids.  Somehow that lesson is being lost in this mess.  

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