Forward / Disclaimer
This article is all about the role of parents in youth sports – specifically, how to be a model parent for your child or children. I am a parent and a youth baseball coach. When I began writing this article, I attempted to refer to different sports and sexes. While this is not intended to simply serve as a youth baseball parenting piece, it is written as one. The principles transcend any single sport, and if you substitute references specific to your sport of choice, the lessons still hold true. Also, I wrote it from a perspective of someone who coaches boys. But, this certainly applies to each of you with daughters in sports as well. The main focus is not on the child playing sports, after all, but on the role of parents in youth sports – the good, the bad, and how to be a model parent for your young athlete.
If you Google ‘Parenting youth sports’ (I did), you will notice something very disturbing. At least half of the hits you get infer that parents are ruining youth sports. From personal experience, I am not sure I agree. I think the number might actually be higher! I implore you – please don’t be part of the problem. That’s not the role of parents in youth sports, or at least, that’s not supposed to be.
We all love our kids, we’re all passionate about nearly everything they do, and we want nothing but success for them. That is normal. It is innate. We’re all in the same boat on that! What is not normal is how our own egos and emotions can override all those inherent parenting virtues, manifesting in behavior that is not only counter-productive to our child’s development, but downright embarrassing to everyone involved. Here are some informed thoughts on avoiding those pitfalls. Ultimately, we want to be good parent role models for our children. That includes knowing how to be a good sports parent.
First, remember why you got Johnny or Susie into the sport in the first place. If you are like most parents, it might be because you played that sport yourself as a youth (or even into adulthood), and you loved it and want your child to as well. Absolutely nothing wrong with that. Who can argue getting your kid into the sport because of your ‘love of the game’ (and your hope that they will too)? Or, maybe you just want your child to try different things and you want to expose them to as many opportunities as possible. FANSTASTIC! Climb right up to the top of the youth sports parenting tree!
There is no doubt that almost everyone gets their child into youth sports at a young age for perfectly virtuous reasons. It is about the kid, it is about love of something, it is about getting them out from in front of the television, out into the fresh air, and getting some exercise. Not many parents sign their child up for T-Ball because they believe they’ll end up in the Major Leagues. That is why the first years of youth sports are the Golden Years. Kids are getting their first exposure to the game, they are focused on learning and being a good teammate more than winning, and they look forward to the snack at the end of the game more than their next trip to the plate.
If you are there right now – cherish this moment. Don’t wish it away. Don’t say, “I can’t wait until we start playing ‘real’ baseball”. Live in the moment and relish it because of the pure joy it gives your child! Know the happiness of a being a good sports parent to your child. It doesn’t get any better than this!
Keep Things in Perspective
But beware. Somewhere along the way, something changes. The kids get older. They mature. They get bigger, stronger, faster and better. And they get more competitive and they care about the score and their own performance. And – that is okay. I am not one of these parents who promotes an ‘everybody gets a trophy’ philosophy. Every game shouldn’t end in a tie. We keep score for a reason. I understand competition and thrive on it. But, the evolution of the philosophy must be cultivated properly and parents have to keep things in perspective. That’s a huge part of the role of parents in youth sports: helping to provide guidance and perspective to your child.
Perspective is key – and there are certain realities we must stay in touch with. First, no matter how talented, it is unlikely your son or daughter will play a sport in college, much less get a scholarship. That’s not a dig on your child. Less than 7% of high school athletes go on to play a sport at any level in college. And, most in that group don’t get any scholarship money. That said, it is not an impossibility. A handful of kids are that uniquely talented and will reach that level.
Don’t Forsake Today for Tomorrow
As your child matures, if he or she does show that type of potential, you should not dissuade them from pursuing that end. It just means that it is unlikely, and that instead of continuously focusing on ‘where can I find the best situation for my athlete to get noticed’, perhaps enjoying the moment right now – today – is a better idea. After all, you don’t know how many ‘todays’ you have, and if you are continually focused on ‘tomorrow’, you are doing a disservice to you and to your child. Live in the moment! Remember your ‘love of the game’!
Know Your Role
Mike Matheny was a Major League Baseball player and manager. In between the end of his playing days and the beginning of his MLB managerial career, he took some time off to spend with his family. During those years, he coached youth baseball. If you have the opportunity to read the ‘Matheny Manifesto’, I highly encourage you to do so. It has been required reading for the parents of any player on the youth baseball teams I coach. While the manifesto is full or great information, there is one comment that jumps out at me and bears repeating. In the manifesto (really, simply a letter to the parents of the kids on his team), Matheny says, “I believe that the biggest role of the parent is to be a silent source of encouragement. I think if you ask most boys what they would want their parents to do during the game; they would say “NOTHING”. That is pretty direct and to the point. But it’s also important insight into the role of parents in youth sports.
That is tough advice to take! I get it. It is your son or daughter, so you are invested (both financially and emotionally). Their development, to a large extent, is indeed partly your responsibility. There is little doubt that the kids who develop the most are the ones whose parents invest practice and teaching time with them outside and beyond team activities. The simple principle in play is, the more time you invest, the more likely you are to improve. If your son shows interest and ‘want-to’ to put that extra time in, then by all means, make it happen! That is your responsibility as a parent.
Outlets for Expertise
You might also have a lot to offer. Maybe you were a stud and played the sport at a high-level and you know the nuances of the sport well-beyond the level the coaches of your kid’s team operate at. That is great. Pass it all along to little Johnny – away from the team environment. And, by the way, if you know so much, why don’t you step up and volunteer your time to help on the coaching staff? If you are not going to do that, you need to be that silent source of encouragement on game day. Further, on practice days, you need to bring your kid, turn them over to the coaches for a couple of hours, and find something else to do. If you are a coach, coach. If not, you don’t get to. Simple as that!
Game day is hard for parents, and can be the real test of how to be a good sports parent. We like the other kids on the team (hopefully), but we only love one of them! So, it takes a lot of work to look at everyone through the same lens. In fact, that may not be humanly possible, but we have to try! Remember this. You are Mom or Dad. A virtual certainty is you will see something happen out there that you disagree with. Something will be done where you think your kid is not getting a fair shake from a coach. Count on it. And, handle it properly when it happens. Anticipate this scenario – you look out as the team takes the field. “My Johnny isn’t starting at shortstop!?! How did they put Billy there? Johnny is WAY better than him.” STOP IT!
This is not the role of parents in youth sports. Or at least, it’s not the way you model good behavior for your child.
Don’t React Emotionally
Let’s consider all of the possibilities. First, maybe it is your bias that has taken hold making you think your son is the better player. And, I’ll even grant you that maybe you are right and Johnny is better. But, before you scream and yell and make a scene, ask yourself a few questions. “Is it the end of the world that he is not starting at SS?” Probably not. “Is there a chance I simply haven’t realized that Billy is just as good if not better?” Maybe. “Am I at all of the practices? Do I know that Johnny is working as hard as Billy? Do I know everything the coach has communicated to Johnny about what he needs to do to ‘win’ that position?” Probably not. “Is there a chance the coach is getting it wrong and Johnny is better?” Sure. That kind of self-talk will help keep you grounded and keep you from making embarrassing and completely counter-productive outbursts. And that’s part of the role of parents in youth sports, and the role of parents in general. Remember, perspective!
After you’ve done all of that introspection and you’ve reflected on things and you still genuinely believe that Johnny should be the shortstop, ask yourself how important is it? Ask your son how important it is to him. Nine times out of ten, regardless of how each of you answered that question, the right answer is continuing to work hard with your son outside of the team environment to improve his skills. Ensure that he shows up for each and every practice on time (early is even better!) and prepared to work hard. If he does those things and truly is the best player, the cream will rise to the top.
When a kid is a really smart player, you sometimes hear the expression, “he’s like a coach on the field.” That is a great thing. If they say that about your kid, that means you are probably doing some really positive developmental things with him. Kudos to you! There is another expression about parents, “he’s like a coach in the stands.” Oh wait, there is NO SUCH EXPRESSION! Remember that when you’re trying to keep perspective about the role of parents in youth sports. No one wins an award for coaching from the stands – you’re more likely to be ejected from a game.
The Role of Parents in Youth Sports is NOT Coaching from the Stands
You may think you are the only one in the world that knows Johnny hits better when he drives the ball to the opposite field. You might think you are the only one who knows that the kid at the plate can only hit a fastball and never hits the change-up. So, of course, you yell to Johnny “hit the ball to the opposite field”, or “throw him the change-up”, right? WRONG! Never, ever, ever coach from the stands. It puts undue pressure on your kid, it makes it about you, and it undermines the coach. Coaches coach. Players play. There is no mention of parent in there, nor should there be. You root for your team, support your son, all of his teammates and the coaches.
Don’t Argue with Officials
Another virtual certainty is that umpiring will not be major league quality. The umpires, while they indeed get paid, are amateurs and at different levels of their own development. They are absolutely going to make mistakes. Count on that! While that is probable, an absolute certainty is this – there is NO scenario where you, as a parent, should EVER argue with an umpire. EVER. Did I mention you should NEVER do this? That’s not being a parent role model, and not helping anyone.
There are a number of things that make this a bad idea! Number one, you could be wrong. Maybe you saw it incorrectly, not the umpire. Ever consider that? Number two – it doesn’t really matter that much in the grand scheme of things! It is a youth baseball game. R-E-L-A-X. Even more compelling, it isn’t your job to question an umpire. If that needs done, it is the coach’s responsibility to handle it (and he/she better do it in a respectful manner.)
Why You Should Stay Out of the Game
There are two things that what will happen if you inject yourself into the game in this manner. First, you will make a spectacle of yourself and take the focus off the kids – whom we are all there to support. Second, you will mortify your own child and make him wish you weren’t there. In case you aren’t sure – neither of these things are good! Oh, yea, don’t forget, you might get ejected from the game and subsequently get the coach ejected as well. Is that worth getting your two-cents in over a missed call? It is not about you – EVER. Umpires umpire, fans don’t. Don’t forget it. It’s not the role of parents in youth sports to second-guess anymore than it is to coach.
Talking to Your Child
You are on the way home and things are fresh in your mind. You were a GREAT game day parent and you resisted the urge to tell Johnny to hit the ball to the opposite field. And, of course he didn’t and hit a weak ground ball for an out. This is the perfect time to tell him he should have hit it the other way. No, no…NO! The ride home, right after the game when memories are fresh and emotions (good or bad) are high, is not the right time to launch a critique – no matter how constructive, no matter how you package it. It will simply sound like criticism or that you are pointing out failure.
That doesn’t mean you never mention that he should not try to pull the outside pitch. If you see something wrong, you have to step up and help your son improve. Just NOT in the moment! Most of the time kids don’t want to talk after a bad game or a loss. That is okay. Let them choose the time to talk. They will eventually. And if you really want to try to get your child to talk about the game, the only acceptable way to do that is by asking some open-ended questions. “How do you think the team played today?” “Did that pitcher have really good stuff?”
Be the Adult
Beyond that, keep it to yourself for a while. There’ll be plenty of time to work on it later, and if you wait, Johnny just may surprise you later when he says – “I really should have hit that outside pitch to the opposite field.” That is worth its weight in gold and is so much more impactful than you lip-beating him about a bad at bat. Part of being a model parent in youth sports is being a parent, period – being the adult and the role model that your child needs.
Don’t Undermine the Coach
Another huge temptation is to have a dialogue with your son about coaching. Saying things like, “I can’t believe Coach Jones started Billy at shortstop over you” is quite possibly the worst thing you can do as a parent. If your son believes the same thing, he will bring it up. And, when that happens, you need to handle it deftly. Again, questions to draw out his thoughts rather than statements to self-validate your own thoughts are the way to go. “Why do you think he started Billy?” “What do you think you need to improve on to become the starter?” “Are you ready to get to work to improve and make it a no-brainer for the coach to put you at SS?” This can be challenging, but it’s part of the important role of parents in youth sports.
Those reactions don’t result from normal human emotions. We have to think about the behavior we want to demonstrate before the situation arises. That’s what being a role model is all about. Having that dialogue with Johnny is nearly the hardest thing in the world to do if you believe in your heart-of-hearts that the coach is wrong and Johnny should be the shortstop. But nobody said parenting is easy. Suck it up, buttercup, and say the right things to your son about work ethic, perseverance, and overcoming adversity. If this is the biggest ‘problem’ you are facing today, I’d say that things are going pretty well in your world. Keep it in perspective!
Don’t Be Overly Critical
The other thing we have to do is guard against providing our child constant feedback and evaluation. Of course, we need to provide constructive criticism and do all the we can to help them improve – when the time is right. But we have to guard against going over the top – on either end of the spectrum. If your kid went 0-4 and struck out three times, he knows he had a bad game. You don’t need to tell him. Just listen to him, offer to work on things, and be there as a parent. Again, part of the role of parents in youth sports is being a parent, first and foremost.
You also make sure you deal with success properly! If your son went 4-4 with two home runs and is leading the universe in batting average, there is no need to tell him how great he is. You absolutely should tell him he played great today. Congratulate him and tell him to enjoy the success. But, to constantly tell someone how great they are is only counterproductive in the end. Praise, but don’t laud. Emphasize that hard work is paying off, and that you need to continue to put the practice in. Teams need leaders who play great, not stars with egos that focus only on their own talent. If you are lucky enough to have a star athlete, keep them humble and grounded.
The beauty of sports is that they give us far more than we could ever give back to them. While we get our kids into a sport in hopes that they will love the game – it loves them right back, no matter their talent level. It is often a youth’s first exposure to the concept of a team. Being part of something greater than self. It is a basic building block for much of the rest of our lives. If we keep things in the proper perspective, we can take away lessons that will serve us for a lifetime. And part of the role of parents in youth sports is getting out of the way, to allow these lessons to sink in.
Win or Lose, You Learn
We wouldn’t keep score if we did not care about winning and losing – and how much emphasis we should put on outcomes is one of the most highly-debated issues when it comes to youth sports. What is not debatable, however, is that there are life lessons to be learned from winning and from losing. I read an unattributed quote a few years ago – “Competition doesn’t create character, it exposes it. How you play shows some of your character, how you win or lose shows it all.” No truer words were ever spoken. When we win, we must react with respect for our opponents and carry ourselves with humility. When we lose, we must do so with grace, class, unshaken confidence and a commitment to work even harder.
No One Said Being a Parent is Easy
All of those things are much easier said than done. It is not a natural emotion or innate reaction to show respect for the loser in your moment of jubilation after winning. Your raw emotion is pure joy. Respecting and congratulating our opponent is absolutely learned behavior. From who? From you, of course! Being a model parent in youth sports, like life in general, means modeling behavior even when it’s hard. Likewise, when we lose, we have to maintain perspective and react gracefully. It is not time to place blame, to claim an opponent was lucky, or to breakdown. It is a time to show respect for the victors and to think introspectively about how to create a different outcome the next time. This is true well beyond youth sports. We, as parents, have to teach these lessons to our children, as they will be challenged time and time again as they go through life – and they will be judged on their reactions.
Understanding Team Dynamics
There is another dynamic to winning and losing when it comes to team sports as well. On every team, win or lose, some kids play well, some not as well. It is just the nature of sports. What if your son played great, but the team lost the big game? Or, what if your son’s team won, but he played poorly? This is the graduate course.
Human nature causes us to pay more attention to how our own flesh and blood performs on the field than the rest of the kids (try as we may – and we should try – we cannot overcome this completely). How do you handle this as a parent? If your son has your team’s only hits and made an outstanding play in the field, but the team still lost, what do you say to him? I’ll give you a hint, it isn’t “if the other kids on the team were as good as you, we would have won!” We have to simply congratulate him on a well-played game and console him over the loss. Period.
It’s About the Kids
We also don’t need to tell all the other parents or coaches how well Johnny played. They already know. We have to put our own humility front and center and be the example for our son. Likewise, if the team wins, but your son plays poorly, it is up to you to ensure he focuses on the team aspect. No one has respect for anyone wallowing in self-pity because of their own poor performance after a team win! Sports present us this unique opportunity to experience these life lessons with our children, to display our own actions as a shining example, and to ensure that our kids keep winning and losing with success and failure in perspective. The sun is still going to come up tomorrow, and no one will remember the score from the game yesterday, but they may remember how you handled yourself and what kind of character you revealed.
Sports are a gift to all of us. They can serve as respite from ‘real-life’ and allow even the oldest among us to be kids again. When it comes to youth sports – they are an even bigger blessing. They give us the gift of time with our children. That’s really one of the most important gifts of all. They give us a canvas to draw out a blueprint for how our children should handle success and failure. They give kids a platform to make friends, to grow, and to understand hard work and competition. As parents, we need to enjoy every aspect of that.
But we must also acknowledge our larger responsibility to model the adult behavior that we want our kids to emulate. We must understand the role of parents in youth sports, and how to be a good sports parent. We can teach sports skills to our kids, but we also have to remember that, more importantly, we are teaching life skills as well. Every kid has a different ceiling when it comes to their athletic ability. There are God-given gifts and limitations for every individual. But, when it comes to being a quality person with depth-of-character, there are no limitations. We need to remember that before we react to the bad call, the coach’s decision, or a play on the field. We can’t expect our kids to grow up to be good team members, good parents, or good citizens in their own right if we can’t model that behavior for them.
Whoever said ‘it is only a game’ may have been wrong. It is a kid’s game – and our kids should enjoy every moment for that exact reason. We also need to remember, it is a dress rehearsal for the way our children are going to conduct themselves in the inevitable good and bad times that lie ahead of them outside of sports – and they are going to take their cues from Mom and Dad. That is a big responsibility. Get it right!
For Further Reading
As discussed above in our article, Mike Matheny’s treatise on being a good coach, athlete, and parent is a great complement to what we’ve covered in our article. Understanding the role of parents in youth sports is just one of the topics covered. He offers practical advice on how we, as players, coaches, and parents, can do a better job with our kids, and teach them lessons for life.
This book offers a much more in-depth exploration of the topic of the role of parents in youth sports. It specifically provides advice and information for parents, on how to be a good sports parent, and be there for your child without overstepping the bounds. Easier said than done, of course, but that’s why there’s a handy guide!
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