Recently I read about a town in Australia that actually implemented laws that govern parent behavior at sporting events. Stepping out of line is punishable by banishment from the play area, and/or fines. My first thought was: "Really? Is that necessary?" Then after reflecting on our own American sports parents I realized that the Aussies are right on track. We have seen cases as extreme as the case in Texas where the cheerleader's mother killed a rival cheerleader to promote her own daughter's chances of "making the team"; to something as common as bad-mouthing the umpire at a little league game. Being in the kids/sports industry I can say that I have seen some curious parenting styles out there that run the gamut.
Working as an administrator, coach and teacher for over 30 years, I have seen some cases that would be unbelievable to the average person. I have also seen some parents that taught me a thing or two about how to behave when I became a parent, and I try to emulate those role models every day.
The goals of a good sport parent should be the same goals held by a good coach; develop the whole athlete. As a coach and parent I have tried to teach my children values and model virtues, I have focused on developing character. Yes, of course as a coach, I do like to win; but as it states in our Gymfinity team handbook, "when the trophy is more important than the smile, then there will be no true way to win."
Sports parents have a very important job, without them, and without them doing their "job" the coach's job becomes nearly impossible. First off, a parent must provide the athlete; that is not just getting the kid to the gym, but providing a sport ready child. To clarify, let's compare athletes to race cars: cars need good parts, good fuel and a good driver. Just like children need a healthy body (car), with a good diet of food, sleep and other various ingredients (fuel) as well as a good sound mind (their driver) to understand not only the "how to", but the "why" of their activity. Without the race car in good shape, the coach has nothing to work with.
Next the parents need to balance reality for their child. They need to have their children juggle one ball for sports, one for school, and one for family. When a child/athlete drops a ball, they need to be there to help them recover and get the ball aloft again. Those two tasks, providing and balancing, are the parent's most essential. Beyond that they need to sit back and observe, allow their child/athlete to do what they can, make decisions on their outcomes, wrestle with the results and unconditionally love them regardless of the win or loss.
Like parents, coaches and the athletes have their own jobs to do too. Though a coach's job is more technical, they rely on the parent and athlete to fulfill their roles in order for them to carry out their own. Problems arise when the three sides of the triangle (coach, parent, and athlete) start to blur and overlap. When one steps into another's role there is confusion, and for the child, that can cause great stress and usually results in the opposite of the one thing everyone intended to enhance; the performance. Problems also arise as well when the balance I spoke about is lost, when winning and sport is prioritized over education and family it will lead to the destruction of the child athlete. It may not happen overnight, but the slow attrition of breaking the child down is in action.
There are some common parents perspectives that lead to a child's failure (understand that the term failure is not only in reference to sport). Most parents will read this information and disassociate themselves from the familiarity of the problems; they agree that it must be hard for a kid with parents like that, but not see that they might be "those parents." I think we should remain open-minded. My son tried playing soccer last year but it didn't take. I found myself in the position of having some degree of all of the characteristics evident in problem parents, and I am supposed to know better! I found that I wanted my son "winning" or playing well because I was never a good soccer player and really wanted to be. I wanted to be a part of the team at my school (after they cut gymnastics I sought out other sports) but I was not very good. I was a good athlete and I knew the value of training hard and always believed that hard work is its own reward. I knew that every parent on the team and other teams knew I was the "Gymfinity guy", I had a reputation. I felt that I needed to show, not only that I was a good coach, but a good parent. So, all of the mistaken views parents have, the ones that caused me such pain over the years, I now embodied. I wanted my son to show that we are capable of playing soccer; I wanted him to do what I couldn't. I wanted him to train with vigor and desire, the reaching and surpassing of his personal goals. And I wanted everyone to know, that when Owen scored his goal, it was because I was a great parent. Wrong, wrong and in so many ways, wrong. Owen was Owen. He played until it wasn't fun. Like me, he isn't a big fan of team sports, so I guess in a way I did get the "mini-me" I was after. And as for parenting satisfaction, at least I was better than the guy on his phone the whole game, which will have to be good enough.
There are some very definitive descriptors between the over-zealous parent and the supportive and positive parent. Sometimes they are subtle and sometimes they scream. The obsessive parent always seeks to have their child noticed, overtly or covertly, they want their child recognized. How else will anyone know that they are a good parent? They are often dissatisfied with effort being good enough, they are only happy with tangibles; like a "W" in the column or a trophy or a medal. These parents don't give their child/athlete any room to make decisions or the strength to deal with the repercussions of those decisions. Yet when the parent is the one dictating the game-plan they only have criticism for the child who carried out their failed plan. These parents often don't see they're to blame for the failure. "I just want what's best for her," is a mantra and every time I hear it, I know that the next sentence is going to be all about the parent. A good sports parent allows their child/athlete to make some of the decisions that affect their performance. Obviously the younger the child, the harder it is to allow them to make decisions, but you might be surprised how much thought is happening in that little brain. You have to listen for it, but to be supportive you should develop that skill. After the soccer season, my Owen tried basketball. First day of practice, he stood, motionless, for 15 minutes holding the ball. Other kids played around him, the coach encouraged him, other parents cheered for him to at least bounce the ball, but nothing happened. I stepped out to change my other son's diaper (ah, parenting), and when I returned was told that he hadn't even flinched. That didn't take "super ears" to hear that message. So Owen wasn't a baller. OK.
But what if you think you have a really talented kid (everyone thinks they do) and you want to see him/her excel. As a coach let me offer you the game plan, the same one that I would ask you to follow if your child is training with me, the same one I follow with my sons.
Step 1: Focus on the basics. Work on the character skills that lay the foundation for success. Model and reinforce traits like hard work, dedication, integrity, humility, trust, respect, responsibility. Show and provide support regardless of outcome. Get them healthy food and plenty of sleep. Reinforce their education; there is nothing sadder than a NFL millionaire who can't string together a simple sentence.
Step 2: Focus on the skill basics. Simple physical literacy can be learned by interaction with a variety of activities. Not to be self serving, but gymnastics is a great activity for any child; it lays, not only the basic physical foundation for success, but provides all of the traits listed in step 1.
Step 3: Teach them that decisions have repercussions and that they have to be OK with however things turn out. Explain possible outcomes on either side of a choice and allow them to choose. The only way to change the outcome of any particular action is to make better decisions before acting. This is also called developing lifelong strengths.
Step 4: Teach your child how to set goals. Teach them how to make S.M.A.R.T. goals and they will understand all of the lessons in Step 3.
OK, got it? This is pretty easy stuff. But like me, you may think you have the concepts but do you have the practical application? I learned a lot about coaching and parenting from my first son. Though I wanted him to be a champion, I will have to wait for him to show me the vehicle he wants to use to do it; maybe gymnastics, maybe architecture (he's amazing with Legos). Maybe my other son Emmett will be a great soccer player; I'll have to wait for them both to show me their strengths.
In summary; here is a quick quiz to see if your child has a chance to be a champion. It's written regardless of age but it focuses on children before high school. Record your "Yes" answers.
Q1: Do you believe your child could be a champion?
Q2: Do you find yourself telling other people that your child is a "high achiever" or something synonymous?
Q3: Do you talk about your child's sport away from the play area, over meals or at least once a day?
Q4: Are you prepared to realistically sacrifice any part of your child's education so they may have a better chance to become a champion?
Q5: Do you regularly ask the coach to work your child harder or to change something about the way your child plays the game?
Q6: Do you get emotionally involved in your child's TRAINING successes and failures? (As opposed to game day success and failures).
Q7: Do you allow your child to show poor attitude, poor sportsmanship or poor behavior as a part of the game knowing that it is a natural part of the result of strong effort?
Q8: Have you ever fought with another parent/person about the results of a game/match/meet?
Q9: Do you refer to your son/daughter as my son/daughter the gymnast, hockey player, goalie etc.?
Q10: Have you spent more than $500 on equipment?
Quiz results: no fair peeking! If you answered "yes" to 2 or more of these questions, your child has a decreased chance of excelling in a sport. And what's worse, your obsession may be the cause for their failure. We know that such obsession or over-drive is often not shared by the child and their mere participation in sports, under such conditions, causes them to develop strong negative feelings toward physicality, the specific sport and worst of all, the parent. But wait J; there are examples of "pushy parents" that had champion children. Look at Tiger Woods, his father Earl was on the sport side of Joan Crawford for parenting skills. To that I say, yes....let's look at Tiger. His resentment of his father and golf in general led him to behave in questionable ways and perform acts disrespectful of his own family. He only returned to golf when he realized that he had nothing else. He seems happy, right?
So here is another quiz, this time from the positive perspective. Let's see how we do on this one.
Q: 1 Can you provide encouragement and support regardless of outcomes?
Q2: Do you believe that the most important thing for your child to "get" out of sports is confidence, self belief, integrity and humility?
Q3: Do you believe that having a day or two a week just to be a kid is of value?
Q4: Can you promise not to make discussion of your child's specific sport away from the practice area a common thing?
Q5: Do you encourage your child to develop skills in other activities and pursue their education over sport?
Q6: Can you provide a loving caring and stable family environment?
Q7: Can you stay away from gym/field/rink for a few days without getting symptoms of withdrawal?
Q8: Can you unconditionally support your child's coach even during a patch of rough progress?
Q9: If your child wants to quit will you still show love and care unconditionally?
Q10: Can you show dignity and maturity when your child is defeated in play?
Quiz results: 2-3 answered "yes", call me, we need to talk. 4-6 "yeses" and you've got a good start on a positive sport experience. 7 or more and you are a champion parent.
In closing, let me say that there is no parent's manual to follow and our best lessons are learned by trial and error. It's OK to make mistakes but its how you change and grow that makes it better. Children are under our sole influence as parents until they start school, this is the time to instill character and reinforce values. When children get to school, they will have influence from teachers, kids, friend's parents, and more. When children are enrolled in sports at an early age, don't be afraid to ask about the general (and specific) philosophy of the program or the coach. There was a study done in Canada back in the 80's that showed that the hierarchy of influence on a child approaching teen years is #1 their friends (can't get away from that), #2 their coaches, #3 their parents and #4 their teachers.
How can you influence the quality of the influencers? You can guarantee the quality of the circle of friends by reviewing the programs you have your child in. Friends: good programs= good people, and good people have good kids. Coaches: they rank high in influence because they have the "golden ticket". They have direct control of the activity that validates and gives happiness to the child, so don't underestimate the value of a coach with integrity. Parents: I have said it before and I'll say it again (now validated by actual research), kids really want nothing more than to make their parents happy. That is an awesome responsibility on us parents. Lastly, Teachers: they are brain coaches so they too have a golden ticket. All the rules of coaches also apply to the teachers.
In knowing that our best time to influence our sports children is when they are very young. At that age we can focus on all of the basics, mental and physical, that will ensure future success. Working with children on decision making skills and goal setting not only helps them develop lifelong strengths but allows them to feel ownership in their own success. It is also imperative that we are all on the same page and that we have the same priorities. We must all agree that parents, coaches and athletes work together in their respective roles, without infringing on anyone else's roles. It is the only way to assure a successful sport child. So are you ready to parent a champion?
J Orkowski is a coach and business owner in Madison Wisconsin. His program Gymfinity Children's Activity Center opened in 1999 and has introduced many champions to the award podium, but more than that Gymfinity has given smiles to thousands of children who do gymnastics, tumbling and fitness...for fun.