The Ugly of Youth Sports

by Miles Mettler

Last week I had the pleasure of watching my 17-year-old daughter compete in the Colorado State Track & Field meet. Few things provide pleasure like watching your child do something she loves and is good at. There is complete joy and pride in watching the fluid, repetitive motion of her legs propelling her around the track. As best I can, I try to just embrace the moments and give thanks for her ability and the satisfaction it brings her mom and me to watch her compete…regardless of how she does.

But, unfortunately, I also witnessed the ugly side of youth sports…and it’s not isolated but prevalent throughout all of the youth sports and as well as the performing arts.

The ugliness is when I witness parents whose mood changes because of the way their child performed. It’s the parent who gets sulky – or in some cases down right bitter - because her child didn’t perform as well as expected.

As a parent, I have to be aware that if my mood or attitude changes based upon my child’s performance, then I’m living through my child. That type of parenting is unhealthy for the child and the parent.

If I feel bad because my child performed poorly, I’m coming from a place of shame, which is projected onto the child. No child should EVER experience that!

However, if I feel bad because my child feels bad or if I’m happy because my child feels happy then I’m coming from a place of empathy.

Our kids need to know that we are for them, no matter how they perform. They need assurances that our love for them is in no way strengthened or weakened based on their performance. Our love must be unconditional. Unconditional love is the key to CONFIDENCE. Isn't that a quality we're striving to instill?

Recently I played golf with a CEO of a local company who has a 17 year-old son who plays second base in a competitive, traveling baseball league. The man had played baseball in college so he is competitive and knows a lot about baseball. He told me that two years ago his wife encouraged him to not say a word when their son was up to bat. He said, “It was the best advice my wife has ever given me,” and it’s made all the difference in the world. His relations with his son improved as did his son’s hitting percentage. Without the pressure of having his dad’s critiques, it took pressure off the boy and he could just stand in the box and concentrate. The best part of the story is that the man actually listened to his wife!

When has a parent crossed the line between being supportive and being destructive? Here are some signs:

  1. When there is any intent, conscious or subconscious, to make the child feel bad because of how he/she performed.
  2. If the parent cares more about how the child performs than the child does.
  3. When the mood of the parent is predictably altered because of the way the child performs. 
  4. If the parent withholds love or affection after the event is over. 
  5. When the parents feels like their child's performance is a reflection on them.
  6. If feedback from the parent in interfering in any way with the coach's ability to coach, even if the parent could do better.

Except in cases of bad behavior or unsportsmanlike conduct, there is no place in sports for the parent to be the one to correct or criticize or condemn the actions or performance of their student athlete. Leave the correcting up to the coach.

The correct response for a parent after a practice or performance is simply to say, “I love you. I’m proud of you. I love watching you compete.” Of course if the performance didn’t go well be supportive. Ask what the child thought about the game or the performance and then…just listen. Don’t offer your opinion unless asked, and even then keep it positive.

Without the parent’s input, the child already knows how he played. He knows if he screwed up. He knows if he didn’t give this best effort. He knows if his play potentially won or lost the game. It’s not the role of the parent to judge.

The child’s character and how he or she responds to both the ups and downs of sports should be more important to the parent than the performance. The child who excels on the field but lacks virtue off the field is not learning the lessons he/she should be learning through sport and is destined for a lifetime of struggle.

The parent whose worth and sense of joy is dependent upon the child’s performance is destined to damage the relationship with their child for a lifetime. That is not a price worth paying no matter what the score.