Advice to Parents Raising Young Athletes
3 lessons from a former collegiate athlete, coach, and parent
I can’t say that I’ve seen it all, but I can say that I’ve seen enough. As the son of a college basketball coach, a former collegiate athlete myself, a former Strength & Conditioning Coach, and now the father of 3 active boys, I spent my life engaged in sports under many different capacities. Success is subjective, and after spending all these years in sports I’m going to share a fraction of my experience of what has led to perceived successes, and in some cases, perceived failures, derived from my unique perspective.
Be the Pack Leader.
Whatever the parents do, good or bad, the children will follow. Parents who eat poorly tend to have children who eat poorly. Parents who drop their kid off late to practice or school signal to their kids that their time isn’t as important as Mom or Dad’s, and being tardy to school or other activities is acceptable behavior. Parents who yell at officials tend to have children who yell at officials. Growing up with a father who was a basketball coach, I was constantly exposed to him yelling at referees, which he would readily admit was a mistake passed along to me during my own athletic pursuits. As a Strength & Conditioning coach, I would routinely work with wealthy families that would spend thousands of dollars on equipment, instruction, and travel teams, only to fill their kids up with fast food prior to training, and then have the audacity to ask me, “how can I get them to eat better?” “My kid is always on their phone”, meanwhile Mom has her head buried in a screen the whole time she’s asking me questions, occasionally looking up when it’s her turn to speak.”My kid got thrown out of his baseball game from arguing with the umpire”, the same time Dad is off yelling at the opposing coach. We are the pack leaders.
As pack leaders we carry the responsibility of preparing our kids for the path by making the same choices for ourselves, we would want them to make on their own.
No parent is perfect, and I’m equally guilty in making all these mistakes. As Pack Leaders, it’s our duty to serve as a positive example and have the humility to make corrections when we struggle with our own behaviors.
Inspire Curiosity, even when it’s inconvenient.
“Stop jumping on the couch!” “Stop throwing your toys!” “No, you’re supposed to do it this way…”, are examples of statements we all grew up hearing and we say the same to our kids without thinking twice. We spend the early years of childhood raising our kids how to walk and talk, and once they start walking and talking we spend the remaining time telling them to sit down and shut up. Inspiring curiosity isn’t mastered by offering exciting speeches or motivation. It can be as simple as leaving them alone some time.
As long as physical safety isn’t compromised, let them figure out on their own what does and doesn’t work. Inspiring curiosity at an early age leads to coachable kids who will actively learn to seek out information from others who know how to do it well. It’s human nature to want to help your own child if they are struggling, and I’m not suggesting you don’t help them if they are having a hard time with their homework or learning how to hit a baseball, but when the coaching overshadows their own curiosity, it creates a real challenge with significant developmental consequences.
While I was growing up it was neighborhood pick up games, playing football in the backyard, games of tag, where kids would assemble, play, and dictate the rules on their own. Now, the games played in the neighbor’s yard have been replaced where children can only play a sport if they have a uniform and a coach to organize the whole experience. When children are raised to always follow orders, you create a generation of adults who can’t think for themselves, they fear change, and personal discovery has been muted, all of which is then acquired by the next generation.
As a Strength and Conditioning coach, I would routinely alter training sessions to play games where the kids would decide the boundaries, the rules, pick teams, and compete. Some parents would ask, “why am I paying you to let my kids play tag”? Well, I’m putting them in a competitive environment that is based on multi-directional movement, reactionary decision making, and for a brief moment in their day, I’ve given them a break from an adult telling them what to do, inspiring them to create.
Even though my children are still young, my own parenting has been criticized by others as being perceived as though I’m disengaged with them. Quite the opposite. They’re learning they can’t throw toys against the wall because the last time they did, their favorite truck broke. They’re learning they can’t take their hands off the swing or else they will fall. They learned when they hold the bat a certain way they miss, but when they hold it a different way they can hit the ball.
If you’re unsure whether you are inspiring curiosity or muting it, observe when your children make a mistake. Do they immediately turn to look at you, or do they try to figure it out on their own?
By no means am I in 100% compliance with this concept, and I still heavy sigh every time one of my kids throws a handful of food against the wall. However, the learning benefit for my children will always outweigh the inconvenience of scraping spaghetti out of the kitchen curtains.
When I was 8 years old I wanted to be a fighter pilot, so why was I out playing hide and seek with my friends and not training to enroll in flight school? A year later I wanted to be an Astronaut. After that, a Fire Fighter. Then, I wanted to be a Doctor. When I became a teenager, I wanted to be a professional athlete. As a kid, growing up with those hopes and dreams led to curiosity to explore those subjects in greater detail.
I learned about aerodynamics, physics, anatomy, and so on trying to figure out what I liked, what I was good at, and that information never goes away. For me personally, it was invaluable in helping me become a well-rounded adult. The same holds true for youth sports participation. Despite all the evidence from orthopedic surgeons, despite all the quotes and interviews done by high level coaches explaining why they prefer multi-sport athletes, why would we restrain a child to one sport?
According to the Open Access Journalism of Sports Medicine, approximately 45 million children in the U.S. are actively playing sports. With such large number of children playing, those that argue for early sports specialization have but a handful of examples of successful professional athletes (Tiger Woods, Serena, and Venus Williams) to make their case. What I have is an 80% dropout rate by the age of 15 and an ever-growing expansion of orthopedic injuries based on increasing specialized competition, and rampant mental health concerns among young athletes.
In fact, the Participation Trophy Generation has unfortunately discovered that giving every kid a trophy just for showing up, can lead to a decrease in self-esteem, an increase in depression, anxiety, and potential substance abuse. Why do we keep doing this? It is my belief that parents who seek early sports specialization do it not for the benefit of the children competing against each other, but it’s the parents who are in competition. Parents are in a race to outspend one another, boasting about their children’s athletic achievements.
If you don’t believe me, most youth sports programs have what they consider, an “Elite” level. Under what guidelines can you consider an 8-year-old soccer player “elite”, unless it’s to entice future parents to spend an exorbitant amount of dollars competing for their kids to achieve this meaningless title.
Many parents I’ve encountered over the years do not approve of my explanation. In fact, I was once in a heated discussion with a parent after providing some simple math as to how the dollars they spent trying to get their daughter an athletic scholarship was more than the dollar value of the scholarship itself.
If you want to spend that kind of money with the odds of a positive return comparable to your odds of winning the lottery, that’s your decision as a parent to make. If parents want to inspire their kids to be professional athletes, and coaches at the collegiate and professional level prefer multi-sport athletes on their roster, why does the opinion of the youth sports parent mob, or the views of a pre-adolescent travel team coach take priority?
As a former Division-1, NCAA Athlete, coach, and now parent, there is a part of me who wants to groom my children into the next sports superstars, but then I always remind myself, “is this what they want or is it what I want, and whose needs are more important?”
I wasn’t the perfect athlete, I’ve made countless mistakes as a coach, and I’ve screwed up as a parent on more than a few occasions. While I can easily look back on each of these experiences and point out all the things I would’ve done differently, things I would change, or decisions I shouldn’t have made, we all have to parent our children in a way that always embodies their best interests.
Rarely do I ever think about my past athletic accomplishments, nor do I bask in the accomplishments of athletes I’ve worked with over the years. However, I do think about the days growing up playing catch with my Dad in the backyard, the sacrifice my Mom made to work an extra job so she could afford my basketball sneakers, to now enjoying every moment of chasing my kids around the house as they crash, bang, and smash everything in sight.
We have a tremendous responsibility to develop essential skills and positive behaviors in our children, and I believe sports can be a catalyst to personal achievement.
We also have an opportunity to create a lifetime of experiences to be passed on and shared among parents and children. While I have my own methods and experiences that shape my beliefs, the choice as to what kind of experience you want to provide is yours.
This article originally appeared on Sports Medicine Weekly, with Dr. Brian Cole and Steve Kashul, on 670 The Score in Chicago.
By Will Haskell, Director of Business Development
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