Here’s the thing about parenting: there’s not one right or wrong way to do it. What makes you a “good” parent depends on your experience and your child’s needs. Regardless, though, every parent wants their child to succeed in whatever activity or passion they pursue, and every child wants a parent to be their biggest cheerleader — both on and off the field.
“The most important thing for parents to remember with children trying sports is that it’s experimental and, like anything else in life, there are going to be successes and there are going to be failures.”
When it comes to youth sports, it’s all about having fun and fostering your child’s character, says Lauren Starnes, PhD, child development expert and chief academic officer for The Goddard School. And while tensions can get high in club soccer or Little League baseball, your support and behavior as a parent can either enhance or hurt your child’s experience.
“The most important thing for parents to remember with children trying sports is that it’s experimental and, like anything else in life, there are going to be successes and there are going to be failures,” Starnes says. “It’s important for parents to focus on the child as a person along with their character, effort, perseverance, and attempts, more so than their skills, because the skills we know come with time.”
Why It’s Important to Be a Good Sports Parent
Being a good sideline parent is so important (for you and the success of your child) because part of growing up and building healthy relationships is figuring out what a child likes or dislikes. If an environment becomes hostile or unfun, it’s going to taint the child’s understanding or perspective of the game, says Caryn MacKenzie, director of athletics and physical education teacher at The Stanley Clark School. “If parents are overly intense or yelling at each other or their kids, it takes the fun out of the game, and the child isn’t going to stay motivated,” she explains. “Be supportive and happy, and focus on the child’s experience and what they are learning.”
In other words, let the child make their own judgments and opinions on the sport. “If a child feels like their parents enjoy watching them play, and not only when they score a goal or make a great play, the child will be more motivated to keep trying,” says Starnes. And if a kid decides a sport isn’t for them, then it’s about learning from that experience. “Not all sports will turn into something bigger and better, and some may just die on the vine because they will find something else they are more passionate about,” adds MacKenzie.
Now, when a child decides a sport is not for them, it’s important to evaluate and discuss why they want to stop, says Starnes. If a different sport or activity sparks a new passion or excitement, then allow them to explore and try something new. But if they want to quit because they failed or lost a game, encourage them to stick with it because there is a lesson in follow-through, patience, and perspective. “The failures in sports are how we grow, and unfortunately, for most sports, they really are events of failure,” says Starnes. “Helping the child focus on where they were successful can recenter that perspective of win or loss.”
It’s also worth noting that too much pressure to perform or succeed can ruin a child’s confidence in the short-term and long-run, if they think success is the only avenue to support, says MacKenzie. “If parents put over-the-top expectations on something that should be a fun and healthy activity, it can wreck the experience.” Instead, a child should feel supported win or lose, because they’ll be more confident in their abilities and succeed in future games, during practice, and as a teammate, she explains.
The goal is to enjoy the moment, for however long that moment lasts, and be unconditionally supportive. “Whatever a child derives from a certain experience, it’s going to help carry the day in other aspects of life,” says MacKenzie.
Tips to Keep in Mind When Watching Your Child Play Sports
Remember that you are not the child’s coach (unless you are the coach for the entire team). “Your child’s experience should be based on the voice that instructs them at practice once or twice a week,” says MacKenzie. “If you’re on the sideline trying to coach your child, as opposed to encouraging and being supportive, then it’s a confusing and very distracting situation, particularly for younger kids.”
Think about it: if a child hears the voice of someone who they know loves them, they are likely going to listen — even if it’s the opposite of what their coach is instructing. “Kids usually want to please the adults they are surrounded by, so it’s confusing when they hear different voices,” adds MacKenzie. Instead of coaching or giving direction on how to do something better, focus on encouraging cheers.
It’s also important to think about what you say to a child before and after a game. “Before an event, it’s about helping the child become focused, having a good attitude, and being a good teammate,” says Starnes. “After the game, whether it’s a win or a loss, the most important thing a parent can say is, ‘I really enjoyed watching you play, and it made me so happy to see you engaged and trying.'”
You can also ask the child about their favorite part of the game, the overall team highlight, and what they saw as a success or good attempt, adds Starnes.
How to Become a Better Sports Parent
If your competitive side starts to swirl, it’s important to stop and take a breath before acting out to your child, the coach, another parent, or someone from the other team. “Remember that this is a game, and at the end of the day, it’s supposed to be fun,” says MacKenzie. “Let your kid enjoy the opportunity and own their experience because no child is going to have fun if their parent is yelling or screaming from the side.”
Not everything is going to be successful, and that’s OK. Instead of placing too much emphasis on skill and success in the game, it’s far more important for a child’s development to talk about how much you enjoyed watching them play, explains Starnes. “Mention how they try really hard and you notice their efforts, or how their practice is paying off,” she says. “[Talk about how] they were kind to their teammates or acknowledge when the child takes coaching from their coach.”
Ultimately, parents should focus more on effort and attempt, rather than success or failure. “Make sure the child remembers that they’re being acknowledged as a person and not just for their successes,” says Starnes. “If it’s just about the successes, then when they ‘fail’ in a future game, they might feel like they’ve disappointed the parent, and that is not the goal of sports.”