Dustin Watson: Sports and your child

Dustin Watson

Heading into this school season, I thought it only right to approach an old topic of mine from a different, and hopefully more constructive, approach.

Last year, in one of my first columns, I got after parents and fans for being too raucous at sporting events. This season, I have softened somewhat, and have approached an expert in the field for some advice for the parents out there concerning your children and sports.

Mark Hyman runs a youth sports parenting Web site at www.youthsportsparents.blogspot.com and has a book coming out in April 2009 from Beacon Press called “Until It Hurts.” Mark also can be reached through his personal Web site, www.markhyman.com.

I asked Mark five questions in an effort to help my fellow parents as we head back into competitive sports seasons.

Q:  What is the best role that parents can take in the stands?

A:  The most important thing to remember is that the games are not about the adults; they are for the growth, development and enjoyment of children. It is difficult for kids to have fun if they are constantly being badgered from the sidelines. The Minnesota Youth Soccer Association asked youth players what they had observed about their parents, their coaches and about adults generally at their sports games. This is part of what the children shared: 34 percent said they had been yelled at or teased by a fan; 15 percent reported that their parents get angry when they play poorly. That’s not much fun for anybody.

Q:  How much enthusiasm is too much enthusiasm for a parent?

A:  There is no simple answer. My advice is, if you’re going to err, err on the side of being somewhat subdued. I once asked baseball great Cal Ripken Jr. a similar question. His response was fascinating. Ripken said there was never an occasion when booing at a youth sports event was acceptable - no surprise there - but that excessive cheering also could have a negative effect. “When parents go wild at a child’s good plays,” he explained, “it makes it very noticeable how quiet they become when things aren’t going well.” Cal’s advice to parents was to stay positive in a low-key way no matter what’s happening on the field.

Q:  What advice would you give any parent whose child is a “superstar” athlete?

A:  For the most part, the advice is the same to the parent of the superstar player and the child with less talent: Allow your daughter or son to pursue their interest in their own way. If they want to play in a more competitive league, let them. If they’re worn out and want to stop for a season, get behind that decision too. In short, support their choices. Another point to remember is that there are a lot of high school superstars. Guess how many high school football players ever play a down of football in college? Three percent.

Q:  What advice would you give to a parent whose child is a “bench-warmer”?

A:  There are many reasons to play sports: fitness, learning to function as part of a team, friendships, wearing your name on your back, impressing classmates. To take something positive from the experience, you don’t have to be a star or even a starter. Of course, you never know when fate will touch your child. There are many examples of players who started the season on the bench and ended as heroes.

Q:  What are signs that a parent is going too far in their criticism in the stands?

A:  Unfortunately, parents who go overboard often are the last to know. The most reliable sign that a parent’s criticism is affecting a child may be simply to observe the child closely. Is she losing her passion for sports? Does he appear burned out emotionally? Is she more prone to injury? I have spoken to several doctors who report treating young athletes whose injuries aren’t that serious, yet linger month after month. In some of these cases, the doctors believe the children are in no hurry to get better. When they recover, their parents will expect them to go back to their teams. And sports for these children isn’t much fun anymore.

I hope that this advice is helpful to everyone and that we can all take these tips with us into the stands as we support our children at sporting events. Be a fan, support your favorite team, but remember that these are children out there on the field. While criticism can be helpful, remember that these kids have feelings just like you or I do. If the kid blows the play, remember, he/she may go on to cure some disease some day, and that loss will mean nothing in the long run.

Dustin Watson is the Linn County (Mo.) Leader’s sports editor and can be reached at lclsports@shighway.com.