Tackling the Sports Problem

How high anxiety athletic parenting throws our kids off base.

“Dad – I don’t like baseball. I like basketball.”

“Of course you like baseball. I’m on the Little League Board.” 

Like others I spoke with for this article, the parent who passed along this anecdote requested that her name be withheld. The youth sports playing field, as it turns out, is a bases-loaded tinderbox of emotion ranging from enthusiastic support to high anxiety. Parents armed with cooler bags, coaching whistles and great plans for their elementary school-aged all stars are often well-intentioned, but their devotion may not score the right sports experience for their child. 

When did youth sports get so intense and what effect is this having on our kids?  

 Once upon a time, kids could easily walk and ride to school without much-ballyhooed pedestrian safety events; any parent over the age of 30remembers skateboarding around the neighborhood and throwing a football with a kid across the street.  

“Organized sports has risen as we’ve become more fearful of our kids’ safety,” says Carrie Cheadle, a sports psychologist and exercise mental skills coach who works with both parents and child athletes in and around Marin. 

The rise of heavy-duty parenting  and the now familiar ‘helicopter parent’ phenomenon began nearly 20 years ago, when parents began to take a more active role in their children’s college educations to the point of meeting with professors, maintaining constant phone contact and even providing regular laundry service.

Also known as snowplow or lawnmower parents who literally ‘clear the way’ for their kids, helicopters tend to be affluent, entitled and over-the-top anxious that their kids will not survive or succeed unless mom or dad runs interference.  Articles on similar subjects refer to ‘CEO parents’ and  who manage their children’s lives like a business, often tying their children’s success or ‘failure’ to their own egos. 

“It’s getting worse each year, particularly in the 7- to 12-year-old range,” says Mill Valley dad Kerry Huffman, who founded the  basketball league as well as Mill Valley Dirt Bowl Challenger, a nonprofit which brings basketball to children with special needs.  

“There is a lot of low level anxiety out there,” says a Ross Valley mom. “Why are we so hell bent on this?  What do we want for our kids?”

Parents exhibit extreme sports behavior in both directions, from the obnoxious bully who barks at the referee to the overzealous cheerleader applauding every missed goal. Neither is helpful for the child, who ostensibly is just there to play ball and hopefully build some character. 

A little league parent remembered a recent game in which a child stepped up to bat and proceeded to strike out – badly. The stands erupted in applause. “Everyone is cheering and whooping in support and the kid turns around like ‘What?’” 

The unhappy byproduct of such amped up devotion may be children who overreact to stress and are unable to manage their own lives and suffer lower self esteem. 

"We have lost our perspective and common sense,” laments one local mom whose children have been involved in a number of different sports. “We are over-read and over-anxious. There is a lot of ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t,’ especially in a sport like baseball, which is very high pressure.” 

Ben Crawford, manager of a Ross Valley Little League majors team, believes that Ross Valley’s heart is in the right place. “People work extremely hard to create a good experience for all kids.” How can parents honor this sentiment?

Sports Parents Do’s and Don’ts

Take a look at your own behavior (not as easy as it may sound). Scroll down on almost any local youth sport website and you will find links to the Positive Coaching Alliance, an organization based within the Stanford University Athletic Department whose goal is to “transform sports so sports can transform youth.” You will also find extensive Codes of Conduct to be reverently studied and adhered to.

“Sportsmanship is definitely encouraged,” says one San Anselmo parent. “It is not always modeled.” Take a good look at your own behavior on the sports field and ask yourself whether this is about your child or about you. 

Read on for a more extensive parent code of conduct and a coach’s poem from the San Rafael Youth Soccer League. 

Adopt a ‘Growth Mindset.’ Positive Coaching Alliance boardmember and Stanford University Professor Carol Dweck is breaking ground with her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, in which she identifies two different mindsets that possess enormous implications for sports parents. 

The first is the "fixed mindset" in which one sees one's ability as ‘set:’ either you are talented athletically or you aren't. Either you are smart or you aren't. This type of perspective is a dead-end, according to Dweck, because whether you succeed or not is determined by something totally outside your control.

The other is the "growth mindset." You believe in your ability to grow and improve, regardless of where you start. 'I can get smarter (or better at learning a foreign language or excelling in a sport or...) if I work hard at it.’

Dweck advises that parents change the way they praise their kids on the sports field. Rather than saying ‘Great play … you are really good!’ – a response that reinforces a fixed mindset, try ‘Wow, that was a great play. You’ve really been working hard, and it’s paying off.’ This reinforces a growth mindset that good play is a result of effort, which will more likely encourage a child to try harder in the future when faced with a challenge.

Avoid yelling at your child during the game. “There is an intensity,” says Crawford. “The kids are competing very hard. Parents will try to communicate with their players – to be as supportive as they know how.” Crawford’s most important admonishment to parents is to avoid yelling instruction to kids during a game. “Often the coaches are instructing the kids and if advice comes from three different directions it’s hard.”

“'Throw strikes!’ from a parent is just not helpful to a pitcher,” says Crawford, reminding us that this is little league, not the majors. "Yelling typically works against the players; the parent just wants the kid to succeed, but this can increase pressure that kids already feel.” 

And avoid yelling at the ref! “There is a lot of grumbling about calls,” says a little league mom. “The kids listen to that. I tell my kids to put themselves in their shoes and remember that the refs are often not much older than they are.”

“Take a good breath before opening your mouth at a game – and count to five,” says Cheadle. If there is a questionable call, parents often perceive that ‘something bad is happening to their child’ and they will emotionally respond. “In general, and this shouldn’t need to be said, when you argue with a coach, a ref or another parent, it puts your child in the uncomfortable position of either being on your side or theirs.” Cheadle advises saving the critique for a more appropriate time and place.

Don’t debrief kids right after the game. “The player is still processing the game and they are usually hungry,” says Huffman. “Simply say, regardless of whether it was a good or a bad game, ‘I sure love watching you play.’  This way you are consistent.”

Find out how your child feels about the sport. “Talk about it over a Jamba Juice – but never right before or after a game,” says Huffman. "I usually start with, ‘So what is your favorite thing to do on your [sports] team?’” He advises against asking kids what they don’t like, as that usually will come out on its own. “Try to keep it on a high note.” 

Change up your kids sports activities. The younger the athlete, the more beneficial it is to participate in many different sports, says Cheadle. The variety helps to develop different motor skills and also helps the child to know what they do and don’t like in a sport. 

“Kids start [on just one sport] younger and younger,” says Cheadle, noting that she is seeing a lot of overuse injury. “Getting involved at younger ages is fantastic,” she says. “But there are many things you need to consider when kids start young, including their emotional maturity. Having just one sport can bring a lot of pressure – and kids often feel that their parents’ love is contingent upon that.”

Huffman notes that sports like soccer are now offered year-round, with the potential to be all-consuming. “My opinion is that no kid should play one sport until they are a sophomore or junior in high school. It’s okay for kids to play multiple sports in a year.” 

“Kids are trying to find something they are passionate about,” says Huffman, "And sports are good on so many levels – academically, psychologically and physically.” 

Remember that ‘failure’ is essential to growth. Cheadle advises that while no parent likes to see their child suffer, striking out or missing a shot is part of the experience. “How can we be okay with this?” she says. “Mistakes and errors are too often stigmatized, but in fact we need this in order to learn.”

We gain a lot from losing, says Huffman, who emphasizes that sometimes only a game situation will reveal the things that players need to hone in practice.

Coaches and parents will often give lip service to this sentiment, says Cheadle, “but then their actions don’t follow along." One of the biggest things we can do for young athletes is to import truly that mistakes are how we improve performance. Then, kids will in fact set goals that are more challenging and they will be willing to push themselves further.

Know the Score

Huffman understands the importance of winning – (“all sports have a score and the objective is to match your score against the other team’s.”) But there is something larger at stake. “The life lesson is commitment (practice), sportsmanship, being a good winner (humility) and being courageous in defeat.”

“There will be tough calls, and situations where a player strikes out with bases loaded,” says Crawford. “Learning how to accept the highs and lows and know the sun comes up the next day either way – that’s helpful for kids.”  


Positive Coaching Alliance

National Council on Youth Sports

Carrie Cheadle, M.A., Sports and Mental Skills Coach 


Desert Rat May 15, 2011 at 03:24 PM
Mill Valley Little League offered a Positive Coaching Alliance seminar to all coaches, as well as the short booklet. As a coach and a parent in the league I can't say enough about how well the book simply presents the important areas to focus for coaching in order to make sports a better experience for kids - personal mastery vs. winning, effort vs. results, respect for the game/umps/players/coaches, positive reinforcement, etc. It should be recommended reading for coaches (and parents) in all youth sports to ensure kids enjoy the sport while they are trying to improve their skills.


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