As youth sports parents, we strive to provide our children the best possible experience with the goal of developing them while creating excitement to come back next season. There are many factors involved in creating the best environment, but we often overlook the most important one – ourselves.
The full experience starts long before a player steps foot on the playing field. Every child is different and develops at varying rates so the more we understand our children’s capabilities and needs, the better positioned we’ll be to set them up for success, which at the earliest of ages is determined by the size of their smile!
So, what can you do to create a positive experience for your youth athlete? Here are a few suggestions that may seem obvious, but will have a big impact:
Nobody knows your child better than you. How well do they listen or respond to instruction? What gets them excited and what creates anxiety? Are they advanced for their age physically, mentally, socially, or emotionally, or do they trail behind their peers in some areas?
Keep tabs on how much self-learning and practice they’re doing as this might be an indicator of their overall interest. How well do they understand the sport their playing, and the instruction they’re getting from their coach? Are they motivated to get better, just want to keep up, or do they just have fun playing with friends?
Knowing these basic characteristics of your child can have a big impact on their sports career. They often won’t willingly share these feelings, so it’s up to you to identify behaviors and analyze how best to work with them.
Some youth sports parents don’t need this advice – and in fact, some could benefit from taking a step or two back. However, it’s extremely important for parents to stay engaged with their child AND coaches throughout the season. Just do it responsibly.
Talk to your child’s coaches before the season and help them understand your child better. (If you’ve stayed aware, this should be simple). As a coach myself, I fully appreciate the parents who take the time to share with me how best to connect with their child, as well as what their expectations are for the season. Creating simple goals for each player that are individualized to their situation can make them feel a sense of accomplishment, no matter their abilities.
During the season, ask your child questions to show that you’re interested and want to be part of their experience. Keep it simple. Are you having fun? What did you learn at practice today? Are you making friends with your teammates? What’s your favorite position?
The answers to these questions might teach you more about your child, helping you find ways to keep them motivated and excited throughout the season. And by periodically checking in with coaches, you can exchange knowledge from both sides as your child progresses in many aspects.
Then, as the season ends and players, coaches, and parents part ways, take the time to get feedback from your coaches. Don’t just focus on their physical capabilities. Ask for Coach’s opinion on qualitative things like did they work hard in practice? Were they a leader to their teammates? Did they ask for help when they didn’t understand something?
Attitude is everything. The mere expression on your face when your child walks off the field can have a significant impact on their self-confidence. So, tuck away the stresses from the day, put on a smile, and accentuate the positive.
No player is perfect so every child has room to improve. But if you focus on these areas, it will start to feel like ‘work’ to your child. Start the conversation by pointing out their strengths and how they help their team. You can give them tips on areas that need improvement, but make them suggestions with a positive outcome that resonates with them.
Use the word “we” instead of “you.” Be part of their development process and show them you’re there to support them any way you can. As their role model, the more you can lead by example and not just lecture, the more apt they may be to listen and challenge themselves to improve.
And, of course, encourage them when they realize they’ve learned something new or mastered a skill they’ve been practicing. This generation of kids need more continuous praise and feedback, so let them know you’re seeing their progression and are proud of them.
Let ‘em Play!
Finally, let them be kids. Let them fail, help them up and get them back in the game. Emphasize the “fun” element of sports and let nature take its course with their physical development.
I’ve heard complaints from players about practice because they’re often too structured, focus heavily on skill development and not enough on fun. Some coaches believe they need to use every second of practice to improve players’ skills, leaving “fun” for off the field. Unfortunately, you may not be able to change that, but you can help in other ways.
Get them outside playing. Unstructured play, particularly at early ages, provides great benefits that we tend to ignore. Giving kids the freedom to make their own game encourages creativity while fostering social skills. Encourage them to find some friends, get out in the yard, and toss/kick/hit a ball around and you’ll be amazed by the games they come up with!
“No FUN” is #1. Recent studies show that the top reason kids quit sports is because it isn’t fun anymore. This should be alarming to parents and coaches and force us to evaluate our priorities. If it’s really all about the kids, make sure you create an environment that is suitable to them. There’s certainly a time and place to be more intense with players as there’s a lot to learn from adversity and hard work, but if we ignore the need to incorporate elements of fun we’ll continue to lose youth athletes along the way.
At Smash Routes, we’ve created a new way for teams to keep it fun while still increasing the knowledge level of athletes learning the sport. By providing players a mobile game that will teach them the basics of the sport, as well as their own team playbook, you’ll find they spend
more time learning as they can control their environment and move at their own pace.