Why you need to take this pledge to keep our young athletes in this sport

A parent recently asked if I could send her “that article on losing” that I had written a while back. I had to confess that I wasn’t sure which article she was referring to because, honestly, it feels like the majority of my articles are about losing. Let the record state that I have nothing against winning. Winning motivates. Winning feels good. Winning is awesome! It’s just that in sports, you can pretty much guarantee that you’ll lose more than you’ll win. Hence, if you can’t deal productively with losing, you won’t get very far in sports.

It turned out the article requested was the one I refer to as the “Long Road” speech, which advocates for patience in sports, urging parents to help their kids take a long-term approach in learning to build good skills and a love for the sport versus rushing to get top results.

The Changing the Game Project offers another take and some data to back up the Long Road speech. Former soccer player and coach John O’Sullivan and colleagues write in their blog post “Our Biggest Mistake: Talent Selection Instead of Talent Identification” about the tendency, particularly in this country, to weed out kids from sports by creating all-star and select or elite teams at ever-younger ages. The post maintains that cultivating good skills, a love of the sport and broad participation — rather than emphasizing and rewarding early results — will eventually lead to more (and better) players in the sports we love. Talent selection yields great results today while talent identification builds elite athletes and winning teams for the future.

“Our Biggest Mistake” also refers to an eight-year study among 1,000 tennis players, ages 12 and 13, in 50 countries. The study found that the kids (including Rodger Federer and Kim Clijsters) who eventually made it into the top 100 in the world were not the ones with early success. As a group, the players who ultimately went the distance were the ones who, as tykes, were younger and smaller than their peers, played fewer matches, practiced fewer hours per week (take that, Malcolm Gladwell!) and had parents who were supportive, but not overly involved.

Oh yeah, parents, I’m talking about us again. If the movement to keep more kids in sports is going to get any traction, it has to start with us parents chilling out and releasing some of the pressure from the overcooked youth sports culture. The parent connection is further bolstered another blog (on Yahoo’s ThePostGame). “What Makes a Nightmare Sports Parent” highlights a three-decade survey by longtime coaches in which hundreds of college athletes were asked to recall their worst memories from playing youth and high school sports. Their overwhelming response was “the ride home from games with my parents.”

Ouch! I did some small-scale informal surveying and found this to be largely true. In general, kids don’t relish well-meaning parents peppering them with last-minute advice before the race, or grinding on about the day’s competition, rehashing and analyzing performance afterwards. More often than not, they get over disappointment quicker than we do and, post-competition, would prefer to revert to regular parent-child roles of negotiating music selection and what to have for dinner.

I’ll admit, balancing the dual roles of parent/coach is extremely tricky, so for me using the car ride home as my cue to zip it is an especially helpful tool.

What behaviors should you avoid to stay out of the nightmare sports parent statistics?

  • Overemphasizing sports at the expense of sportsmanship
  • Having different goals than your child
  • Treating your child differently after a loss than a win
  • Undermining the coach
  • Living your own athletic dream through your child

It’s pretty straightforward stuff that requires some self examination (especially that last one). ThePostGame also defines five traits of an ideal sports parent:

  • Cheering everybody on the team, not just your child
  • Modeling appropriate behavior
  • Knowing what is suitable to discuss with the coach (and when)
  • Knowing your role. (You’re a player, a coach, an official or a spectator. Pick one and stick with it. Parent-coaches, this is a gray area, but the car-ride cue can help)
  • Being a good listener and a great encourager

Most sports parents, even the nightmare ones, start out as reasonable people who simply, and often desperately, want our children to have the best experience possible. It’s easy to forget that this is entirely their arena to take risks, succeed and fail, while our job is to listen, support and encourage.

The Positive Coaches Alliance has a Parent Pledge, which includes using self-control, refraining from negative comments and practicing other basic good etiquette that will keep you from embarrassing yourself and your kids or injuring people in parking lots.

All of these behavioral checks make perfect sense to anyone who commits to them outside the heat of competition, which is why I suggest that skiing parents consider making some sort of pledge now, before the ground freezes.

Here are just a few hard and fast points mine would include:

  1. I will strive to never EVER cry tears of anguish over a competition. Tears of joy? All bets are off.
  2. I will let the coaches coach (unless I am the coach that day). If I have an issue with a coach I will approach in private at an appropriate time. (Note: This does NOT mean texting them when I see a DNF on Live-Timing)
  3. With every fiber of my being I will resist the urge to overshare about my child’s performances, either in person or on social networks. #cringeworthy
  4. I will encourage my child to make his or her best effort no matter what; applaud the effort regardless of the outcome; and make sure we all get dinner.
  5. I will read the “Long Road” before every season to remind myself that losing is part of the deal, and that there is indeed life after The Championships, whatever they may be.
Article Tags: Columns

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Edie Thys Morgan
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Former U.S. Ski Team downhill racer Edie Thys Morgan started her writing career at Ski Racing with the column Racer eX. She lives in New Hampshire with her husband, Chan, and their RacerNext boys.
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