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Now, like any sport parent, I can easily recite the many benefits of kids' participation in minor sports – and none of us requires a sports psychologist to further articulate that something that can be so good for our children also has the potential to do a great deal of harm. Sometimes even veteran sport parents get so wrapped up in the impact that coaches and other parents might have on our kids that we forget to think about our own involvement. Involvement that undeniably has even more potential to make or break our kids' experience and enjoyment in sporting activities, often in ways we have not considered.
How to be a good sport on the sidelines
Some minor sport leagues have implemented "silent games," which forbid verbal participation from spectators. The goal is not only to hush the parent who inappropriately disagrees with the referee or coach, but also to eliminate coaching interference from the sidelines, which some players find confusing since they already get advice from their coaches.
But do those of us who know that hollering insults is absolutely unacceptable also know that sideline coaching and other actions might not be the most ideal or effective ways to support our young athletes?
Respect in Sport is a Calgary-based organization that urges sport parents to take a look at how their own behaviours and interactions with their kids have an impact. Cofounder Wayne McNeil stresses that the organization's efforts are not actually focused on "catching the bad guys," but rather focus on "providing parents with a positive, proactive tool to become even better sport parents, regardless of sport or activity."
Here are a few common opinions that you may identify with, and based on the insightful and practical advice of Respect in Sport, a different way of looking at each, to help us all recognize, maintain, model and encourage a culture of respect in kids' sports.
For the parent who thinks winning is everything
"But I don't want my kids to settle for second best. The real world has winners and losers, so why do we candy coat that fact?"
Something new to consider: Indeed, the real world has winners and losers, and your kids will be among both groups at different times in their lives. Respect in Sport emphasizes that the process – fun, teamwork and activity – is both the enjoyable part of the game and the reason why athletes play.
The outcome of the game is quickly forgotten and isn't a big part of who your kids become – but the way they deal with a win or a loss most certainly is. Make a point of helping your kids enjoy the process, without overvaluing the outcome.
For the parent who thinks criticizing their kids will help them
"Nobody knows my kids like I do, and a healthy amount of guilt or shame will help them perform better next time."
Something new to consider: It has been consistently proven that positive reinforcement is much more effective at motivating kids than negative reinforcement, both on and off the field. Fear of being rejected by you – or the suggestion that they're going to get cut from team – might produce short-term gain in your kids, but it creates long-term pain for kids who just love the game or activity, but aren't living up to their parents' expectations. Focus on points of your kids' performance that will build, not crush, their confidence.
For the parent who cheers at games, and saves the coaching for before and after the game
"I always go to the games and cheer. We also discuss strategies before the game and debrief after."
Something new to consider: Are these enjoyable conversations or is your child uncomfortable with your extra "coaching" but afraid to tell you? We all want our kids to do well and to feel pride in their efforts, but we can't lose sight of the fact that having fun and enjoying the camaraderie that comes with being part of a team is what is most important. Recapping the game can be great for you and your young athlete, but reconsider your approach if there's a stressful undertone for either of you.
For the parent who thinks there are double standards for shouting
That double standard being: One for the playing field and one for real life. "Of course my kids understand that when I shout at the ref or coach at a sporting event that it's OK there, but it's not OK to yell at teachers or the clerk in the grocery store."
Something new to consider: Your kids will learn emotional discipline from those around them, but nobody's example has as much impact as yours. Younger kids especially will be confused by this behaviour, which they are likely to perceive as somewhat out of control. And really, what would you do if your 10-year-old followed your example and shouted insults or "advice" at a ref or coach?
For the parent who insists on "talking" to the coach
"I owe it to my kids to confront the coach if they're not getting enough playing time."
Something new to consider: There's nothing wrong with advocating for your kids, and not many reasonable adults would discourage a conversation about what's best for the kids he or she is coaching. However, nobody likes to be yelled at or harshly criticized. If you have an issue to discuss with the coach, McNeil recommends waiting 24 hours before having a calm and rational conversation. Also, help to establish communication between parents, coaches and players early in the season as a proactive approach, which will often answer parents' questions before they even need to be asked.
For parents with safety concerns
If you feel that your child's emotional or physical well being is at risk, if you have extreme differences in coaching philosophy with the coach, or if you have serious, objective concerns about a referee, consult with your association about appropriate steps to take. Parents have the right – and the responsibility to their children and others – to voice a concern, especially (and absolutely) if safety is in any way being compromised.
Remember that coaches aren't perfect
My family has been lucky that most of our kids' coaches have been everything we would want them to be, most of the time. We remind ourselves that there is no coach who can be all things to all people, and we do our best to appreciate the good things about each one. As an added bonus, the discussions that arise from some adverse and disappointing situations have prompted valuable learning for us as parents, as well as for our kids. Both positive and negative situations have set the stage for real-life learning and the building and enhancing of personal skills and behaviours.
And that, I think, is really the goal.