3 Ingredients for Parental Sanity in Kids’ Competitive Sports

So I developed a new rule this weekend: If watching your child play sports causes you to spew f-bombs at your own child’s team, it’s time for family counseling.

Thomas Wurtz has a great article up at CatholicMom.com on signs that competitive athletics are turning you into a monster.  After bouncing a number of thoughts off my daughter over the past several months, I’d like to suggest a few things I’ve identified that keep sports sane.

1. The Decision to Play is a Decision for Today Only

When you have a child who is interested in competitive play — as opposed to strictly recreational participation — you can quickly end up taking on massive commitments of time and money.  I don’t think this is a racket necessarily, though there are better- and worse-managed teams and leagues.  The reality is that someone has to pay for the coaches and the facilities, and if your child is the one playing, that person is probably you.  We’re so used to publicly-subsidized education that we forget all this stuff costs money.  It’s not the job of your fellow citizens to foot the bill for your child’s expensive hobbies.

Now there is a possibility that your investment in your child’s athletic career will lead one day to a college scholarship or some other big prize.  That may even be your child’s goal — why not?  There’s nothing wrong with setting personal goals and trying to achieve them.

But watch out: If you are married to that goal, you will soon hate your child.

Soon, your child will have a bad game, or get distracted, or come up against a more committed or more talented competitor.   Furthermore, your child might get a few years down the path and decide to change goals.  Perhaps it wasn’t a realistic plan. Perhaps your child develops a new interest, or decides that the commitment required to continue at an elite level isn’t worth the trade-offs.

If you wish to be sane, every time you lay down your savings to fund the next season or set aside your evenings and weekends to attend games, you have to be confident that it’s worth the expenditure even if it is only for right now.

Even if tomorrow my child gets permanently sidelined through some terrible misfortune, it was worth the investment for what she received in formation today.  Even if tomorrow my child loses all interest and turns to a life of stamp-collecting, it was worth the investment for what she received in formation today.

If you are unable to walk away with no regrets, you aren’t ready to make this commitment.

2. Don’t Spend More Than You Can Afford

“We gave up everything for you!”  “We’ve spent all this time and money for you, and that’s how you play??”

When I see parents berating their children after a game, I often see evidence of strain.  The parents have chosen to spend more money or more time than they could afford, and now they resent their child for failing to pay back the loan.

Is it really fair to hold your child responsible for your poor ability to manage your resources?  Does your child really have to make up for your bad budgeting by bringing home so many trophies in compensation?

You are the grown-up.  It is your responsibility to live within your means.  The education you give your children isn’t a business deal, it’s your gift to them.

By all means, choose gifts your child is able to appreciate and benefit from.  If your child isn’t growing into a better person through the gift of sports, find a different gift next season.  But don’t blame your child for failing to pay back a loan you never should have taken out in the first place.

3. Own Your Decisions

Sure, any of us parents might grumble and roll our eyes a little when we have to drag ourselves out of bed at some ridiculous hour on a Saturday morning in order to get to the game.  That’s different from behaving as if your child is somehow the one heading the family and setting the schedule.

You made the decision to sign the forms allowing your child to play.  You made the decision to pay for the coaching and equipment and the travel expenses.  You made the decision to adhere to the schedule and give over your time.  You aren’t a slave.  You freely chose this life.  Don’t blame your kid.

If you’ve set conditions on your child’s continued participation, you’re free to stick to them.  Either she practices enough at home or she doesn’t get to play again next season.  Either she advances at the agreed-upon pace, or we move on to some other activity. That’s fair.  But when you sign up at the start of the season, you’re making the decision to commit for now even if in the end she doesn’t play well enough to continue.

If you can’t be at peace with the reality that your child might not meet your expectations, don’t sign up.  No matter what standards you set, implicit in your agreement is the possibility your child won’t meet the standards, and therefore the agreed-upon consequence will follow.  If your idea of a fair agreement is that your child is going to be cussed out and belittled for failing to meet spec, now’s a good time for that family counseling.

Do You Have to Be Mean In Order to Get Your Child to Perform?

No.  If your child is not largely self-motivated, competitive sports are a bad idea.  It’s possible that you have a child who will respond to your threats and bitterness by practicing harder in a desperate attempt to earn your love or shut you up, but that’s not the relationship you’re trying to cultivate.  Sports aren’t worth destroying your connection with your child.  Doing hard things together ought to draw you closer to each other, not farther apart.

If your child does want to perform well, but perhaps sometimes lacks the discipline to follow through on her goals, then it’s fair to provide some back-up assistance in the self-control department.  “You said you wanted to get better, and we agreed that twenty minutes of working on your skills every afternoon was the way to do that.  So please put your phone away and go outside and practice.”  No need to yell.  No need to carry on.  If it’s making you or your child angry, something’s wrong.

Friendly parent-coaching does require you to substitute fear and intimidation for consistency and self-control.  We parents are limited in how much of the latter we have to give.  It’s possible you are unable to provide the amount of loving help your child needs in order to perform well.  In that case, reconsider whether competitive sports are the best way to spend your family’s time.

File:Sprint 100 m - track and field painting of Raffaello Fabio Ducceschi.jpg

Artwork by Raffaello Fabio Ducceschi (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.  See the whole collection here.

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