Helping our Kids become Athletes for Life

By Petra Goldner Jan 26, 2024

As parents of 3 young daughters (7, 10 & 12 yrs old), many of our Saturdays are spent on the sidelines of lots of soccer fields & basketball courts.  It’s a little crazy (“Ok… I’ll go to Emme’s game, then meet you at Tatum’s game, then you can take Sloane over to her game, etc”) but we love it.  I’m sure this sounds familiar to many of you.

As much as we enjoy watching the girls play, the topic of youth sports can be complicated and sometimes stressful as parents.

In this post I’m going to attempt to outline some of the problems I’ve seen in youth sports and then outline 13 suggestions for helping parents raise an “athlete for life”, meaning a kid that loves sports, enjoys it and then out of habit wants to be athletic their entire life.  I’m writing this post through the lens of a dad that’s experienced youth sports for 7 years or so, not an expert by any means.

I’m trying to learn about the topic and help our daughters navigate it as they grow older. The goal is to clarify my thoughts on the topic through writing this along with some follow up posts and  hopefully you can find some value in it too.

When I decided to learn more about the topic I sought out some podcasts and books on the topic. The vast majority of the suggestions below come from a book I found really valuable called “Changing the Game” by John O’Sullivan.  I highly recommend the book for anyone, coach or parent, involved with youth sports.

My next step, after this post, is to talk to people that have been down this road before.  If you know of any coaches, league administrators, parents, teachers, trainers, etc that you think could help me in my future posts on this topic please connect them with me!  (my contact info is below)

Ok let’s jump in…

The Problems with Youth Sports

One tenet of this blog as a whole is we will focus only on things that are positive, not negative.  (Plenty of online sources for negativity already available to you, right?) That said, I have to outline some of the common problems with youth sports before we can jump into the suggestions section of how we can improve as parents and coaches.

Here are some of the issues making sports less fun for our kids:

  • Parents incessantly “coaching” their kids from the sideline.  This one was easy to put at the top of the list.  We’re typically well intentioned as parents, but no one hired us to be coach and when 20 parents are yelling at the kids instructing them on what to do we’re sucking the joy out of the game for them.  Not to mention they can’t hear their coach, who actually is in the position to tell them what to do.
  • Parents overly focused on winning rather than having fun and learning.  This one is harder to admit as parents, but when we lose does it affect the mood on the car ride home?  (Note:  In proof reading this last sentence I just noticed I wrote when “we” lose…am I wearing a jersey or playing?  No.  This is not my game, it’s the kid’s game.  Just shows I’m a little guilty of being too into the game myself)  Are we blaming others (the ref, the coach, other players, etc?) when things don’t go well? As coaches of 8 year olds do we keep our best players in the game towards the end to win the game rather than making sure we give even playing time so all the kids can develop? An over-emphasis on tournaments, awards, scoring goals and winning at a young age can take away the focus from fun and player development.  This focus on winning is in large part driven by parents that hope their kids get scholarships to play in college.  According to the aforementioned book, 3-5% of high school kids will play college sports and only a small percentage of those kids will get a financial scholarship.  Yet in polls of parents with youth athletes 30 – 50% of them think their kid will be good enough to earn a scholarship.  (We’re delusional when it comes to assessing our kid’s talent!)
  • Parents going “all in” on a sport at a really young age.  I hear about quite a few kids that practice 5-6 days a week, traveling to tournaments and essentially playing one sport almost year round at really young ages.  When I hear that I wonder if I’m not doing enough to help the kids and guilt can creep in.  I also wonder if those kids really want that much of that sport or if it’s more parent-driven.  Can’t this lead to burn out or overuse injuries at a young age? I really don’t know the answers, these are just things that go through my head.
  •  Coaches not instructing kids when they act inappropriate I’ve refereed a lot of youth games over the last seveal years (just the little kids, they don’t know when I mess up) and I’ve seen over-aggressive players knocking everyone over or being really rude and then I don’t see the parents or coaches working with that child to let them know their behavior isn’t appropriate.
  • Coaches and parents yelling at referees in front of the kids.  Really, the 14 year old referee making $10/hr made a mistake and we’re going to yell at him in front of the kids?  (Ashamed to say I’ve done this a few times when coaching but only when I was high on cold brew from Starbucks…I can’t be held responsible.)
  • Kids are quitting sports early in life because adults have sucked the fun out of it. This last one is really the biggest problem and a culmination of the other issues.  If we make sports miserable for them and they quit early they don’t become athletes, they don’t learn all that sports could have taught them, they don’t build the habit of exercising.  In short, they’re way less likely to be athletes for life.

13 Suggestions for helping your kids be athletes for life

Ok, we’ve established some of the issues with youth sports, so now what can we do about it as parents and volunteer coaches?  Here are 13 take-aways from the book I referenced above, restated in my own words based on my experiences with my daughters up to this point.

  1. Step back and create a vision for what we hope our kids gain from sports.  As with anything in life, we need to be intentional about the “why”.  Why do we have our kids in sports? What do we want them to learn?  What characteristics to we want them to develop through the ups and downs they’ll experience?  If we can step back as parents and coaches and put these values and goals down on paper for our kids (with our kids) we can then use that vision as our guide.  The vision should drive our actions.  For example, maybe your daughter is 8 and you join a team with a coach that has a “win at all costs” attitude.  Does it fit your vision for what matters for your daughter?  If not, keep looking for other other teams.  Have a vision and know what you want for your kids.  They’ll be done playing sports before you know it and they won’t remember the games but they’ll have the friends they made and the values that you helped them foster. “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there” – Lewis Carroll.
  2. Make sports about having fun and developing your skills, not winning!  As parents that means let’s be mindful about what we focus on during and after games.  If we weren’t at the game when they get home do we immediately ask “who won?”  or “did you score a goal?”.  I know we don’t mean any harm, we’re just trying to get them to tell us about the game, but our questions signal to them what matters.  Maybe we could ask other questions like “did you have fun?” or “what was tough in the game today that we can work on next week?”  Those parents that keep the focus on having fun and getting better bit by bit (rather than winning) will foster a love for sports in their kids that will keep them involved longer.  Games are just another chance to work on your skills and have fun.  (This approach takes so much pressure off the kids!)
  3. Love your kids unconditionally.  Of course we love them unconditionally, right?  I really think we do, but sometimes if we’re in a bad mood after they lose or don’t play well that can send the signal to them that our love is conditioned upon their performance.  Maybe we’re not saying anything negative to them, but do they hear us as parents complaining about the loss, the coach’s decisions, the ref’s bad calls, their lack of playing time, etc?  Or maybe our body language is just negative after a loss.  All this can tell the kids we’d be happier if they would have won.  Our happiness should not hinge at all on their game and their performance.  Be the adult, be positive and keep those values you’re trying to instill in your child in mind when things don’t go well.
  4. Don’t coach or criticize your kid on the drive home.   I’m guilty of this one.  As parents I think it’s natural that we want to review the game on the drive home.  I learned from this book that this is the worst time to talk to your child about the game or what they could have done better.  They’re physically tired, emotionally drained and not in a good space mentally to take anything that potentially feels like criticism.  Let’s let them cool off, let’s be positive for them and then during the week we can bring up areas we can work on with them.  Now when they get in the car they’re just gonna know you’re on their side, you enjoyed watching them and you’re proud of them.  (no matter what!) Way more fun!
  5. Teach your kids about the growth mindset vs the fixed mindset. Sports provides an excellent venue to teach your kids about a growth mindset vs a fixed mindset.  After raw talent, which we don’t control, mindset is the next biggest factor in creating a high performing athlete.  Yet we neglect to teach it!  We jump into drills and skills and forget to slow down and teach them about being open to risk, being ok failing at things and then continuing to strive to get better.  Mindset isn’t a tell-them-once-and-you’re-done lesson, it’s something you as a parent or youth coach could talk about with them throughout the season. If you do you can take away the fear of mistakes and the pressure to perform, which will lead to way more fun and confidence building that comes with sticking with things as you improve.  (Sound interesting?  Carol Dweck’s “Mindset” is the book you’ll want to read to learn more.)
  6. Don’t miss out on the teachable moments sports provide.  Sports is a perfect microcosm of life in general.  There are life lessons to be learned everywhere which teach characteristics we all want for our children.  Tough loss?  Life lesson about dealing with failure.  Coach made a decision you didn’t like?  Life lesson about working with people you don’t always agree with.  Wanna go to a sleepover rather than get rest for your tournament?  Life lesson about commitment.  I could go on for pages.  But sports only sets the table for life lessons, it’s on us as the adults to look at each situation and find the lessons.  Then we should weave in the lesson where we can without beating them over the head with lessons.  Remember this is supposed to be fun!
  7. Help your kids with different types of goals.  I think sports are a big opportunity to teach our kids about goals.  What I learned in the book is we need to help them have big audacious goals (“I want to win the tournament”) but also “process goals” like “I will practice dribbling 30 minutes each week outside of basketball practice” or “I will make 25 free throws in the alley 5 nights a week after dinner” or whatever it is they want to work on.  Big goals are great, but your kid doesn’t control that goal.  The process goals are the ones they can fully control and really this is where the emphasis should be.  These are goals that will help your kid build competence which will help them build confidence which will only stoke the fire they have for sports.  (and then who knows…maybe they win the tournament.)  By the way, good starting goals for very little kids can be as simple as have fun, work hard and be committed to your team.  Don’t overcomplicate things too early.
  8. Teach your kids they’re competing against themselves yesterday, not other people.  You can’t control the outcome of games, just focus on your part and being the best you can every time you step on the field.  With that focus you won’t be as nervous about the outcomes you don’t control.  Plus every kid has a different scale of success and we need to be realistic about where they’re at in their development.  If they haven’t developed physically and they’re comparing themselves to kids that have they’re going to feel bad about themselves and want to quit.  If we have them just trying to focus on getting a little better than the last time we can help them avoid those comparisons.
  9. Just enjoy the games and relax on the sidelines.  (basically just shut up…is that too harsh to say here?)  When you’re at the game you can either be a fan, the coach or the ref.  Pick which one you’re going to be beforehand and then stay in your lane.  Your kid doesn’t need you coaching from the sideline, they have a coach.  Plus you have them all week at home, coach them then if you’d like, I bet they’d love your help working with them on their skills down the street at the park when no one is around. At the game let’s just cheer and encourage them so they can just have fun.  And if this sounds too preachy I’m sorry, I’m guilty of trying to instruct them too.  I know we just want them to succeed and it’s hard to not coach.  It’s hard when you see what they should be doing and you want to help, but you’re truly not helping.  You’re confusing them, adding pressure on them and not allowing them to hear their coach. Let’s just let them play.
  10. Give your kids specific praise for their efforts.  Kids are smart and if we give them praise like “good job Emme” that probably doesn’t do much for them. It actually doesn’t even tell them we were paying attention.  Praise them about specific efforts they put into their sport that day that you appreciated.  (notice I said praise the efforts, not the outcomes like goals or wins!) If what you praise them for also fits into things you’ve been working on with them or the core values you’re trying to teach them (remember the vision thing back in item #1 above) even better!  For example, maybe the ref made a terrible call and your kid didn’t argue, they just accepted it and kept playing hard.  Praise them for that!
  11. Don’t coach your own kid too much.  Coaching your own kid is really fun, but from everything I’ve read and listened to so far it’s a tough situation for all involved.  Often times you coach your own kid too hard or too light and feelings can get hurt.  It may be best to just help your kid find the best coaches and then you can work with them on the side as needed.
  12. Don’t write off kids as “unathletic” too early, they may be a late bloomer!  I haven’t been doing this long but I’ve seen kids that had seemingly had no interest in sports or apparent natural talent really blossom just a few seasons later.  We have to remember all of this is new to them, just like learning a subject in school, so it may take time for things to click.  So as a parent if your child isn’t immediately good at something give it time and see if you can help them build skills to grow confidence.  It would be a bummer to have them miss out on all sports has to offer just because we didn’t give them the time they needed to grow into it.
  13. Make the most of the time in the car with your kids.  As all sports parents know, there is going to be a lot of time in the car together with the kids.  It’s easy to see this as a negative as a parent (it can be a grind.. we all feel like we’re running a driver service some Saturdays) but if we change our mindset this can be great time with the kids.  Done right, this can be time for good conversations with them.

Hopefully you’ve found at least a few nuggets in this list of suggestions.

Reading this book has helped me a ton.  My goal now is to work with my wife and daughters to come up with the vision for their sports experience and what we want out of it.  Hopefully we can help them find the right opportunities, support them well along the way and help them become athletes for life.

As I mentioned above, my next step is to talk with parents, coaches, etc who have gone through this whole youth sports process before to see what we can learn from them.  So please, feel free to connect me with these people!  I’ll share what I’ve learned with you as I go.

Petra Goldner

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