I meet lots of parents in my line of work. Out in the midwest, the best thing about life is how nice the people are. Yet, not all parents approach the sporting careers of their children in the right way. Having been through a relatively long relationship with baseball and my parents, I know what parental attributes further a child’s career and which ones potentially derail it.
An emotionally healthy athlete is one who plays his sport because it adds joy to his life, not because he feels forced into it. Here’s a list of some of the things I find relevant in raising a young athlete.
Let Them Play Because They Want To
There’s nothing worse than a parent who wants something from his or her child or has their own emotions invested in their career. My parents never cared whether or not I played baseball. They took me to games and was happy I was happy.
I knew I could quit at any moment and not get a word of protest from either of them, as long as I was sure my own happiness would increase by quitting. I enjoyed playing, so I kept playing.
Who cares what sport your son or daughter plays? Who cares if they suck or succeed at it? The only thing that matters is that it enriches their lives and adds to their overall happiness. Sports are “good” for a kid only as long as those conditions are met.
2. “Do You Want to Practice?” vs. “We’re Going to Go Practice.”
My other teammates along the way weren’t so lucky. I could always tell how unhappy some of my more advanced teammates and competitors were, being forced into playing more games or practicing for endless hours. The fun got sucked out of the game by their parents pushing them to become more skillful.
I was always the one pushing to go play, and never felt burned out because of it. Lots of good players quit because video games were fun (no parental instruction needed) and baseball wasn’t. I didn’t blame them, based on how their parents acted.
Some people don’t understand how boring sports practice can be, and how mentally draining they are when they aren’t fun. Take it from a starting pitcher – being in the outfield shagging balls for hours and doing PFPs is terrible; I hate those activities. In fact, I hated most aspects of my job preparing to pitch…
4 days of watching games, running and practicing but not playing? It wasn’t fun, But, I still enjoy the game enough to volunteer for them. Kids who are subjected to too much of this monotonous practice too early burn out. They end up playing video games, choosing other sports, smoking pot or whatever – anything other than more of the sport. I’ve seen this with countless good ballplayers.
Kids figure out cause and effect relationships in sports much faster than we give them credit. Too much feedback, too much “you’re doing this;” “don’t forget to do that;” “keep your elbows up;” whatever, is not productive. It gets really, really annoying hearing the same things over and over.
Even if it’s true that your mechanics are faulty, it’s not true that someone hounding you to fix them is the solution; frustration mounts and things come to a head. The result: a bad taste in one’s mouth regarding that sport, and resentment toward practice.
When I coach young kids during strength and pitching exercises, I do so knowing that they likely won’t get it perfect – the body control is usually not there. I make sure they have the big safety cues down first; after that if they arent getting it, but ARE safe, I let them go and wait for another time to make further corrections.
Overcorrecting makes people feel incompetent, and when you make able people feel broken they aren’t motivated to continue trying.
4. Yelling at Your Child
I remember seeing one father berate his daughter so badly last year over her practice batting performance (it’s practice, for god’s sake) that I really, really wanted to turn the pitching machine on him. I can’t imagine what would compel me to raise my voice so rudely toward a young girl trying her best. It’s baffling.
5. Advertising Them; Adding Undue Pressure
I remember talking to a former teammate in college who was very good, young. He was heavily scouted and on track to be very rich once he reached draft eligibility. I could tell early on that he was uncomfortable with the role his father took in his current and impending success.
He told me specifically how his Dad took him out to eat one day and let him sign the check. As he handed the check to waitress, his father’s comment was “save that! That autograph is going to be worth a lot of money some day!” That statement, while an extension of a proud father, was also another drop in the big bucket of expectations.
The bucket was built out of pride and excitement, but proved destructive nonetheless. He never seemed happy playing the game with all that weight placed upon him. Late night conversations often revealed it.
When you have sky-high expectations, it can suffocate an otherwise focused, driven person. Suddenly an athlete can find himself trying too hard, forcing the issue instead of relaxing and playing the game in the way he used to know how; the way that made him successful in the first place.
It’s great if your little girl grows up to be an Olympic athlete making millions of dollars; if not, big deal? She’s still a person and isn’t broken if she fails. Building expectations so high can make a person fraught with fear knowing that only improbably-great success is acceptable.
6. Telling Them What They Did Wrong
I had my first experience of being crushed by baseball this year. I played so bad at one point that my job was in jeopardy and I wasn’t able to be my normal, optimistic “I-can-get-better” self. I hated the game for how cruel it was being to me. What didn’t I need at that point? Another person pointing it out.
I cannot recall a single incident in my entire 17 years in baseball in which my mother or father had a negative critique on my performance. Good or bad, they always let me do the talking (or not talking, if I played poorly) and shared an aspect of my performance that they thought was good. It reminds me of a classic Simpsons episode:
Homer learned that he was dying; before going to bed in his rocking chair to pass away, he went to each of his sleeping children’s rooms and whispered what he loved about them into their ears. He told Maggie how she was going to grow up and be so sweet and pretty, Lisa how smart and talented she was. Then, when sitting by Bart, Homer scratched his hairless head and whispered: “I like your sheets.”
When you’re already in a shitty mood, replaying your failures in your head, hearing it again from a parent only makes things worse. “I’m sorry you lost the game, son; here’s a list of things that you did wrong and that you can improve on.” Yeah, that’ll do the trick.
One of my friends shared a similar story: He was dating a girl who knew little about baseball. After coming in to relieve the bottom of the 11th inning, he gave up the walk-off run and lost the game. Her comment in the car? “At least you got the game over with faster!” He said he almost exploded at her, but didn’t because he knew that she was only saying that because she thought it was a positive attribute of his performance; she didn’t understand.
If a parent is always positive, then the athlete knows that at least one person still has their back. “I know you missed 9 grounders, but you were really brave letting that 10th one hit you in the cup!”
DO THIS: Make Time
If they want to play catch for an hour and track down flyballs way past dark, go do it with them. Forcing them to do too much unwanted practice is bad in the same way as not indulging them in their desire to get better.
Play catch, kick them soccer balls or toss them volleyballs even when they get too big and strong for you. I stopped playing catch with my Dad when I hit around 80 miles per hour; that day comes for all of us.
That even if you exhibit one or more of the above traits that I feel is counterproductive, it DOES NOT make you a bad parent. Most of these, yelling included, are done because the parent believes it’s in the best interest of the child. Overcoaching isn’t done with malice, it’s done with the hope that the child will improve and be successful and be happy. Just because I say it detracts from a child’s experience doesn’t make the parent a monster by any means; I’m simply putting this out there so we can all evaluate our tactics in bringing out the best in our young athletes. I know some really positive, supportive parents who are on occasion just a bit too enthusiastic about helping their kids succeed. There’s a tipping point; we have to tread lightly at times.
What To Do
Be supportive in a way that doesn’t state a preference. Children can’t make quitting a habit, but should be able to pursue equally whatever endeavors make them happy. If quitting a sport opens up an opportunity to be fulfilled by another sport or activity, then a parent should oblige them. No child should feel like he is letting down a parent making a choice that really only affects him.
Teach them fundamentals because it will increase their happiness while playing the game; no one enjoys sucking at things. Don’t force them, and don’t teach past the point of their enthusiasm. When attention spans wane, it’s probably time to head for home. Most importantly, make as much time for them as they want.
Be proud of them in ways that don’t build expectations. Bring light to their positive attributes, not their potential, ceiling or projectability. Saying “Scouts say he has a Roger Clemens fastball” is much different than saying “Scouts say he can be the next Roger Clemens.” The first displays an attribute that can indicate future success, while the latter indicates an expectation or strong possibility of future success. They’ll bloom into the next Roger Clemens only if they’re allowed to be themselves, and that self proves to be special on its own.
Be nice to them, even in failure – especially in my building. I’m very protective of my young people. Consider your strength relative to mine before you yell at your daughter for a swing-and-a-miss.
I want to thank my parents, Bill and Joann, for raising me, in sports, in what I view was the best way possible. I developed my love for the game because they allowed me to experience it on my terms. I reward them by pitching really well when they come to watch (2 Earned runs in 22 innings), amid strangers cheering for and against their no-longer-little boy. I wouldn’t be out there without them.
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