From the Field: Q/A with the Doc – Parenting Kid Athletes

by Stephen Walker, PhD, CC-AASP, USOC Registry of  Sport Psychologists

Question:    “My 13-year-old son is really getting into soccer.  I want to support him in this endeavor, but am not sure of the best way to do that?   Should I go to every game?    He is at an age where he says he doesn’t want us around all the time, but I see all these other parents there, coaching their kids from the sidelines and even sticking up for their kids by yelling at the ref when a call doesn’t go their way.  How I can best be a supportive parent?”

Answer:   Thanks for asking such a good question.  Anyone who has been on the field during a sporting event has seen a variety of role models for kids in sport, both fabulous and horrible. I’m going to focus on the best practices for parents here – so you have a good idea as to how you can best help your child during the season and specifically during and after a contest.  Sporting events can be all-consuming and fans can be great or problematic.  How you do will depend on whether you can keep the proper perspective in mind.  So from get-go ask yourself what your goal is for your child.

If your purpose is for them to have a good time, get some exercise, learn some skills, and make friends – it’s going to be pretty hard to lose. How you assess the experience (for both of you) will boil down to whether you – and your child’s goals are met.

I love the fact that sports provide kids with the opportunity to learn all kinds of life lessons.  They learn how to train, compete, honor commitments, develop physical and mental stamina, how to communicate with their teammates and coaches, and all kinds of things about teamwork.

The worst outcome in a sporting experience occurs when a child feels like a victim – and that they believe others are responsible for their misfortunes.  How kids learn to participate in life is mirrored in how they play sports.

Coaches are very important influences and as a parent, you might want to do some research to make sure your child has a coach who does things right.  You can find some excellent guidelines on how to pick a coach at:  Once you pick the coach, you will turn your child over to them for the proper guidance, skill building and fun experience you wish for them.  Most of all, once that decision is made its really important to let the coach do the coaching.

Bad influences are everywhere.  Folks who yell and blame refs, or coaches have lost perspective and can be awful to be around.  They often try to influence the experience by ‘weighing in on playing time, positions, tactics, practice and game plans.  They tend to be way too concerned with winning and can be heard yelling instructions from the sidelines.  These are the poorest practices in athlete parenting.

The best parents encourage, make sure their child is fueled properly for practice, are punctual and let the coaches do their job.  They remain calm yet positive – and are quick to recognize the growth in skills talent and joy in ‘every’ child.

Great parents are calm by example…they keep things light, use humor and laughter to increase the joy in the experience…and make it a point to have fun themselves.  Again, you’re not in the dentist’s chair having a root canal – so enjoy and accentuate the positive.

During games – great parents applaud the “effort”, cheer for both teams, and set an example of sportsmanship for the refs coaches and other parents.  They are detached enough from the result that even in a close loss they can say – “What a great game!  How exciting was that?”  A win is great but recognizing a great effort is better….why? Because your child can control their effort – yet may not be able to control the outcome of a contest.

After the game the best parents “Thank” their kids for giving them the opportunity to have fun with them.  They don’t force feed an analysis of the game, players performances or coaching moves…or even a discussion over a “bad call” by a referee.  Great parents have a great snack at the ready and make sure their child is properly hydrated after the contest.  More than anything, win or lose, they let their child know that they are loved.  If everybody had fun, then the experience was a great one….likely to be repeated.

As children get older and the caliber of play becomes more sophisticated, these principles will still apply.  More and more of the experience and quality of lessons learned will come down to how your athlete develops a healthy attitude toward competition and their sport. My job is to help each athlete develop a positive mental attitude, learn to manage stress before during and after competition, discover how to productively work with strong emotions, turn negatives into positives, develop healthy “self-talk” on and off the field, and learn how to make the most from the experience. Great parents make this job easy and fun – and the lessons learned will help throughout a lifetime.

2 thoughts on “From the Field: Q/A with the Doc – Parenting Kid Athletes

  • April 6, 2010 at 12:01 pm

    Hello Dr. Walker!
    I loved your article “Parenting Kid Athletes”. I love that it asks what is your goal for your child. Very important (and also problematic if your goal, and your child’s goal, are different?).

    I wonder, however, about the comment about making sure your child has the right coach. As a hockey mom, unless I or my husband coach (and since we have three kids, we can’t do that for every team), we don’t really have a say in who coaches our kids. In fact, if we want our kids to play hockey, we are likely to have coaches with philosophies very different than our own.

    Do you have advice for navigating these situations? Another positive aspect of sport is teaching children to listen and respect their elders(coaches). Sometimes, though you might disagree…


    • April 6, 2010 at 8:00 pm

      Thanks for your comments T – I really appreciate the sense of commitment you have for your kids and their coaches. Hockey is one of those sports where background, experience, attitude and philosophies will play out in every practice game and tournament. I coach a lot of goalies, and finding coaches that have a clear understanding of what good defensive support is above and beyond back checking is by no means guaranteed. Finding one that ever spent any time in goal is even more rare, yet every coach and every team will learn to rely heavily on who minds the net. I’ve had AAA goalies ranked #1 and #2 in the state want to quit hockey altogether after just one season with a coach who had such little understanding of good defense that they were left out to dry game after game. Truly sad. Obviously, there are some locales where there is very little choice here – yet others where a little research can go a long way. Interviewing one or two coaches at the prospective stage in decision making can make a big difference. Just knowing you care about such things may help all by itself.

      But once the decision is made, any problems you have with the coach must be voiced outside of earshot of your player. If your child knows you don’t respect the coach – they won’t either and that can lead to problems of a different nature – maybe even worse for your child in the long run. So you’ve got to let your coach do his job – and make sure your child is with the program. If you really take offense to the coaches style, you owe it to yourself and your child to speak to the coach in private….and simply put – ask for what you want. Don’t attack, condemn or undermine – just ask for what you want. A simple straightforward request is often refreshing and helpful to all concerned. Good luck, though. As much as possible, the time for clearing the air and clarifying expectations is before the puck drops.


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