Research and Best Practices
ASFM is committed to providing all students with age-appropriate and pedagogically sound programs from Nursery through Grade 12 in the areas of Academics, Athletics, the Arts and Social and Emotional Learning. To better help our community understand the foundations of our After School Sports Program, the following drop-down menu highlights important literature, books, and links for the best practices and research around athletics and youth.
Youth sports has the potential to be a wonderful, life altering, and positive experience for our children and our families. It can also be negative, and detrimental to our relationships with our children, and their own psyche. Perhaps you are here because your child is just starting in sports, or is having a great time and you want to learn how to help. Perhaps you are here because it is not going well, it is putting a strain on your relationship, and upon your family. Whatever the reason, what matters most is that you ARE HERE, and looking to make the youth sports experience a great one for all involved!
Sports parenting is an art, and for each and every child and family, there are a variety of parenting styles, methods and ideas that can all lead to the outcome of a positive sports experience. Most of us rely upon our own athletic experiences to guide us with our own kids. At times this may work great, yet at other times our children may think and act so differently then we did we can get frustrated, and be flying blind as we guide them through their own sports experience. We may have been (or still are) high achieving athletes ourselves, yet our kids may not respond the way we did to athletics. Perhaps we did not have much of an athletic career ourselves, and/or do not have find sports memories from our youth. What then? Whom do we rely on to teach us how to make our kids experiences better ones than ours? Being the parent of a young athlete is not easy, but there is hope, as long as we are not afraid to look for some guidance. In this section you will hopefully find some information that will help you with your young athletes.
We would never presume to tell anyone how to parent their own child. Rather, this section will outline for you the basic developmental principles of each age group, and the physical, social, emotional and psychological components of a positive sports experience. How you get there is completely up to you, we just want to help you recognize a few of the necessary components that may help you negotiate the journey of raising a happy young athlete.
Why Do Sports Matter?
Our children are bombarded with pop culture values that most of would probably deem negative ones (popularity, fame, self centeredness, conceitedness, materialism). Sports is among the few places where they can learn positive core values, engage in healthy risk taking, and learn life lessons in a safe environment. At a time when nearly 2/3 of all Americans are already considered ‘overweight’, and some studies project that by 2030 nearly half of Americans will be obese, children need to build the basic skills and confidence to become lifelong athletes, and learn about the benefits of activity and good nutrition. Yet 70% of kids are dropping out of organized sports by age 13! We need to do more to reverse these alarming, and dangerous trends.
Why Do Kids Play?
According to the University of Notre Dame’s Center for Ethical Education, research shows that kids play sports for the following reasons:
- To Have Fun (always #1)
- To do something I am good at
- To improve my skills
- To get exercise and stay in shape
- To be part of a team
- Excitement of competition
They do not play to win. They like to win, they enjoy competing, but they do not play to win. They play to have fun, to be with their friends, to feel good about themselves, and because it is exciting. Yet how often do we pick and choose our kids’ sports team because it is the winning team, the winning coach, the defending champion, and assume that because of all the wins everything else just happens? We look at wins and losses, and fail to search for happy faces, and proper developmental environments.
According to Dan Gould at the Michigan State University Institute for the Study of Youth Sports, kids want to have fun, to get better, and to be with their friends. They want parental support and encouragement. They want you to watch them play and praise them for their effort. They want you to be realistic about their ability. And they want you to be present, and interested in what they are doing. They do not want you to yell at their coach, the officials, and them. They don’t want you to put too much pressure on them, or be overly critical. They want the game to be theirs!
Why Do Kids Quit?
Studies also show that kids quit sports for the following reasons:
- Criticism and yelling
- No playing time
- Emphasis on winning
- Poor communication
- Fear of making mistakes
- Not learning
It is up to us as parents to make sure our children are in sports environments that accentuate the positives, and keep kids in the game. We also must be on the lookout for the items above, making sure that we are communicating with our kids about their experience. it is up to us to ensure that they are having fun, that sports is not overly critical, that they are not afraid, and most importantly, that athletics is fun!
Optimal competition calendar planning at all stages is critical to athlete development. At certain stages, developing the physical capacities take precedence over competition. At later stages, the ability to compete well becomes the focus.
Stages & recommended ratios:
- Age 0-6 - Active Start - No specific ratios - all activity based on developing physical literacy and child's passion to play and participate
- Age 6-9 - FUNdamentals - All activities FUN-based including some structured competition
- Age 8-12 - Learn to Train - 70% training to 30% competition-specific training and actual competition
- Age 11-16 - Train to Train - 60% training to 40% competition-specific training and actual competition
- Age 15-23 - Train to Compete - 40% training to 60% competition-specific training and actual competition
- Age 15-23 - Train to Win - 25% training to 75% competition-specific training and actual competition
- Active for Life - Based on the individual's desire
Key points to consider:
- Optimal sport-specific competition ratios are required for all stages of Long-Term Athlete Development.
- Level and length of the competitive season should be aligned with the changing needs of the developmental athlete progressing through Long-Term Athlete Development.
- Over-competition and under-training at the Learn to Train and Train to Train stages result in a lack of basic skills and fitness.
- The appropriate level of competition is critical to technical, tactical and mental development at all stages.
- Schedules are often set for team sports by leagues and organizations and not by the coach and athlete, making optimal training based on periodization difficult. For individual sports, individual competition schedules can be selected by the coach and athlete based on the athlete’s developmental needs.
- The current competition structure is based on tradition. It should be planned to enhance optimal training and performance of the athlete depending upon their Long-Term Athlete Development stage.
- Competitions must be created and scheduled strategically, with due regard for the optimal performance of an athlete and their tapering and peaking requirements.
- Optimal training-to-competition ratios for individual sports vary greatly and must be determined on a sport-specific basis.
- While international and national calendars are usually well integrated, a systematic sport-specific competition review needs to be undertaken. This is one of the biggest challenges for team sports and a significant challenge for individual sports in Long-Term Athlete Development design and implementation.
(Note: Much of the information in the age specific pages comes from the organization Canadian Sport For Life (CS4L), which has compiled the best collection of science and best practices in the field of athletic development that we have come across. We highly recommend you visit their website at www.canadiansportforlife.ca if you are interested in exploring this further.)
The goal of athletics for your very young child is to help him or her acquire Physical Literacy. A Physically Literate child has the fundamental movement skills and sports skills that are learned as a child. He or she is active, a willing participant, and builds confidence and competence in their movements and skills. Having these skills allows children to feel good about participation in physical activities. They learn the ABC’s of agility, balance, coordination, and speed, and thus possess the ability to move confidently and appropriately on the field or in the arena of their chosen sport or activity. Not all children have these skills innately, nor do they come as easy for some as they do for others. They must be taught.
As a parent of a young child, it is imperative that you put them in an environment that teaches the movements and skills of physical literacy. This does not mean only organized sports programs; this is back yard play, running and jumping at the play ground, swimming or sledding with the family, etc.
Give Your Kids an Active Start:
CS4L calls this first stage the Active Start.
Children ages 0-6 need to engage in daily, unstructured active play by themselves, and with their peers, in order to develop the foundational physical literacy needed to become active for life. Not only will they develop physical coordination and motor skills, but an early active start enhances development of brain function, posture and balance. It also helps children to become confident, gain emotional control, and develop both social skills and imagination while at the same time reducing stress and improving sleep. A wide variety of physical activities should be introduced, and most importantly this phase should be seen by children as fun and engaging parts of a day.
The brain develops rapidly the first three years of life, forming pathways and connections much more rapidly then in later years. As a result, an active start to development improves coordination and balance, as well as helps kids learn more efficiently and confidently. It improves emotional development, imagination, and leadership while building strong muscle and bone, and promoting a healthy weight and lifestyle.
It is also important to remember how creative kids are at this age, so activities should encourage imagination and experimentation. Their focus does not last long, so move quickly from one adventure to another to keep them engaged.
It is critical at this stage that parents make sure activity is a fun, safe, and voluntary undertaking; kids should not be ‘required’ to partake. It is also a great stage for parents to join their kids, to run, jump and laugh along side them, and model the skills and techniques for kids to learn. Kids learn by doing, and by modeling what others do, so jump right in. The basic foundational movements of crawling, walking, running and jumping come naturally to kids, as their bodies develop the proper strength and coordination skills to perform them. Kids develop these basic skills when they are encouraged to do so, surrounded by active children and adults to model, and provided a safe environment to experiment. And don’t forget to let them take charge once in a while, they might surprise you. Be a participant in your child’s active start, and who knows, you both may benefit!
Finally, remember that young children can be fragile, and need to be treated with care, with patience, and given lots of encouragement. Make sure they are smiling when they arrive, smiling when they are playing, and smiling when they leave, begging to stay. That is sports done right during an Active Start.
Teach your Child the FUNdamentals!
The second stage of CS4L Long Term Athletic Development is called the FUNdamental Stage.
During the FUNdamental stage, girls ages 6-8 and boys ages 6-9 should be exposed to a wide variety of athletic experiences, as this is the second stage of developing physical literacy. Your kids should be changing activities season to season to avoid burnout and boredom. These activities can be structured, but should still focus on FUN, and competitive games and matches should be kept to a minimum. Kids begin to read the game going on around them, and thus can make decisions, and movements, about what is happening during the match. Let them see the game, and try not to see it for them!
Children are still quite egocentric during this stage, meaning their sports activities should be done in small groups, with constant, active participation. Stay away from long lines and lots of standing around, or you will lose their attention. Make sure there are enough toys (i.e. balls) for every kid to participate or you will lose their attention quickly. Their ability to understand the thoughts and feelings of other children is not well developed, so it is crucial that their experience is often allowed to be an individual one – every kid gets a ball.
The FUNdamental stage is one of the sensitive times to develop on hand and foot speed for both boys and girls, so this should be a focus, albeit through fun activities and games, and not training regimens and drills. Every sport can develop these skills, and even a soccer coach should be working on catching while jumping, running, even doing forward rolls. Trust us, kids love it! If you child has a preferred sport, there is nothing wrong with him participating 2-3 times a week, but make sure he is doing other sports or activities 3 times a week as well. This well rounded approach helps to master all aspects of physical literacy, and keeps the child excited and engaged.
While your child might be involved in some sports that keep score at this stage, remember that his focus should not be, and will not be, on the score, but more on being with friends and having fun. Make sure your focus is there as well. Help kids have fun, and develop self confidence and belief in their ability, and you have already won regardless of any score that is kept.
Teach Kids to Train!
CS4L refers to the third stage of Long Term Athletic Development as the Learn to Train Stage. It includes girls ages 8-11, and boys ages 9-12. In other words, this is the period right before kids hit puberty and their growth spurt.
This is the Golden Age of Skill Development! Children of this age begin to convert their foundational movements into basic sports skills. If you think about it, this makes perfect sense, as puberty and growth usually leads to a temporary loss of coordination and motor control. This is the best time to learn sport specific skills, as the child is still in control of their body, and can see daily and weekly improvement from their hard work. It is the sensitive period of accelerated skill development, and must not be overlooked, or short changed by over emphasizing competition.
Unless your child is doing an early specialization sport, such as gymnastics or skating, they should still participate in a wide variety of sports during this stage, but begin to focus on developing sport specific skills during those training hours. The emphasis should continue to be on more training, and less competition, at least a 2 to 1 or 3 to 1 ratio of practice to games. This is a great time to develop strength, flexibility and some stamina, but through relays, fun activities and own body weight training, and not physically demanding regimens.
Early vs. Late Developing Athletes:
One very interesting thing to note about the Learn to Train Stage is that it can be either a great advantage to a late developing athlete, or a great disadvantage. With excellent coaching, in a proper development environment, a young athlete who hits puberty later than her classmates has a longer period in which to develop fundamental and sport specific skills. She remains in the “Golden Age” longer than her peers, and if she takes advantage of this extra time, her technical skill base can surpass the early developers.
By the same token, often times late developers are overlooked for select level sports teams, simply because they have not grown, they are not as strong, they are not as fast. The overemphasis on competition at these young ages funnels out these late developers, as coaches pick the biggest and strongest players for success in competition, when in fact studies show that over the long term the late developers who are kept within the high level training regimen become better long term performers because of a better skill base.
If your child is in this stage, and a late developer, make sure she is in the right coaching and development environment, and continuing to focus on her technical skills, and not things like strength and speed which will come naturally a bit later. Many parents try to get their late developing son or daughter to lift weights and get stronger so they could play against the bigger and faster kids, when the focus should have been on doubling down on the skill development. Five years down the road, the kids with the extra skill are now the same size, the same speed, and if they did their extra skill development, they are usually the more proficient athletes.
Train to Train Stage
CS4L refers to this age group as the Train to Train Stage (Girls 11-5, boys 12-16). It is the first of three stages in the high performance training and competition developmental stream. It is a time for enhancement and consolidation of sport specific skills, building an aerobic base, and overall development of long term athletic potential. As you can see by the age range, this stage begins at the onset of puberty, and ends at the conclusion of the adolescent growth spurt. Train to Train is the stage where athletes become more sport specific, and ramp up their training hours as they begin to specialize in a chosen sport, (but still usually compete in a second, complementary sport.) In the end, the development done here makes Train to Train the make or break stage for become an elite performer in a specific sport.
It is crucial to remember that winning should remain secondary to skill and physical development, although competition can be ramped up at this time as athletes test their skills against fellow competitors. Every sport has different requirements at this stage, and we will not cover them here, but the emphasis is still on development, and education, and progression, and not measured by wins and losses.
Coaches and parents must also be cautious and cognizant of the signs of over-training. Fast growing children are susceptible to a variety of injuries and ailments, yet many kids have their weekly schedules crammed with sports and activities at this age (often times 2 sports in a day plus school PE). Responsible adults must monitor their children’s health and activity level, and not be afraid to ‘shut them down’ for a while if they start to get the usually sore ankles, knees and other joints that happen during growth.
It is incredibly important during this stage to recognize, and explain to athletes, that their coordination and movement may be affected by their growth spurt, and that this is perfectly normal. Coaches and parents must assure kids that the negative effect on their physical abilities is natural and will pass. Some children will grow faster and strong much earlier than others, while others may show a greater capacities to focus for longer periods of time. They are still creatures of action, though, and not necessarily deep thought, so activities should transition quickly from one to another, and adult input should be concise and purposeful. There is no other stage in which a coach can have such a variety of sizes, speeds, and both cognitive and technical skill levels, and thus this age can be quite a challenge.
It is also crucial that this stage is used to work on flexibility and strength. Training to competition ratio should be 60:40, and again, the competition should be used to enhance tactical understanding, physical ability, and not measure outcomes. Focus on your child’s performance, on their effort and focus, and not the score. It is important to note that CS4L has found that the reason many athletes plateau later in their development is because during this stage, they shifted their focus from training to competition, and did not complete their skill development.
Train to Compete, Train to Win!
The final two stages of youth athletic development for CS4L are Train to Compete, and Train to Win.
Train to Compete (girls 15-21, boys 16-23) is the stage where athletes choose a specific sport to become an elite competitor in, focusing on high volume and high repetition training. This is a stage that elite competitors enter, and not your everyday recreational athlete. These players have aspirations of high school, collegiate, professional, and perhaps national and international competition in mind. Besides their sport specific training, they also need to receive the necessary instruction regarding nutrition, psychology, recovery and regeneration, and injury prevention and management. Competition is at a premium, and athletes must set up proper periodization schedules, competition and recovery plans, and focus on consistent, high level performances.
Elite performers in the Train to Compete Stage are not only maximizing their physical, mental, and psychological abilities, but they are also learning how to deal with external elements, such as travel, media, spectators, and difficult opponents. They are selecting specific competitions and tailoring their training regimens in order to achieve maximum performance at these events. They are overemphasizing training at certain times, tapering for events, and allowing adequate rest and recovery after events. This is high level training, heavy duty commitment, and not the typical sporting experience for the vast majority of athletes.
Train to Win athletes are full time competitors, seeking to win national and international events, playing professionally or at the highest level their sport allows, and dedicating themselves to the pursuit of not only excellence, but success in terms of medals and podiums. Athletes in this stage generally are 18+ for women’s sports, and 19+ for men. The skill training, tactical education, and physical growth are complete, or close to it, and now it is all about results. The full time focus of this stage is on competition and results, and thus is mostly beyond the scope of this book. If your athlete is at this stage, an elite, professional level performer in his sport, congratulations. He likely has a support network of coaches, physicians, nutritionists, and yes, great parents, working with him on a daily basis, or he would not be there. Congratulations to you and your child for advancing this far, it is an amazing accomplishment.
Fun and Competition are NOT mutually exclusive. Youth Sports should be both!
There is this overwhelming myth in sports that fun and competitiveness cannot coexist. To have one, you cannot have the other, and at some point, we have to choose between whether we are there to have fun in our sports experience or to compete.
This is a patently false myth. From the youth to the professional level, they coexist. Look at some of the world’s greatest athletes and ask yourself “are they having fun”? The Brazilian soccer star Ronaldinho was always seen smiling. Peyton Manning had so much fun he even made commercials poking fun at the ultra-competitive nature of pro sports. Julie Foudy, the World Cup, and Olympic Champion told us on our podcast that there was never a game when she did not start laughing hysterically. The list goes on and on. No one doubts these athlete’s competitiveness. They sure had a lot of fun doing it, though!
Fun and competition do not exist at polar ends of a continuum in youth sports. In fact, fun and competition can actually be the same concept for kids. Fun is not about deriving pleasure at all times from an activity. Having fun is more about “enjoyment” of the activity. So what is enjoyment?
The difference between enjoyment and pleasure
Have you ever run a marathon? As we often say at our talks, during mile 20-26 of your marathon, do you experience any pleasure? If you are like most, probably not. You probably had cramps in places you didn’t know you had muscles. But you can still enjoy running. Sports does not always have to be pleasurable; it can be demanding and challenging. Yet this can still be enjoyable, and enjoyment is a critical ingredient.
A while back, we wrote about the 3 critical ingredients of youth sport: enjoyment, autonomy, and intrinsic motivation. The foundation is enjoyment. Enjoyment is about the satisfaction of improving and achieving your goals. It is about being in the moment. Enjoyment also attaches to an experience of autonomy. People who have greater control over their own experiences, tend to naturally enjoy them more. As we have more and more autonomy, we feel more satisfied with the experience and find more joy in it. This ownership gives rise to intrinsic motivation. We do not perform the activity for anyone or anything outside of us but do it for some internal motivation. We enjoy doing it because it is ours to do and control, and it gives us a deep sense of personal satisfaction. Does this mean we will always derive pleasure from the activity? Goodness no.
Many of us will look at a tough practice, a hard-fought loss, or a bad day in the trenches and think kids will not stick it out because it did not bring them pleasure. Others believe we will never see that hard-fought game or the grind in the trenches because we are making the game too pleasurable and not making it challenging. Pleasure is not the goal of making sports fun. Enjoyment is the goal. Those activities do bring enjoyment with the right approach.
How adults define fun is not how children define fun
Fun is the main reason children play sports. Every piece of research ever done, every survey ever taken, or every time we ask the children, the primary answer for why they play is fun.
Adults think fun for kids is goofing off, not listening, and not being serious. Children don’t define fun this way. In fact, Amanda Visek, in her groundbreaking Fun Maps research, decided to ask children to help her define fun. What she discovered was that children have 81 different determinants for having fun in sports!
How do they define fun?
Fun is working hard. It is being challenged and competing. It is learning a new skill, being with friends, having a coach that cares, getting compliments from coaches, and a coach who respects them. Fun in sports for kids means learning from mistakes, working together as a team, applying a skill you learned in practice in a game, improving athletic skills to play at the next level, playing against an evenly matched team, and winning. Fun is getting playing time! Yes, winning is part of the fun for kids. It is not the most important, factor, though, coming in at a lowly 48 out of 81 when the determinants are prioritized.
What we should glean from this short list of fun determinants is that children see many varying things as fun. Their definition of fun is quite encompassing. They really know how to make anything fun! Two, their definitions of fun incorporate nearly all the facets of youth sport we, as adults, hope it will accomplish for them. If we made sports about fun, following their 81 determinants as a roadmap, it would fulfill their needs and our wishes for youth sports!
We will create an experience that fully engages children, keeps them playing for a long time, helps them develop vital skills in the game and beyond, and still achieves our adult-imposed goals on the whole thing. That is a win-win for everyone. They would play more, play longer, and play better if we only made it about fun.
Lack of Fun is the number one reason kids quit sports
Amanda Visek is now working on the “Not Fun Maps,” because she also discovered children quit sports when they no longer have fun. It is the number one reason they quit, and she wants to know how they define “Not Fun” so we can stop making it not fun. While the research is not yet published, as she shared with us on our podcast with her, most of the “not fun” determinants have to do with adults!
If we force the fun from youth sports, we risk losing the kids completely. If they are not in sports, we miss this chance to use it as the vehicle for life skills, strong values, great role models that we so desperately want for our kids. It should be our primary goal to make sports fun, modeled after how kids define it, so we are building amazing people beyond the game.
If youth sports is fun, will kids compete less?
Why would enjoying something more ever make you compete less? The secret to competing is creating an environment that allows athletes to go all in without fear. What does this look like:
- An environment that allows for mistakes, and even promotes them
- Positive team dynamics
- Respect and encouragement throughout the team
- Agreed upon values
- A coach willing to give players ownership of the experience
- Last but not least, enjoyment!
This type of environment reflects Visek’s fun determinants, for as you dig deeper kids define fun as competing, being strong and confident, playing hard, setting and achieving goals, being challenged to improve and get better, practicing with specialty trainers, scrimmaging during practice, playing against an evenly matched team, playing in tournaments, and even winning medals and trophies. This list is how we would define competition. This list is all inclusive of everything many coaches argue is lost when we focus on fun, and yet, kids are telling us these things are still fun for them.
Wringing the fun out of youth sports won’t make kids compete more. It will make them compete less.
How to Make Sports Both Fun and Competitive
If you want to make your sports experience both fun and competitive, try these five things:
- Play games in training, lots of them: if you want people to compete at game speed, make it look like a game. At a minimum, 60-70% of your training should be game based. Add defenders, add constraints if you like, coach through the game, but play and players will compete.
- Focus on values such as fearlessness and accountability: if athletes are not afraid to make mistakes, and are willing to be held accountable when they do not bring the right effort and focus, they will compete harder. This is what the best professional coaches do (see for example Karch Kiraly and USA Volleyball) and you should too.
- Stop yelling at players for technical errors: nothing stops a player competing faster than getting yelled at for every mistake. If they compete with 100% focus and effort and still make a mistake, they are entitled to that. That is called learning.
- Play for something: Let the winners earn something for winning in training. At times, you can even let your athletes decide what the winners get for winning. It might be picking up cones, a quick physical activity, making a rule in the next game, but let the winners actually win something and people will compete.
- Stay on schedule: nothing diminishes competitiveness more than when athletes do not know when practice will end, or an activity will end. You are better off playing in shorter intense practice activities than longer, drawn-out ones. How can you go all out when you don’t know when an activity ends, or if practice ends in 10 minutes or 30? Stick to the schedule so players can monitor their effort and hold nothing back.
- Give them ownership: Whether it is choosing the game, deciding on the practice topic, or “running” halftime, when kids are given ownership, their enjoyment will increase and with it that competitive fire will be stoked because they are competing to prove their ideas correct.
Can sports be both fun and competitive? You bet it can. Actually, it should be. If sports isn’t fun, kids quit. And if they quit, we lose the opportunity to impact their lives for decades to come. We miss that chance to change a life. That should scare us more than anything else.
As coaches, our greatest fear should not be losing the game we had a chance to win, it should be losing the kids we had a chance to transform.
Make your practices and games a boatload of fun. Add competitive games to your sessions. Find an appropriate level of competition. And let them compete. And when the game ends, move on.
Sports isn’t work.
It’s play. It’s fun..and it’s competitive, but it’s play. Just let the kids play, and the kids will compete.
Here at the Changing the Game Project, we believe that the role of parents is to help children find whatever they are passionate about in life, to help them dream big and set out to achieve those dreams. If kids are going to play their best, they need a high performing mindset. We help them create this by implementing what I call the “7 C’s of a High Performing Mindset.” They are:
- Common Sense and Perspective: In other words, see the big picture. Decide what are the goals of playing youth sports, and what do you want your kids to get out of them. Forget things like state titles and scholarships, and focus upon core values such as confidence, integrity, and commitment. Then find them a place where they can learn those values, and never lose sight of those goals along the journey. Be the adult that your child needs in their life to keep it all in perspective.
- Safe and Developmentally Appropriate Conditions: Learn about the best practices for Long Term Athletic Development (LTAD) and developmentally appropriate environments, and then seek out a sports environment that is physically, mentally and emotionally appropriate, and safe, for your child.
- Great Communication: the basis of any positive parent/child and coach/child relationship is communication.
- Give them Control: as your kids grow up and mature, you cede more control over their decisions to them, but that does not mean you cannot start them young. Notice what your five year old likes, and then help them choose a sport. As they grow older, get to know what their goals are, help them form process and long term goals, and learn to accept theirs and not to force your goals upon them. Teach them about commitment, but let them go and seek their own sports destiny.
- Competence: children learn best when they see the results of their hard work. You will learn how to ensure your child feels competent and capable as they learn a new sport, or progress to a new level in a current one. Education is a process that requires trial and error, failure and success, so allow your children to fail and be patient as they learn.
- Confidence: acquiring skill helps a child become confident, and confident children pursue their interest with more vigor, authority, and passion then children who do not believe in themselves. Learn how your actions (and inactions) can help your child become confident.
- Caring and Unconditional Love: a child must never think that your love for them is conditional, and based upon performance in sports. Your love must be unconditional, and your words, your actions, and your emotions must reflect your love no matter the situation before you. Become your child’s #1 fan.
The best thing you can do as a sports parent is to maintain a Common Sense approach to your child’s athletic experience. By Common Sense, we refer to the following, and explain them below:
- Keep Athletics in Perspective
- Have Big Picture goals in mind
- Be Patient and remember that sports is an educational process, just like math, reading, or science
- Be Grateful for all the positives in your child’s life instead of focusing on things that might not be perfect
Keeping Athletics in Perspective
Remember that youth sports is only a part of your child’s life and development, and for that matter your family’s life as well. Do not let it take over everything you do, or let it become everything that you are. Never forget that a sports career, even for elite athletes, is usually short, but the things you learn in school, and the education you get, lasts a lifetime. And never forget the importance of religion, and family, and keep everything in perspective. Find a great balance for all aspects of life, and the sports experience becomes a positive one.
Use the time that youth sports gives you with your kids (i.e. the car rides, the road trips, a few moments alone after practice) to grow your relationship with your child. Use these moments to have family adventures, where the games are only part of the adventure, but not the sole component of them.
Many families tell stories of youth sports, especially travel and club sports, taking over their lives, and how they never had any time with their kids. Other families tell how these trips brought their family closer, how time spent in the car brought them closer with their kids, and gave them alone moments in an otherwise busy life. Do your best to be the latter, and when you look back on your child’s youth sports experience, chances are you will see it as a positive force that brought you closer with your child.
Have Big Picture Goals in Mind
Is your goal for youth sports to win a championship, to win this weekend, to get recognition for your child? Is sports an investment in a future scholarship? Do you see how these goals are beyond the control of you and your child? We believe that you should think much bigger!
We tell participants in our college sports seminars that if you want a guaranteed return on your sports investment, take that money and put it in a 529 account, as that is the only way it is guaranteed to pay for college. But if we think big picture, what is it worth to you as a parent to say:
“20 years from now, my child will be confident, and look at life’s challenges not as obstacles, but opportunities.”
What is the price of confidence, integrity, commitment, humility, determination? At the Changing the Game Project, we believe that attaining solid core values, learning not to fear failure, and engaging in healthy and safe risk taking are the Big Picture goals that parents should focus on when it comes to youth sports. Every sport we enroll our children in, every environment we find for them, must all complement these goals, and must all lead toward teaching these goals. When we make the decision to look at the Big Picture, and ensure that our kids are learning these Big Picture items, then as parents we start to look at wins and losses very differently then if our focus is solely upon winning a championship.
In one of our recommended booklets on sports parenting, “Win or Lose” by Dan Saferstein, the author advises parents to “Think Math!” Learning a sport is an educational process, much like learning math is. We do not stand over our child’s shoulders when they do their algebra homework, yelling “Carry the one, carry the one! No that’s wrong!” We do not go to their math test on Friday and stand in the corner of the room clapping at every correct answer, and groaning at every mistake. Yet come Saturday, we moan, groan and judge our child’s ‘sports test.’ They would not like math very much if we did this to them, and many kids grow to dislike sports for the same reasons.
Remember that education takes time, and learning is sport is no different. Give your kids time, and don’t judge their progress and achievement game to game. Focus on seasons instead of months, focus on years instead of seasons, and you will make the sports experience better for your children, and for yourself.
It is very easy to focus on a bad game, or a bad coaching interaction, and lose focus on the many incredible opportunities that your child has. In many countries, your daughter would not be able to attend school, or your kids would be at risk travelling to and from school. But you have kids who are in sports, and your kids have teachers and coaches who give their time and effort, who give their love for your child. We believe that by focusing on the positive aspects of sports, by taking the time to say thank you to your child’s coaches and teachers, and encouraging your kids to do the same, you will shift your focus to the positive aspects of youth sports, and have a more enjoyable experience.
Two crucial things that all athletes need are Competence (i.e. skill) and Confidence. These two feed off of each other, as increased competence yields increased confidence, which in turn leads the athlete to seek further skill and train even more. As a parent of a young athlete, you play a role in both.
Competence is the belief in ourselves that we are capable of taking on any challenge, any task, confident in our ability to succeed and willing to learn what is needed to achieve. Brendan Burchard, bestselling author and performance expert, defines competence as “our ability to understand, successfully perform in, and master our world.” Experts in the fields of psychology and human performance have found that our competence level determines the tasks we choose to undertake, the items and activities we choose to give attention to, and the effort we put into those things. It determines our levels of adaptability and resiliency, and often times whether we choose to lead or follow. Competence and confidence go hand in hand; the more competent we are, the more confidence we have in our performance. And the more confident we are, the more likely we are to seek out ways to become more competent.
Children who feel competent will naturally seek out additional challenges, and find ways to test themselves, confident that success will happen again because they have already succeeded. They will approach learning with enthusiasm and pleasure, and not see it as a painful process. If they are made aware, asked to be mindful of their successes, and not allowed to dwell on their failures then they will associate their activity with achievement, happiness and fun. If you couple this learning with real goals, set timetables, and a plan of action, and get kids to buy into that plan by helping them see the value it has for their own lives, you will have a stable of competent, confident and eager learners.
THE SLANTY LINE THEORY
One of the best ways adults can help children build competence is by using the Slanty Line theory of learning, developed by Dr. Muska Mosston. The Slanty Line Theory is a concept that refutes the traditional method of straight-line concepts in learning. Think about the old broomstick game of high-water low-water, where a stick starts low to the ground where all the kids can jump over it. As the stick is slowly raised, children begin to be eliminated from the competition until there is only one winner. You can see why this method is counter productive in the development of young children, since the ones that need the activity the most are eliminated first. If you take the stick and slant it so one end is lower than the other, children who want to run and jump and feel successful can do so at their own pace, at their own height on the stick.
When the players feel comfortable they will seek new challenges, and players can participate at their own level. Slanty Line activities allow children of all levels to play together, which is the essence of youth sports. Given the right opportunities, children will naturally seek out challenges and take risks; they will not continue activities in which they are continually and easily eliminated or wait to take turns. Each child is measured against his own previous best, not against other teammates.
Make sure your child’s coach is employing Slanty Line Activities in his or her practices. Also, help your child set goals that track her progress against her previous scores (i.e she made 5 of 10 free throws last week, this week she made 6) instead of against teammates or opponents. Help your kids see how the process is making them better, and they will continue to develop competence.
One of the greatest opportunities that sports gives our children is the ability to believe in themselves, to be Confident no matter what obstacles they face, or challenges lie ahead. Confidence derived from sports carries many people through their lives – they come to view challenges as opportunities, instead of fearing them.
Confidence is a state of mind, a feeling inside that you are ready to perform, no matter what you encounter. It is a feeling of certainty, of control, and provides an athlete with a positive outlook regardless of the situation. Bruce Brown of Proactive Coaching has a lot of great things to say about athletic confidence, but this quote is my favorite:
Confidence is not something you can fake, purchase or wish for – it has to be learned, earned and cultivated.
As your child develops Competence in a sport, so too does he increase in Confidence. Let me say that another way – Confidence is a natural byproduct of skill. From small children to the world’s greatest athletes, those whom are confident are that way because they have tried and failed many times, then tried again and got it right. Come game time, they believe that the skills they have developed will carry them through. This belief is always at the forefront of their thoughts, instead of the fear of failure that many non-confident athletes possess. Whatever happens, self-doubt rarely enters their thoughts; if it does, their belief in themselves drowns it out. As Brown concludes:
Confidence is not about whether you are a better athlete or if your team scores more points then your opponent; it is about who fearlessly puts it all on the line, being an athlete who has the courage to take risks, to fail, and who has the mental toughness to persevere.
True athletic confidence is all about the process and the preparation, and has little to do with the outcomes of games or events. Confident athletes see wins and losses as inevitable parts of the process, and their self belief does not waiver based upon results. Whether they win or lose, they examine the process that got them the result, and recognize areas for improvement, rather than find excuses for failure. In the end, true confidence is consistent, controllable, and as a result, long lasting.
Your children need your help to become confident. No, you cannot give it to them, but they need to know that you love them unconditionally, that you believe in them. They also need you to ensure that they have coaches teachers and other adults in their life who believe in them, and who build their confidence instead of diminish it.
Finally, you need to allow your children to Fail! Many parents feel compelled to protect their young children from any adversity and perceived lack of success. The need to protect our children is one of the strongest emotions we ever feel, and one of the hardest to ignore, yet deep down we know that eventually we have to allow our children, even compel them, to figure it out on their own.
There is a great fear among parents that failure, no matter how small and inconsequential, is devastating for kids self esteem, but research demonstrates that this is not true. Bad experiences are not devastating to your child’s self esteem; in fact, quite the opposite is true. Self esteem comes from achievement, and not the other way around. So let them fail, let them fail while daring greatly, and in the end they will find success, and all the great emotions and sense of accomplishment that comes along with it!
Give them control
One of the scariest parts of becoming a parent and watching your child grow up is having to give up control of your child’s life as they get older. We all know that our kids are constantly fighting to gain some semblance of control over their life, always pushing the boundaries and testing the waters in an attempt to learn what is acceptable, and what is not. From the one year old wanting to hold their own bottle or spoon, to the teenager pushing for a later curfew, our kids always seek control and degrees of autonomy. As parents, we accept (sometimes grudgingly) that we have to continuously grant them more as time goes on.
When we relate the need for Control to youth sports, we should recognize that athletics is potentially the perfect place for them to define themselves in their own self image (I am a hustler, I am creative, I am energetic, I am a great teammate). They can be exposed to new experiences, such as trying new sports, or different positions in a chosen sport. It is also an incredible opportunity for kids to challenge themselves, be it learning new skills in soccer, skiing a steeper hill, or learning to dribble a basketball with their weak hand. We need to find ways to give them control over their experience.
Obviously, the age of your child will determine just how much control they can be given. We can give very young children control by taking note of their interest in certain sports, then spending time with them watching and learning about that sport. We can ask them if they want to try playing it, and then sign them up. They now have some ownership in the sport they play.
Let Them Go
Once you are confident that your child is in a safe and developmentally appropriate environment, one of the most important things you will ever do as the parent of a young athlete is to let them go and let their sports experience belong to them. be a fan, be a parent, but recognize that the sports experience belongs to them. Many parents live out their unfulfilled sports dreams through their children, and never release their child. If you find yourself saying “we scored 3 goals today” or “we struck out 10 batters,” chances are you have not let your child go. Let them games belong to them!
Set Goals…and Accept Their Goals
One of the most powerful things you can do for your child is to recognize his or her goals and reasons for playing a sport. In almost every case of ‘destructive’ sports parenting that I have seen, it almost always came down to this; the child’s goals and the parents’ goals were completely incompatible, and mom or dad refused to accept their child’s goals.
First of all, try to set process goals, and not outcome goals. Focus on the training, the work it takes to get better, the time committed to improvement, and not the outcome of games or events. These are things that are within an athletes control. Make them timely, and make them measurable.
Next, accept your child’s goals! If your goals for your daughter this soccer season are to get a college scholarship, make the national select team, and score 30 times this season, while your daughter’s goals are to have fun, play with friends, and stay in shape, that abyss will swallow your relationship with your child. You must accept her goals, and while you may counsel her on aiming higher, you cannot force your goals to be hers when they are this far apart.
How to Push Your Athlete
One of the most difficult situations we encounter as adults is determining when to give our kids a push in the right direction, and when to back off and accept their decisions, or their inaction. A push at the right time can be the springboard to high achievement and happiness. A push at the wrong time, in the wrong way, may lead to disappointment and resentment from your child. One thing is for certain, though. It is our job as parents to push our children when they become complacent, to urge them to keep trying when they are unsuccessful at first, and to help propel them through times of difficulty when we know achievement is just around the corner.
Push your child toward their goals, and not yours. Do this by accepting their goals, and reminding them of THEIR commitments. Then, be there to give them a gentle nudge in the right direction. Be aware of the ‘red flags’ that we are pushing them in a negative way, such as taking credit for their achievement, or taking ownership of our children’s sports. Most importantly, push your kids on things they have control over – process goals – rather than focusing solely on successful outcomes. Kids can control their effort, their commitment, their diligence and their emotions, and as parents if we focus our pushing on those areas we will not strain our relationship with our children.
The Ride Home
When athletes of all ages and abilities are asked what was their least favorite sports moment, the most common answer is ‘after the game and the conversation on the ride home.’ Emotions are high, disappointment, frustration, and both physical and emotional exhaustion are at the forefront for both player and parent. Yet many parents choose this moment to confront their child about a play, criticize them for having a poor game, and chastise their child, their teammates, their coach, and their opponents. There could not be a less teachable moment in your child’s sporting life then the ride home, yet it is often the moment that well intentioned parents decide to do all of their teaching.
Many children have indicated that parental actions and conversations after games made them feel as though their value and worth in their parents eyes was tied to their athletic performance, and the wins and losses of their team. Ask yourself whether you are quieter after a hard loss, or happier and more buoyant after a big win. Do you tend to criticize and dissect your child’s performance after a loss, but overlook many of the same mistakes because he or she won? If you see that you are doing this, even though your intentions may be well meaning, your child’s perceptions of your words and actions can be quite detrimental.
Be a source of confidence and comfort in situations such as when your child has played well in a loss, when your child played poorly, and especially when your child has played very little or not at all. Even then, it is critically important that you do not bring the game up for them, as uninvited conversations may cause resentment in children. Give them the time and space to digest the game and recover physically and emotionally from a match. When your child is ready to bring the game up and talk about it, be a quiet and reflective listener, and make sure they can see the big picture and not just the outcome of a single event. Help them work through the game, and facilitate their growth and education by guiding them toward their own answers (i.e. kids learn a lot when they realize “You know what, we had a bad week of practice and coach told us this was coming”).
Kids need sports to learn how to get along and work with others, develop a strong work ethic, build self confidence, and learn to succeed and fail with humility and dignity. They need Control, and you are the one who can give it to them. Try following the steps outlined above, and give your child some control over their athletic experience. Chances are you will find you have a happier and more committed athlete.
Any positive youth sports experience must have two things:
- Great Communication between players, parents and coaches regarding expectations, goals, performance, and more
- An athlete who knows that he or she is loved unconditionally, regardless of sports performance.
These two things are crucial, as without communication, and/or with an athlete who is scared that a poor performance effects your love of her, sports quickly becomes a negative, and often demeaning activity.
Some ideas for great communication are:
- Take advantage of the opportunity sports gives you to spend time with your children and talk to them.
- Be an active listener, be present and engaged.
- In conversation, try paraphrasing their main points so they know you are listening.
- Respect and understand your child’s emotions.
- Do not put your children on the defensive; use “I” instead of ”you” statements.
- Control your emotions, and know when to step away from a conversation.
- Model positive, unemotional communication with your spouse and other family members.
- Be consistent in your reaction to certain actions.
These are all explained in detail in our eBook, and hey, its free, so grab it and open up the channels of communication with your kids! Oh yeah, and try not to be as intense as this guy at your next U6 soccer game!
Caring and Unconditional Love
Do you want to know what kids say all the time when asked who is their favorite person to bring to their games and events? Sorry, but it is not you mom and dad, sister or brother, boyfriend or girlfriend. It’s grandma and grandpa. Why? Because they love you unconditionally, no matter what the score.
We all love our kids, I believe I am safe to assume that. We sometimes love them in less than helpful ways. I am often asked “How can I show my child that I love him, but at the same time push him to get better?” The good news is you can do this by creating some simple boundaries, and by being keenly aware of your words and actions before, during and after your child’s athletic events.
Children need to feel cared for, and to know with certainty that they are loved regardless of the outcome of any game or match. Take a second and think about your actions, and reactions, after your child’s last sporting event. Did you smile and say “I love watching you play?” Or did you storm off to the car because your daughter’s team gave up a last minute goal, or your child did not play a lot, or their team ‘was not into it.” If you reacted negatively, you have just told your daughter that your love is tied to her performance, and that is a very slippery slope.
It is very dangerous when parents use their love as a reward for performance, and withhold their love when the results are not what they want. Dr. Jim Taylor tells us in his great book Positive Pushing that wielding love as a weapon to control your children, and basing it upon success and failure, forces your children to focus on outcomes, and not the learning process. Many parents do this inadvertently, and demonstrate happiness or disappointment through their body language and demeanor. Children feed off this parental emotion, and learn that the only way to elicit a happy response – your love – is to succeed on the field, or in the classroom. They lose sight of the journey, and the things they have control over. It can be quite damaging emotionally to your child, and have lasting consequences.
Instead, just be your child’s #1 fan, like grandma and grandpa. Love them the same whether they strike out three times, or hit 3 home runs. Buy them ice cream win or lose. And always let them know, by your words and actions, that you love to watch them play!
Fill your Child’s Emotional Tank
Being a fan starts well before the first kick of the game, for if you have not noticed, your child’s performance improves when they receive praise and positive reinforcement. The Positive Coaching Alliance (www.positivecoach.org) calls this filling your child’s emotional tank, or e-tank. When the tank is full, your child can perform better, and longer, they are more coachable and open to suggestion, and are not as easily discouraged when faced with adversity. Conversely, a child with an empty e-tank can get defensive and easily discouraged. The secret is how to fill up the tank!
The PCA suggests the following methods:
- Be a good listener: encourage your child to tell you more about what they are learning, what they like about their sports
- Be truthful and specific with praise: instead of saying “Great job” say “It was great when you picked your head up and made that great pass to Tim for the goal.” Specific praise shows that you are watching their game carefully and you care
- Your actions and reactions, such as a thumbs up, a wink, a smile mean the world to your kids and can really fill the e-tank
Just as the above methods can fill the tank, doing the opposite can be a tank drainer. If you don’t listen to them, or ignore them, if you fail to pay attention and are on your phone when they score the big goal and look your way, or if you are sarcastic and demeaning, it can really drain their tank and negatively effect their performance. Try to keep your hands off your hips, your arms uncrossed, and your phone in your pocket. Be present and engaged during your child’s events, and you will fill that e-tank!
- Just Let the Kids Play: How to Stop Other Adults from Ruining Your Child's Fun and Success in Youth Sports, by Bob Bigelow
- Youth Sports: Still Failing Our Kids - How to Really Fix It, By Bob Bigelow with Doug Abrams
- Developing Better Athletes, Better People; A Leader's Guide to Transforming High School and Youth Sports, By Jim Thompson
- The High School Sports Parent; Developing Triple-Impact Competitors, By Jim Thompson
- Positive Sports Parenting, By Jim Thompson
- Positive Coaching in a Nutshell, By Jim Thompson
- Positive Coaching; Building Character and Self-Esteem Through Sports, By Jim Thompson
- Positive Pushing, by Jim Taylor
- How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success, by Julie Lythcott-Haims
- The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids, by Madeline Levine
- At What Cost? Defending Adolescent Development in Fiercely Competitive Schools, by David L. Gleason
- Let them Play, by Jerry Lynch. With forward by Steve Kerr.
- Sport Youth Psychology for Youth Coches, Developing Champions in Sports and Life. By Ronald E. Smith and Frank L Small.
- Sport Performance Anxiety in Young Athletes Smith,R.E. Smoll, F.L. & Passer M. W.
- The Double goal Coach, By Jim Thompson. Positive Coaching Tools for Honoring the Game and Developing Winners in sports and Life. With Forward by Phil Jackson.
- Changing the Game in Youth Sports (John Sullivan) https://youtu.be/VXw0XGOVQvw
- Youth Sports: Implementing Findings and Moving Forward with Research http://mikethompsonjr.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/Athletic-Insight-implementing-findings.pdf
- Debunking early single sport specialisation and reshaping the youth sport experience: an NBA perspective - http://bjsm.bmj.com/content/51/3/142.short
- Caring for the young athlete: past, present and future - http://bjsm.bmj.com/content/51/3/141
- Overuse injuries and burnout in youth sports: a position statement from the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine - http://bjsm.bmj.com/content/48/4/287.short
- Footy4kids.com - Is winning everything?
- USA Today Article - Fun — not winning — essential to keep kids in sports
- Quotes from Pep Guardiola -
- On the style of play: I have the ball, I pass the ball; I have the ball, I pass the ball. We have the ball, we pass the ball.
- On home-grown talent: The player who has come through La Masia has something different from the rest, it’s a plus that only comes from having competed in a Barcelona shirt from the time you were a child.
- On principles that the players learn right from the start: I like to win, I like to train, but above all, I want to teach people to compete representing universal values: values based on respect and education. Giving everything while competing with dignity is a victory, whatever the scoreline suggests’.