Friday October 24th 2014

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Am I Pushing My Child Too Hard?

Last spring I attended a little league baseball game with my wife and the rest of my immediate family. It was a regular season game between my nephew’s team, the Yankees, and an evenly matched Rangers squad. About halfway through the bottom of the first inning one of the youngsters on the opposing team ripped a grounder towards the shortstop. The crowd erupted from the action on the field (it was the first time anyone had made contact with the ball all game). As the little slugger sprinted towards first base, the shortstop made a play for the ball. As he reached down, he was unfortunately a split second too late. The ball quickly rolled through his legs deep into the outfield. By the time the team could recover from the mistake, the mini speed demon had rounded the bases for an inside-the-park homerun.

As the other team and the parents in the bleachers celebrated jubilantly from the score, my nephew’s coach stormed over to the shortstop (who was already down on himself), grabbed his arm, and belted out a tirade that would have easily rivaled that of Bobby Knight:

“What are you doing out here?!?… You know better than that!… If you don’t have the heart for this, I’m going to sit you down! … I’m tired of this!”

Every onlooker was thinking the same thing: “Hey nut-job, chill out for a second. You’re not dealing with Jeter… these kids are 6 years old!” We all sat in silence. I started looking around for the parents of this defenseless child. Clearly no one would allow anyone to handle and speak to their child the way this maniac acted. As the game resumed, I discovered something more disturbing than the scene that we had just witnessed. The coach was actually the little boy’s father.

This type of behavior is not limited to little league baseball. I’ve attended football games, softball games, cheerleading competitions … you name it. Without fail, there are several knuckle-heads who can’t control their anger towards someone who can barely spell their name. Here’s an obvious question: Why? These kids just learned how to tie their shoes, and they’re being demanded to run, throw, catch, dive, and look like a pro doing it. Why don’t we give a child the opportunity to fall in love with an activity before placing ridiculous demands, goals, and dreams on him?

When we pull back the covers on this topic, it becomes evident that there are some underlying issues going on with the parent. What’s causing the insatiable desire to push your young child to the brink and place unrealistic expectations on her? I’ve come up with a few questions that I feel parents should ask themselves and seriously consider their responses.

How Do I Feel About My Athletic Career?
Many parents are wound too tightly about their kid’s athletic endeavors because they have lingering issues regarding their own stint in athletics. Try to truthfully answer the question. How do you feel about your athletic career? Do you think that you reached your potential? Do you wish that you were pushed harder? Are you content on how it ended? Be sure to come to grips with the answers to these questions – whatever they may be. Coach didn’t put you on the varsity team 20 years ago? Get over it; you’re 35 years old now. Didn’t go pro after years of trying? That chapter might be shut, but another one will begin. Settle any issues once and for all so that they don’t spill into your child’s journey.

Is My Child Truly Enjoying The Activity She Is Engaged In?
I think we’ve all seen this before – a child out there on the field, and it seems like he’d rather be doing anything else except playing that sport. Simply because you were all-state in soccer doesn’t necessarily mean that your child has the same love for the game. I’m all for allowing kids to experiment. Let them go out there and take a stab at whatever they want to try. The concern comes when they are forced to participate year after year in something that they clearly find no enjoyment in doing. Youth sports should be about learning, developing, and having fun, not about being forced to do something you’d rather not do.

How Would I React If My Child Told Me He No Longer Wanted To Play?
This is a tough question to answer especially if it’s apparent that your child has a lot of natural talent in a given sport. My sister and brother-in-law recently went through this with another one of my nephews. After his third successful season playing football, he came to the decision that he didn’t want to play the following year. At 7 years old, he was done with football (at least for a little while). He was just tired of getting hit all the time.

It was a hard pill for my brother-in-law to swallow. Since his son started playing at the age of 5, he’d averaged two touchdowns per game. He was clearly faster and more agile than every kid in the area (some 2,000 youngsters). The local high school football coach had even come to see one of his games and expressed sincere interest. How can he just give up when he’s got so much talent?

As it turned out, as football season approached, my nephew changed his mind and wanted to play. My sister bought him a little extra padding so that he wouldn’t feel so much impact when he was tackled. I was proud of his parents for listening to him and respecting his wishes. Seven years old is not too young to at least have a conversation and understand what’s going on in a child’s life.

***

The most important point that I’d like to get across is that we need to stop treating our young kids as though they are pro athletes. Sure, you’ve got your Tiger Woods’ and your Serena Williams’… prodigies who have gone on to make millions and experience success in their fields. Folks like these are few and far between. I have a handful of friends who play sports professionally (MLB, NBA, and NFL). The interesting thing is that none of them even played the sport that they’re getting paid to play at ages 6 or 7. In fact, no one would have guessed that they would be playing collegiately or professionally until well into their high school years.

To all of the parents and coaches (who are usually parents, too), I’ll close with this thought: aim to be more like John Wooden than a crazed, ill-tempered lunatic on the sides. If you ask anyone who played for the late hall-of-famer, they’ll tell you that he was more of life coach than a basketball coach. They learned more about life off the court than setting picks, reading defenses, and taking jump shots. Isn’t this what we want for our kids? Becoming better human beings through the use of sports is the desirable goal.

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