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How to Make Your Child a Better Athlete, Focusing on Fun – Not Winning – Boosts Kids’ Sports Performances

Parents everywhere want to know how to make their kids better athletes. The answer? Sit down and shut up, experts say.

Ah, the sounds of summer: The crack of the bat, the swish and skid of a slide into home plate, the ensuing roar of the crowd and – all too often – the angry shouts, even physical blows of an enraged parent. It’s a disturbing scene. And it’s happening at an alarming rate.

How to Make Your Child a Better Athlete

“We’re seeing a crisis in youth sports,” says Dr. Tom Hanson, sports psychologist and founder and CEO of Heads-Up Performance Inc. “It’s a professionalization of youth sports where the winning model, the adult model, is gradually working down to lower and lower age groups.”

The result is a cutthroat, competitive scenario that has all but replaced the youth sports scene of yesterday, where the focus was on kids having fun, learning good sportsmanship and developing positive traits such as self-esteem, teamwork, and healthy lifestyles.

Typically, one of two things happen – either the young athlete becomes increasingly aggressive, or he gives up. Many experts place the blame squarely on Mom, Dad and, sometimes, the coach.

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When Dad Becomes the Bully

“It’s disturbing,” retired NBA coach Phil Jackson says in a public service announcement produced by the Positive Coaching Alliance, a division of Stanford University’s Department of Athletics. “Sideline confrontations coaches losing their cool. What are we teaching our children about the game and more importantly about life?”

What overzealous parents and coaches are teaching kids, say Hanson and other sports psychology experts nationwide, is a win-at-all-costs approach to sports of all kinds, from football to table tennis. Experts point to a high-pressure atmosphere created by well-meaning parents who cross the line from constructive criticism to downright bullying.

Such behavior poses an emotional threat to young athletes, says Hanson, whose company teaches athletes of all ages, their parents and coaches ways to deal with sports-related issues and conflicts. By far the most damaging result of sports-parenting-gone-wild is the embarrassment athletes ensure when their parents not only criticize them but heckle their opponents.

“It’s a good way to alienate your child,” says Hanson, who earned a doctorate in sports psychology at the University of Virginia and has consulted with the New York Yankees, Texas Rangers, Minnesota Twins, and Anaheim Angels. “Growing up is hard enough without adding that pressure. Often, they’ll want to discontinue their involvement in the sport. Also, it can strain the child’s relationship with his or her own teammates, especially if their parent is the coach.”

In fact, studies show that 70 percent of youth athletes drop out of sports by age 13, primarily because they’re “just not having fun anymore.”

Winning Really Isn’t Everything

One major solution is to take the focus off winning games.

“We want to provide parents with some coaching on how to help their kids have more fun in sports,” Hanson says. “But here’s the kicker – that’s how they play better.”

Hanson recalled an interview wherein famed New York Yankees Derek Jeter shared his top piece of advice for players aiming to make the transition from the minor leagues to the majors – “Have fun.” Jeter told the reporters that he often imagines himself back in Little League, “where I played for fun. That’s how I play best.”

It’s not just a mental or emotional tactic, Hanson says. The fun factor also is a physiological one. Youth athletes who fear to disappoint the over-zealous mom or dad cheering and jeering from the stands experience tensed muscles and a lack of focus. They’re unable to concentrate on the game for looking over their shoulder to see the folks’ expressions.

On the other hand, “Having fun gives you access to freedom,” Hanson says. “Because you’re not worried about the outcome, your muscles are loose and you’re focused on the ball. Your body relaxes because you feel safe.

How to Make Your Child a Better Athlete
How to Make Your Child a Better Athlete

Go Back to the Pickup Basics

“Interview kids about why they want to play and the research is very clear – they want to play because they want to have fun,” Hanson continues, noting that when young athletes are left to their own devices, such as in neighborhood pickup games without adult interference, they learn to handle conflicts on their own. “They’ll pick teams, but if one team is 20-to-2, they’ll trade Johnny for Susie to flatten it out so it’s more fun.”

Taking the focus off winning and placing it back on fun, allows both young athletes and their parents to “chill” and just enjoy the game. Win or lose on the field, the right approach will boost a kid’s game both in sports and in life.

The Positive Coaching Alliance, for which Jackson serves as the national spokesperson, offers workshops on positive sports parenting, as does Hanson’s company. And there’s a groundswell of support for mandatory parent sportsmanship classes as a requirement for registering kids to play in a youth sports league.

“Research is clear,” Jackson says in the PCA’s public service announcement. “Kids who have fun in sports try harder, perform better and stay involved longer.”

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