Just Let ‘Em Play: Handling Pressures of Raising a Young Athlete
Youth Athletics is a popular phenomenon around the world.
Whether it is swimming, football, soccer, or baseball, etc., there are so many valuable lessons a young athlete can learn from playing sports, including: self-confidence, communication skills, teamwork, how to handle success and failure, how to handle winning and losing, getting along with other people, and how to have fun.
However, the most important lesson a young person can learn is not how to be a winner, but how to transform losing into a life lesson in success.
This is very critical today as we see the world of youth sports becoming more and more competitive– where plain ‘ole playground fun has been replaced with elite training and competition, and where children are now playing fewer sports, and the less talented are left behind in recreational leagues with poor coaching, uneven play time, and the message that they aren’t good enough.
In fact, seventy percent of kids now quit sports by age 13.
As Mark Hyman, a professor of sports management at George Washington University and the author of several books on youth sports notes, “The system is now designed to meet the needs of the most talented kids. We no longer value participation. We value excellence. Hyman also states, “The adults have won. If we wiped the slate clean and reinvented youth sports from scratch by putting the physical and emotional needs of kids first, how different would it look? Nothing would be recognizable.”
PolitiChicks recently interviewed one of the country’s leading Sport Psychologists, Dr. Andrew Jacobs, and he strongly emphasized the
importance of having balance as a young athlete.
Dr. Andrew Jacobs works with athletes of all ages, from youth athletes to collegiate, professional and Olympic competitors. Called “a pioneer in mental training,” he was one of the first sport psychologists to work with a US Olympic team, a professional team and a university athletic department.
In his new book, “Just Let ‘Em Play,” Dr. Jacobs (along with Coach Peter Malone and Major League Baseball pitcher Jeff Montgomery) explains the importance of winning and losing, success and failure; why it’s okay that not every athlete receive a trophy; and the role of parents, coaches, officials, and athletes.
Here is some wisdom Dr. Jacobs shared with PolitiChicks in an EXCLUSIVE interview:
PC: What happens to children when parents overdo their sports involvement?
Dr. J: Most kids want to quit and a lot of them do. Playing sports is awesome. It’s the greatest way to learn about who you are and what you can do. But, we have so much control from the parental perspective and the coaching perspective that the idea of ‘play’ has gone out the window. So, what happens is, so many parents who end up being the coaches of the kids let their egos get involved.
Like I say in my book, “A good coach should check his or her ego at the door.” It’s not about them- it’s about the kids. And I’ve seen watching both of my kids growing up and playing multiple sports, these parents who would get angry and yell and scream at their eight and nine-year olds because they missed a shot or screwed up and I’m sitting there thinking, “Why are you yelling at your child for screwing up when they tried?” I see these parents get so overly involved and so then the kids lose interest, lose excitement, and don’t want to do it anymore. So, they quit.
I also keep saying that we are on a pathway to have a competitive league for pregnant women because we are getting younger and younger kids playing sports.
There is such a problem today with competitiveness. We’ve taken the fun out of sports. You don’t drive by elementary schools anymore and see a group of kids playing after school. Obviously, today, we have safety issues that are much more prevalent than when we grew up. But everything is organized, everything is structured, and kids don’t know how to go out and create and play.
One of my concerns is that we are structuring this and we are starting at younger and younger ages now that they don’t have the chance to just go out and be kids and play because they are always being told what to do. Yet, most of the people who get involved, do get involved for the right reasons. They want to help out and help guide the kids. But we have gotten to the point where kids are specializing in certain sports at seven or eight- years old, year-round… and its causing physical issues because their bodies aren’t developed yet. It’s also causing psychological issues because they are losing their focus, losing their confidence.
The biggest topic we talk about every week at my office is self-confidence in young parents and kids. I see kids whose confidence gets destroyed because the parents get so obsessed with winning, winning the championship and getting that trophy instead of just focusing on having fun and understanding what you are about.
PC: What kind of pressures do you see parents facing with sports today?
Dr. J: When we look at the world of sports, so many parents will see their son or daughter and see that they are pretty good at a sport. The parents may think, “She is really good, she could get a scholarship out of this. Wow, we need to really develop her.” So the parents get overly obsessed and the kids go along with it because they are excited at first. But one of the big things I talk to people about is the word “balance.”
Years ago, I worked at the University of Kansas, I had the privilege of working with basketball coach Larry Brown and he told me something that really stuck with me throughout my career. He said, “I think kids, young kids especially, should play on a team sport and on an individual sport because it teaches them different things.” An individual sport teaches you about self-confidence, focusing on yourself and having to really good look inside yourself to see what you can do. But when you are on a team, it’s about sharing, it’s about camaraderie, and it’s about communication skills. Today, I see too many parents who have their kids playing one sport all year round and what happens is that they eventually burn out. They don’t have the chance to play with other kids or be around other kids. Physically, a lot of sports injuries also occur because of being in one repetitive sport year-round.
PC: Do you think parents of young athletes are having a hard time “adult-ing” their kids today?
Dr. J:There are so many other academic scholarships available than there are sports scholarships. Most people aren’t aware of that. They are more aware of the excitement and the thrill that comes from parenting an athlete because you get notoriety, your child gets exposure, and of course today, with social media, everybody knows everything about what everybody is doing.
So, more and more younger kids are getting more and more publicity with things they are doing athletically. An eight- year old may be really good at a particular sport, but it doesn’t measure how good they’ll be at it when they are twelve because of the maturation process and the developmental process, physically and mentally.
So, we have these issues where the parents’ egos get overly involved and caught up in it. It starts to become more about them and the accolades that they get via their children rather than it is about the kids having fun, learning, and growing.
Also, as a parent, it’s also important that you wear many hats. If you are coaching your kids, you need to learn when you are coaching and when you are parenting. You also need to know when you need to discipline your kids. Too often, with parents who are coaches, it usually goes one of two ways: One, they are either extra critical of their kids and their kids don’t see they are doing anything right because the parents are always on them about what they did wrong. Two, they let them get away with everything because they want to give their kids special privileges.
So, there really needs to be a balance. You need to have guidelines and rules and parameters. You want to be friends with them, but you also want to be the one who is in control.
PC: What are your thoughts about every kid getting a participation trophy?
Dr. J: I know there’s a lot of debate about this topic today. I personally don’t think there’s anything wrong when someone very young, like first grade, starts playing a sport, and they get a little reward at the end of the year for being on a team. But after that, you don’t need it. Because in the end, there will be a box in the garage or in the basement with all the trophies and they just collect dust.
The real reward you get from playing sports is what you learn about yourself and what you learn about success and failure, winning and losing, communication, and getting along with people and most importantly, having fun.
The goal should be about the experience and not about the reward you get along the way. Really, what you learn is going to stick with you a lot longer than that little trophy that sits in the garage.
PC: What are the benefits to losing and failure?
Dr. J: When I work with people, I always ask them three questions: 1. What is your definition of winning? 2. What is your definition of losing? 3. What is your definition of self-confidence?
Most people will tell me that winning is coming in first place. Losing is not coming in first place. Then, I’ll tell them my definition of winning. My definition of winning is going out and doing the best you can. You can have five hundred people run a 10K road race and they can all be winners if they all win their best time. Now, one person is going to run faster than everybody else. But everybody else who competes can still be a winner if they all do their best. It really all depends on how we look at it.
We always put so much emphasis on who comes in first place that we don’t put enough emphasis on the effort that goes into it. I think there’s so much you can learn by losing and failing because, let’s face it, one person or one team is going to win the tournament. But you can all be successful if you all accomplish the goals you have. And if you keep doing your best, you’ll have a good chance of eventually coming in at first place.
So, let’s focus on self-improvement, getting better, and not worrying about everybody else. You can also learn more from losing than you can from winning, anyway. Winning hides the problems. When you lose, it makes things a lot more clear because you can identify what’s going on.
We spend so much emphasis in a sport on the result. The result is always so much about the score. It shouldn’t be about the score, it should be about the experience. Because that is what you are going to take with you and grow from. There are just so many parents and so many coaches who get so caught up in winning a championship or getting a scholarship, or competing with other people that they lose the perspective of what it should be about, which is– learning and having fun, learning new skills, learning fundamentals.
Most importantly, understanding what happens when you succeed and fail. More than anything else, having fun. If you focus on that, then everybody is going to get better.**
Here is a video of Dr. Andrew Jacobs discussing role models in sports:
Dr. Jacobs’ new book,”Let ‘Em Play” is available at: WinnersUnlimited.Com.
You can also listen to his podcasts at WinnersUnlimited.Com
Dr. Jacobs has been in private practice in Kansas City since 1981.