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Parents: Please Stop Ruining Youth Sports

Parents Youth Sports

A couple of weeks ago I attended one of the most horrifying youth basketball games I’ve ever watched since the time I began coaching.

I won’t specify where it was or which teams participated, but I will give you the details so that hopefully others can learn from them.

I entered the gym as a U12 girls game was about to commence. I’m assuming it was a grand final since the stands were near completely filled.

There were numerous banners being held up and many of the spectators were dressed up in the colors of the teams warming up on the court.

A little over the top for a U12 basketball game, but at the time I didn’t give it too much thought.

It wasn’t until the game had started that the true horrors of what youth sports can turn into became clear.

Every time a team would score (or do anything positive), the parents and fans would go crazy. Cheering. Stomping their feet. You name it, they did it.

At the same time, the opposing team would be just as quick (and loud) to boo the success of the U12 female athletes on the opposition team.

The parents and spectators of both teams were constantly shouting out to the players on the court…

“Shoot the basketball!”
“Get the rebound!”
“Stop the basketball!”
“Get up and play defense!”

This continued for nearly the entire first half.

With approximately a minute left, the referee made an obvious bad call that resulted in one team being rewarded with two free-throws.

As many in the stands loudly voiced their opinion on this call, one of the opposition parents sitting behind the bench was so unhappy that he decided to throw one of their team’s banners onto the court out of anger.

Some of the people around him were quick to calm him down and retrieve the banner, but that was enough for me.

I walked out.

As far as I’m aware, there were no fights between the spectators, no tears were shed by any of the players, and no one was thrown out of the game.

Was the game I witnessed as bad as youth sports parents get? Definitely not.

Was it uncommon behavior for youth sports parents? Definitely not.

These displays of poor parental behavior are common at youth sporting events. Year after year we’re presented with examples such as the following…

• Parents brawl at a 4th-grade basketball game

• Two people punched and then 6-man fight at a 7-year-old basketball game

• A parent asked to leave for belligerent behavior fires a gun outside the gym and chases a referee

Witnessing these scenes encouraged me to elaborate on my thoughts regarding parents involved with youth sports and what changes they can make to improve the youth sporting experience for the players.

So from a youth basketball coach who truly loves the game and cares about the players who participate in it, here’s how you can help…

 

1. Please Remember Your Role During Games

It’s incredibly important that everyone who attends youth sport remembers what their roles are during a game.

• We have coaches to coach the game.
• We have referees to referee the game.
• We have players to play the game.
• And we have spectators to spectate the game.

A parent’s role consists of watching the game and providing support for your child and the other players on the court.

‘Providing support’ does not mean screaming out to the players, throwing your hands in the air when a player makes a mistake, or displaying terrible body language.

I know it can be a rollercoaster of thoughts and feelings watching your kids competing against other kids, but parents must be able to control their emotions.

Sit back, enjoy the game, smile, and support the players with a clap or cheer after they make a good play.

Which leads to my next important point…

 

2. Please Stop Coaching From the Sidelines

Reiterating my point above, your role at the game is to watch and enjoy the game; not to coach.

By all means, if coaching is something that you want to pursue there are many clubs all over the world who are constantly looking for coaches of all levels. I encourage you to sign up.

But if you’re attending a game as a spectator, do not coach your child or any other players from the sidelines.

For example:
• “Get on #10. He’s killing you guys!”
• “Shoot it!”
• “Get up the court and pressure them!”

The reason this is detrimental to your child and the rest of the team is because they’ll be receiving conflicting messages from you and the coach.

Conflicting messages = confusion = stress = poor performance.

It’s much better for the entire team if you sit back and allow the coach to do their job.

 

3. Please Stop Creating Entitled Children

“We are in the trophy generation. Give them a trophy for 23rd place. That makes the parents happy” – Tom Izzo

Youth sports is a fantastic opportunity for players to learn how to deal with their emotions and experience failure in a safe environment.

Yet despite their good intentions, too many parents are unknowingly robbing their children of experiencing and learning these incredibly important life lessons.

Adults need to stop springing to the rescue and ‘saving’ their child every time something negative happens or the child feels a little upset.

Kid: “I hate my basketball team. I want to play in another team”
Adult: “Okay, don’t worry. I’ll get you moved ASAP!”

Kid: ”Johnny got a trophy. Why didn’t I get one? That’s unfair”
Adult: “You’re right. You deserve one. I’ll make sure you get one next year”

And to make matters worse, after all of this ‘babying’ of children throughout their youth, us adults have the nerve to say…

“Why are today’s kids so entitled! I was never like that when I was young!”

The children participating in youth sports today are a product of the environment we’ve created and raised them in.

That’s on us.

Youth players are fully aware that if they’re upset about something, their parents will save them from it. And most take full advantage of this fact.

We must change our ways and allow players to experience and learn how to deal with emotions and how to handle failure.

It won’t kill them, I promise.

 

4. Please Stop Undermining Coaching Decisions

There’s nothing that will kill the respect and trust a child has for their coach quicker than a parent undermining the coach’s decisions.

This usually happens in two ways:

1. Validating that the coach is wrong.

Kid: “Why don’t I get to dribble the basketball up the court like Jimmy?”
Dad: “Because your coach is an idiot.”

2. Putting negative opinions in the player’s head.

Dad: “I can’t believe your coach doesn’t start you on the court! He has no idea how to coach a basketball team!”

By having conversations like these with your son or daughter, you’re increasing the chances that the player will stop listening to the coach.

And these words won’t only stick with your child…

You can be sure that these words will be passed out to the other players, too.

The reason that many parents have these conversations with their children is in an attempt to shift the blame that players are putting on themselves.

If the child is upset, parents believe they’re helping their child by blaming the coach and taking the burden off the player.

While this might help them in the short-term, it definitely won’t help the team or the individual player long-term.

All of this is not to say that the coach is always right…

But if you have concerns or disagree with something the coach is doing, you should be discussing that with the coach.

Not your child.

 

5. Please Allow Your Child to be Coached

One of the most retweeted images I’ve ever shared on my Twitter profile (link) is the following image and quote…

“Uncoachable kids become unemployable adults. Let your kids get used to somebody being tough on them. That’s life, get over it!”

uncoachable kids

I’ll start this section of the article by making it clear that this is assuming your child’s coach is coaching them from a place of love and a desire for them and the team to improve.

There are many coaches in the youth sports world that simply don’t know how to teach or connect with their team. Some can go so far as to bully their players.

Screaming in a 6-year-olds face about a mistake they made is not good coaching no matter how many times some coaches will try to convince you it’s ‘tough love’.

Therefore, this section may not apply to all situations.

With that said, there are also far too many parents who ‘baby’ their children and jump to their defense whenever a coach attempts to hold them to high standards.

You must allow your players to be coached.

If a player isn’t living up to the standards of the team (lack of effort, not listening to the coach, going against the game-plan, bullying teammates, etc), it’s part of a youth coach’s role to demand better from the player.

A coach must be able to address the player on these issues in a kind way that doesn’t make the player feel threatened, but also demands respect and shows that the coach is the authority.

This is where we’re starting to run into an obstacle…

Kids aren’t used to adults holding them to a high standard.

“Kids today don’t know the difference between instruction and criticism” – Larry Brown

When a coach does attempt to hold them to a high standard, players can sometimes react negatively and feel like they’re being treated unfairly by the coach.

After telling their parents, the parents are quick to label the adult holding their kid to a high standard a ‘terrible coach who has no idea what they’re doing’ instead of finding out what actually happened.

This is often followed by a heated exchange between the parent and the coach or an immediate appeal for their child to be transferred to another team.

As long as the coach is doing it the right way, a coach must be able to hold the players to the high standards set by the team.

If they can’t, it’s incredibly hard to teach players the life lessons taught through youth sports like…

• Success requires hard work.
• The importance of body language.
• Respect everyone.
• Know your strengths and weaknesses.
• How to win/succeed with class.
• etc.

How can a coach help teach players that success requires hard work if they can’t tell the player then need to be giving more effort?

How can a coach help improve a player’s body language if they can’t correct the player when they display poor body language?

You get my point.

 

6. Please Encourage Your Child to Play Multiple Sports

“If someone encourages your child to specialize in a single sport, that person generally does not have your child’s best interests in mind.” – JJ Watt

Each year, more and more parents are being persuaded to have their son or daughter specialize in a single sport for the entire year.

The main argument that many coaches use to convince parents and players to commit is by telling them that if they don’t, they’ll get left behind by those who do specialize.

This isn’t only a blatant lie, it’s also potentially dangerous.

I don’t blame parents for believing that specializing in one sport is the best thing to do for their child at the time without having looked at the research. Especially after the child has shown some natural ability in the sport.

In fact, on the surface, it sounds like a wise decision!

By specializing, more time practicing, playing, and improving their abilities can only lead to positives for their basketball future, right?

Many people even cite the 10,000-hour rule from Malcolm Gladwell as a reason why their child doesn’t have time for other sports.

But in reality, it’s been proven time and time again that specializing at an early age will inevitably lead to…

• Mental burnout and stress.
• Increased chance of injury.
• Shortened sporting careers.
• Lack of motivation.
• And more…

To add to that, there are the obvious negatives that players will have fewer opportunities to:

• Build relationships with peers.
• Experience different coaches and coaching styles.
• Experience different sports.

Doesn’t sound so great anymore, does it?

It’s up to parents and coaches to encourage multi-sport participation because players aren’t aware of the negatives that will inevitably become more and more clear over time.

Here are just a few superstar athletes who were multi-sport athletes before going on to flourish professionally in basketball…

• Tim Duncan, arguably one of the top 10 players to ever play in the NBA, was an incredibly talented swimmer and had aspirations to compete in the 1992 Olympic Games.

• Hakeem Olajuwon didn’t play a single game of basketball until he was 15 years old choosing to play soccer.

• LeBron James was an all-state wide receiver during his sophomore and junior years of high school.

• Elena Delle Donne went so far as to quit playing basketball due to burnout for the first year of college before returning and going on to be the WNBA Rookie of the Year in 2013.

Even as we move away from basketball multi-sport athletes come out on top…

The image below shows that of the 47 football players Urban Meyer recruited to Ohio State, 42 of them were multi-sport athletes during their time at high school.

Urban Meyer

But what if my child tells me that they don’t want to play a single sport? Read this fantastic article from John O’Sullivan

 

7. Please Don’t Focus on Scholarships

It happens every single day…

A parent signs their child up for a sport and quickly notices that they seem to have a fair amount of natural talent.

Others quickly notice, too.

Coaches start approaching and praising their son or daughter’s abilities and encouraging you to sign them up to travel teams, elite basketball camps, and enroll them in personal training.

Next thing you know, parents are thinking about the financial possibilities of the future…

• Securing a scholarship.
• Playing division 1 basketball.
• Potentially playing professional basketball.
• Money, money, money.

I don’t mean to burst anyone’s bubble, but only 3% percent of players go on to receive a scholarship and 0.02 – 0.03% of players will end up in the NBA or WNBA.

That’s 2 – 3 out of 10,000 high school basketball players.

It’s far better at the youth sports level to simply allow the child to enjoy the process, encourage them to play multiple sports, and support them in what they choose to do instead of putting the pressure on them to score themselves a free education.

It will save you and the player a lot of stress.

 

8. Please Consider Your Finances

Finances are a topic I hesitated to touch on, but in the end thought it was far too important to leave out.

As we are all well aware, youth sports can be incredibly expensive.

In fact, in this article from FlipGive, studies have shown that parents can end up paying as much as $5,500 a year when participating on a travel team.

And I’m sure there are a lot of parents who spend much more each year. New equipment, fees, travel costs, accommodation, etc. These all add up very quickly!

Naturally, this puts a lot of stress on the parents who are digging deep into their pockets to pay for the experience.

The bigger problem occurs when this stress is transferred to the players.

Numerous times I’ve witnessed parents directly telling their kids that they had better perform well or everything the parents have spent on the sport will be a ‘waste of money’.

Take a second to think about the pressure that this puts on a player! No wonder players burn out and quit at such a young age.

Many parents spend far too much money on youth sports believing that the money spent will pay off when their son or daughter receives a scholarship…

Please remember: Your kid’s youth sporting participation is not a financial investment!

You should never expect a single dollar back from the money you put into the youth sports experience.

Are travel teams 100% necessary? No.
Are personal trainers 100% necessary? No.
Is having the latest equipment 100% necessary? No.

Don’t add these unnecessary costs to your finances unless you can comfortably afford them.

 

Conclusion

First off, I want to acknowledge that 99% of parents have their heart in the right place.

They push their children to train and perform because they want them to have the highest possible chance of succeeding.

They encourage or allow them to specialize because they believe it will give them an edge over their competition.

They protect their children by shifting blame to the coaches, referees, or even quality of the facilities.

Unfortunately, most parents aren’t aware that many of their actions aren’t in the best interests of the players and can even negatively affect their chances of future success.

Going forward, we all need to put a bigger focus on putting the needs of the players first.

  • James LaMacchia

    Great! Great! Great post.

  • Thanks for your thoughts.

    I’m definitely not giving coaches a pass. While this post focused on parents, there are a ton of things that coaches are doing incorrectly also.

    And I agree with your point on the knowledge level of coaches. We are constantly trying to work out a fix for this issue. Perhaps and online course? One of the difficulties is how many coaches are needed for basketball. We require 1 coach per every 8 – 10 players where as other sports it’s more than that.

  • Dave Goush

    Fantastic Post. As a coach of grade school boys and girls basketball and football I can tell you that these points are right on. I have had the honor of coaching some very good young people and also had some phenominal parents who allowed me to coach their children and teach them to excel in their sports and rise to be leaders. There are great parents out there!! One key element is to have a preseason meeting with the parents and lay out the program and expectations as well as your own coaching style so they know what to expect from you. I also lay out for the parents what I will not tolerate from them. IE: running to the bench at halftime to coddle their little kids because they may be loosing and not allowing me to make halftime adjustments. I also point out to the parents that is not the SUper Bowl or NBA finals and that these are grade school children many or whom may be experiencing organized sports for the first time and that “having fun” is one of the key elements to their child’s success and that they will make lots of mistakes as they are “learning the game” Once the parents grasp these concepts and don’t expect me to be Bill Belichick and their kids not to be Tom Brady usually everything is a lot more casual and fun for all involved.

  • Wade Wolff

    Check out US Lacrosse (https://www.uslacrosse.org/coaches) and their approach to developing coaches. I have been a HS basketball coach for 24 years and we desperately need a program like the US Lacrosse certification. This would assure more qualified and thoughtful youth coaches and remind HS coaches of some great practices in the field of coaching . . . . USA Basketball?

  • Education Technology Pitch McN

    Your article is spot on. Similar situation occurred in every sports I have attended or coached. Our players have been pressured instead of being nurture by the parents. They should be encouraged to do well in the sport that they will come to love and enjoy. I grew up with the mind set that win or loose is the matter of working hard to earn it (I am thankful to my coach who pushed me with her tough love and worked hard to make me who I am now). “Practice made perfect” so if you practice right, you are likely to do well and if you are practice wrong you are likely to do wrong causing the team to loose. Not every game will be as perfect as we dreamed it to be and everyone made a mistake so why not use mistake to correct your next performance – make improvement. Trust the coach and teammates, allow them to do what they do best, make suggestion if you think the coach is doing something wrong, be supportive to the coach, and try not confuse the players.

    In regarding to parents volunteer to coach, I have to give a round of applause to those who try. Meanwhile, don’t coach them the wrong way because once they established the wrong habit, it’s will be difficult to correct. Be assertive, open-minded and know when to bring out the strength and weakness in every player. If you don’t know your way around the sport you are attempting to coach, there are many people, courses and training videos out in the public to help you become a better coach so get acquainted.

    I totally agreed with “do not coach from the sideline. If you want to coach, then volunteer. If not, then give a full support to those who do try to make your child/children a better sport player. Be a parent that players can always turn to in every situation. After all, they want to make you proud and as long as they are trying their best….you should be proud. It’s all about the player (our child) and their development….not you.

  • Junny Barahona

    I will definitely be sharing this article with my team parents . Great blog post !

  • Robie J.

    Great article. I will pass this on to my parents.

  • Jason Kosten

    Hakeem and Lebron did not become elite basketball players because they played multiple sports. They are genetic specimens like most division 1 and professional basketball players. I think it is great for kids to play multiple sports. However, if you have average athletic ability, the only way to be competitive in the game of basketball is too “outskill” your opponent. This is done with countless hours in a gym and dedication to basketball. At some point, us “mortal men” have to specialize in something or we will be mediocre at everything.

  • Coach Tony

    Coach Mac:

    Love the article. Lots of solid points especially on the pressure being put on the kids. As an ex-D1 player, I can honestly say that coaching (now watching) my two sons play basketball has brought an overwhelming range of emotions over the years. It’s been at times exhilarating and other times beyond frustrating. Three years ago, our family was fortunate enough to latch on with an AAU organization that utilizes a very business-like, yet family oriented model to Spring/Summer hoops. That said, there is always turnover in the teams every year i.e. people leave because of playing time, not enough exposure, “better opportunities,” “my trainer is starting a team” etc. With an influx of new players and family this year, I was asked to take an active role within the organization and actually do a presentation on “How to Cope as a Parent of a Hoops Player”. I get asked this a lot at both the AAU and High School level, so I thought I would share some of the mechanics of “how we cope.” (By the way, most of these methods were learned the hard way)

    Your player makes the “work investment.” Let them reap the benefits accordingly. If your player isn’t getting a lot of playing time, it is most likely a “work problem”, not a “coach problem”. Don’t let your kid off the hook by blasting the coach if they’re not putting in hours of work on their own every week. This doesn’t include time at team practices right away.

    Learn to cheer for “other” players. We have all seen them…the parents who won’t cheer for anyone but their own player. Regardless of what the players may tell you, they hear people in the stands during a game. It is a powerful enabler for a player to hear someone other than their parent complimenting them on their play /effort /energy. The smallest thing like a “fist bump” after a game for a kid not your own is uplifting to the kid. Try it…it works. It will also create a more pleasant parent community.

    Interacting with Coaches. I stepped away from coaching my kids in the summer because they have to get used to various coaches and coaching styles. It’s getting them ready for life. My one suggestion with coaches is if you absolutely must approach the coach, do the following: (a) never do it right after a game (b) always do it in person….emails and texts are too open to interpretation and (c) remember the best route to problem resolution is almost always with player to coach interaction. Always remember, if you start a conversation talking about your kids playing time in a negative way, the coach is more than likely going to “turn off.”

    Personal Training. There are a lot of strong opinions on this, and this can be a very controversial subject. We use a trainer for two reasons (a) gym availability and (b) my kids are typically visual learners. They need to be shown certain techniques and methods before they can adopt them. My main criteria for hiring a personal trainer is as follows: “Don’t hire a trainer who cannot physically execute the drills they are trying to teach the kids” Telling someone how to do it, and showing “how and why” are two different things. Let’s call it what it is…there are a lot of “trainers” who have passed their prime athletically and have no business “training.” Also, be mindful, that going to a trainer four days a week is financially draining, and it may not yield the results you think it will.. With us, it got to the point, where our youngest player was going to practice and working with a trainer. He wasn’t doing anything on his own. We cut the training in half and noticed that he wasn’t replacing that time with work on his own. This told us a lot about where our kid’s head was, and so we eliminated the private training altogether. He received the message loud and clear. He’s now working harder than ever, but a little more on his own terms and with only several sessions per month. His improvement has been amazing.

    Adopt a structured way to give your player feedback on their performance after a game. In our family, we have a two minute rule. We figure if it cannot be said in two minutes, it does not need to be said. If the kid played well, tell them. If the kid didn’t shoot all that well……tell the kid to try to get some shots up and move on. If the kids defensive or rebounding energy wasn’t there, tell them that and leave it at that. Of course, if the kid wants to talk about it more, that’s fine. Discuss it only in context of personal development or being a good teammate. I would also suggest to never ever bring up another player. Nothing good will come of it. Finally, that feedback happens at the gym……not in the car on the way home or a meal. The car is a terrible place (i.e. the kid will feel trapped) to discuss what happened in the gym. It happened in the gym….leave it in the gym.

    Parent Behavior. I know this may sound a bit out there, but over the years I have found that parent behavior at games is directly proportional to what happens at team practices. Parents form opinions about players and other parents at team practices. This will in most cases carry over to games. One of the things we do is we have a policy of no parents at workouts or practices. Not only will this cut down on the gossip, but it will also make it a bit lighter atmosphere at the games. I know that there are parents who won’t like it, but coaches have very little practice time with the kids. The kids need to be focusing on the coach and their teammates, not you as a parent.

    Final point. The hardest thing to do is to let your kid find his/her own way. There is a fine line sometimes between a kids’ dreams and a parent’s fantasy. The parents that were described in the above article are going alienate their kids from the game and from them as parents. It’s okay to give a kid a kick in the pants when they need it, but after a while, they will get numb to it and will shut you out. Be careful.

  • Doug Nielsen

    Bravo.

  • Doug Nielsen

    As a coach–volunteering to coach multiple days a week, lots and lots of hours–my children never miss a practice of course. They are to every game on time, never late to a practice, and get yelled at the most. I have no problem with my child getting as many minutes as possible–if not the most. There are plenty of opportunities for coaches to learn and grow and become better coaches. Truth be told, it is up to the parent of every player to make sure their son or daughter is on a team with a qualified coach. Not saying AAU shouldn’t have some requirements–but now we’re really starting to turn this into professional youth sports.