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Coach’s Note by Lance Watson: Kids and Sport

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I love kids’ sports. There is nothing more pure than watching a hundred grade schoolers sprint full speed, many grinning, across an open field at the start of a cross country run, or seeing them in the zone, experiencing the body rush of learning new skills at high speed on a bike, skates or skis.

The waters start to get muddied as we try to explore child sport performance and developing our kids into a future Michael Phelps, Paula Radcliffe or Craig Alexander. I regularly field questions from parents on how to train their child to help their performance. This often sparks conversation about how much training volume, how many days per week, and what kinds of intervals. What is often lost in the conversation is “why.”

We are surrounded by images of victory and athletic heroes. Winning and professional sport is greatly glamorized. At the local hockey rinks I see parents lacing up $300 skates on 10-year-olds while giving them last minute coaching pointers on how to be the best, how to win. I also hear stories of re-mortgaged homes paying for hockey school.

If you speak with many successful elite athletes, they will talk about how parental support was a key to their success. You may be surprised to know the parental message to those athletes, in most cases wasn’t “be the best” or “play to win.” Ultimately, good athletes are good athletes. My observation as a longtime high performance coach is that genetics play a larger role in an athletes’ success than the best facilities, best coaching, best equipment, etc. Good athletes will separate themselves. The ones who stay in sport and love sport will seek out the guidance they need to continue to excel. They will maintain a passion which translates into the commitment required to be great. Parents play a crucial role in this: to support, facilitate, and provide unconditional love. I have seen many promising athletes drop out because it is no fun, or stick with it for awhile because they are doing it for their dad, not because they are dying to go to practice.

While our children are unique, and parenting styles differ, there are some classic stages of cognitive development that impact sport experience and children’s long term choices. The professionals of the website Winning Edge Sports Psychology ( capture them nicely:

Young children (ages 7-10 years) face two major challenges in sport: #1 learning how to get along with friends, and #2 learning how to interact with authority figures other than their parents (USOC Sport Science Summit 2000). At this young age, learning to cooperate within a team as well as compromise for other’s interests are major accomplishments. Children at this young stage of sport are just beginning to develop the ability to see the world from the perspective of others. Since the child is learning, we need to provide them the opportunity to grow through guided trial and error. It is important to remember that fun, exploration, and developing a love of sports are key elements at this age. If competition and winning are becoming main themes, they are most likely fostered by adults, and the adults need to decrease their competitive nature.

Pre-adolescents (ages 10-13 years) face the social challenges of developing best friends and gaining acceptance from peers. Social relationships are one of the developmental milestones that this age group is navigating. They want to be part of a group and often fear being embarrassed. Developing a same sex best friend(s) is a major task of this social stage. Pre-teens tend to be loyal to their friends and make many decisions based upon maintaining their friendships. “Sport hopping” is an example of decisions based upon maintaining friendships. Sport hopping occurs when a pre-teen changes sports or quits participating in sports because of friendships. During the pre-teen phase of development, structure practices that allow for social interactions or team building exercises help develop team relationships and keep kids in sport. We suggest using structured team building exercises and games, working in rotating pairs or small groups to practice skills.

Adolescents (ages 14-18 years) face the developmental challenge of defining who they are and how they fit into the world. Identity development is a complex process that involves applying the training and teaching we have given them, while the teen is trying on different identities. The teen is attempting to discover who they are and clarify their values through exploring different facets of their personality. Being tolerant of the adolescent while they try out new ideas is an important behavior for parents and coaches. The second major transition during the teenage phase is recognizing that sport is truly important in their life (Bloom 1985). The teen makes the transition in identity from “I play soccer” to “I am a soccer player.” Participation in sport and being an athlete becomes a significant piece of their identity. Helping the teenage athlete enhance the technical mastery of their chosen sport, while supporting their growth as an individual, is the challenge facing parents and coaches.

So what is the take home message? Consider these following pointers:

Encourage your child to focus on personal excellence. The ultimate goal of the sport experience is to challenge oneself and continually improve. When children perform their very best and lose, you need to help them feel like a winner. Help your child learn that success and failure is not quantified by, or equal to, winning and losing.

Keep it fun. Fun keeps kids in sport. Fun enhances the learning environment and is proven to increase performance too. When a child stops having fun and begins to dread practice or competition, it’s time for you as a parent to examine their sport environment.

A study completed by USA Swimming asked swimmers from age 7 to young adulthood why they swam and the results give important insight into why athletes remain athletes. The swimmers rated the following four reasons as their motivation for swimming: #1: to have fun; #2: for fitness; #3: being with friends; #4: to compete.

Protect their self esteem. Children want to be loved and accepted, and to have their parents feel good about what they do. When children are in an athletic environment that makes them feel good about themselves and valued, they will learn faster, enjoy themselves more and perform better under competitive pressure.

Be supportive, but don’t coach. Be your child’s biggest fan! Give support and encouragement (and transportation, money, fund-raising, etc!). The last thing your child needs and wants to hear from you after a disappointing performance or loss is what they did technically or strategically wrong.

Kathleen Noonan captured this succinctly in her article for Australia’s Courier Mail, “The Real Reason Why Our Kids Quit Sport”:

“So, why do most kids quit sport? Well, one of the main reasons, apart from the obvious ones—didn’t like the coach, not enough time, too much pressure—is one parents don’t want to think about: The car ride home.

The car ride home after playing sport can be a game-changer. Whether you are five or 16, the journey from ground to home can be a non-stop parent teaching moment.

Whether you’ve played well or lousy, your dad can let you know what you should have done.

Should have run when you should have passed, should have kicked.

He becomes one of those shoulda-coulda-woulda dads. …

The car ride home is when the kid just wants to quietly let the game sink in – whether a win or a loss.

They know if they’ve played well or badly. You don’t need to tell them. The car’s a pretty intense closed environment. They can sense your every thought, disappointment, anger, even a bit too much pride. It’s all there, crowding in. Every sigh, every shrug is amplified.”

Ninety-nine percent of young athletes don’t go on to be elite, professional competitors, so what is our end game as parents? What are the lessons of sport? My personal hope for my children is they learn to value health and fitness, to learn the skills to be fit for life, including efficient movement and sufficient training knowledge. I hope that they enjoy sport enough to stay in it long-term, and internalize the life lessons of team play, goal setting and work ethic.

I am the first to concede that I feel pride welling up when I see my child run a personal best, score a goal, or hit a new jump at the bike park. I am living vicariously through my children, I admit it, and I love it. And while I will cheer whole heartedly for them (and all the kids), I also remind myself to keep my filter firmly intact when I communicate with them about how their game went.

LifeSport head coach Lance Watson has coached a number of Ironman, Olympic and age-group Champions over the past 25 years. Join Lance to tackle your first triathlon or perform at a higher level. 

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