In Parents' Role in Youth Sports, Problems in Youth Sports

Parents go out to the court, field or diamond with their kids with the best of intentions. They want to help. They want their children to be both happy and successful. Unfortunately, far too many parents end up inadvertently teaching their children some really horrifying things, things they would never knowingly want their kids to learn.

Keep in mind that your children learn more from their interactions with you than from anything you say. In fact, your kids are always learning from you whether you intend it or not. They silently learn by watching you as you interact with them and your partner. How you are with your children in relation to their sport will provide them with lessons that will last a lifetime. If you have an awareness of what you’re actually teaching them, then you can be sure that what your children learn will be positive and beneficial. if you are unaware and out of touch, you may end up teaching your children lessons that you would never teach to even your worst enemy, lessons that may emotionally cripple them for life. Here’s an example.

When I was a kid playing junior tennis, all my friends looked up to the city champion. He was a great player and fierce competitor. Before we knew better, we longed to have him as our dad and have him work with us like he worked with his 6 year old daughter. Every day he’d be out hitting balls with her, drilling her and working on her game. She was a precocious talent with amazing hand-eye coordination and the potential to take her tennis to a pretty high level. This was before she started to learn what her father was really teaching her.

By the time she was 10 she had become the #1 ranked 10 and under in New England and the #4th ranked player in the 12’s! By the time she was 12 she held both the #1 rankings in her age group as well as the 14’s. It was clear to all who watched that she had national potential. Unfortunately, this little girl wasn’t just learning tennis from her dad.

When the two would play and this girl would miss a shot, her dad would respond with impatience and sarcasm. if she proceeded to miss a few more, he’d get openly frustrated and angry with her. He’d yell and say cruel things that no 6 year old should ever have to listen to, especially from her own father! When her play continued to go downhill, because she was emotionally devastated that her dad was upset with her, he would angrily hit balls at her! When this happened she would respond the way any normal 6 year old would, she dissolved in tears and walked off the court sobbing. Whereupon dad would yell after her, “You’re a quitter and a loser and I won’t to play with you anymore!”

However, the very next day they’d be back out on the courts drilling again. This very disturbing scence repeated itself over and over again with this little girl leaving the court in tears and her daddy berating her for being “a quitter and a loser” and telling her that he never wanted to play with her again. Despite dad’s emotionally abusive behavior, this little girl continued to excel. However, the extent of what she really learned didn’t make itself apparent until she was 11 and was sitting in the stands with me and a bunch of my friends, watching her dad compete in the finals of the city championships.

The match was intense and hard fought, but her father was dominating. He had won the first set 6-3 and was ahead 4-2 in the second set against a much younger opponent. In the 7th game, he went wide for a ball, caught his tennis shoe on the court and badly sprained his ankle. Despite the intense pain, he tried to keep playing but his mobility completely disappeared. His opponent took advantage of this and began moving him all around the court. Soon the match was even at one set apiece. At the change-over in between sets he finally took off his tennis shoe and his right ankle swelled up like a balloon. He was in extreme pain and it soon became obvious that he was not going to be able to come out for the third and deciding set. He was going to have to forfeit the match.

Before the tournament director could announce this and allow us to applaud his courageous and gutsy play, the silence of the moment was shattered by an 11 year old girl screaming and crying at the top of her lungs, “YOU’RE A QUITTER! YOU’RE A LOSER! I HATE YOU AND NEVER WANT TO SEE YOU AGAIN!” Whereupon she ran off in tears into the park.

Had that been the end of the story some might think, “Well, dad got exactly what he deserved!” Unfortunately her lessons didn’t simply end there. Watching this up and coming talent play was painful. When she made a mistake or lost a game, she’d angrily berate herself out loud. (Where did she learn that?) When she got really upset with herself, she’d begin to hit herself in the leg with her racquet (Who could have possibly taught her that one?). Frequently she’d get so up[set with herself that she’d suffer a total melt down and beat herself.

What she had learned from these very early “lessons” was to treat herself exactly how her dad had treated her. By the time she was 16, she had learned that tennis wasn’t fun, but instead just entailed a lot of emotional suffering. So with all her national potential, so just quit one day for good! She never picked up a raquet again! Worse than this, her relationship with her dad had been seriously strained by his abusive behavior. Last I heard, as a fully grown adult, she hadn’t spoken to him in several years.

So exactly what are you teaching your children when you go out there with them with the noble and well-meaning intentions to help them get better in their sport? When they make mistakes, lose or otherwise fail, what are you teaching them? As the parent, do you have your priorities straight during these “lesson?” Do you know what is really at stake as you respond to your son or daughter’s mistakes and failures?” Please keep in mind that your teachings will always go far beyond the court, field or track.


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