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How to Be a Good Sports Parent

That's not you screaming from the sidelines, saying all the wrong things on the way home from practice and generally behaving badly, is it? Nah. But just in case, we've got five ways parents can get a grip before they spoil their kids' fun.

By Spencer Deering

Postgame Analysis

Let's go to the replay: Your daughter is the best dribbler on her team. Yet she's also a basketball black hole -- once the Spalding falls into her hands it's never coming out. With the best intentions, you pull her aside after the game to offer your advice: "Pass the ball!"

Breakdown the penalty: Teaching her to be a thoughtful teammate is good, but remember: "Kids have a short attention span," says Rick Wolff, coauthor of Parenting Young Athletes the Ripken Way (Gotham). "Thirty seconds after the game she's thinking about homework or friends or what's for dinner." The last thing she wants is a verbal report card from you.

Your winning new move: After the team handshake simply say, "Great job!" When the uniform's safely in the washer's spin cycle at home, offer her a "praise sandwich," says Wolff. "Tell her that she's an awesome ball handler. Then offer constructive criticism ('When you get double-teamed pass to an open teammate'). Finally, give the other side of the sandwich ('When you move the ball you're unstoppable')." You've made your point, and there's not a tear or slammed door in the house.

Unintended Pressure

Let's go to the replay: All season your pre-meet speeches to your young swimmer consisted of one simple phrase: "Do your best." You commit to keeping mum after the final lap, regardless of his performance. Last week he finished in the top three and you were cheerful and chatty, while staying faithful to your rule of no "shop talk." This week he was second-to-last. On the way home you don't bring up the meet -- or anything else. You clutch the steering wheel and silently stare at the road ahead.

Breakdown the penalty: Many parents don't understand their own attitudes about winning and losing, observes Joel H. Fish, coauthor of 101 Ways to Be a Terrific Sports Parent (Simon & Schuster). "Watching your kid compete is a very emotional experience," he says. "You need to prepare for your spectating emotions." Review your favorite on-the-spot stress-reduction techniques. (The ones that don't involve beer and yelling, that is.)

Your winning new move: Once you have a handle on your feelings, explicitly praise your kid when he swims hard, regardless of the outcome. And watch that body language. When he pulls himself out of the pool, the first face he'll look for will be yours.

Living Vicariously

Let's go to the replay: It's the bottom of the ninth and your daughter's up to bat. You've prepared her for this moment with 6,000 of your curveballs in the backyard. Then she swings at a ball so far outside it whizzes by the catcher's outstretched mitt. You leap from your seat. "C'mon!" When she strikes out you fall into a humiliated heap.

Breakdown the penalty: Your child's sports participation is not about you. Period. "Parents lose perspective," says Wolff. This is no small issue. "The biggest athletic stress on kids comes from their parents pressuring them to be outstanding players," says Fred Engh, author of Why Johnny Hates Sports (SquareOne).

Your winning new move: "If your child is smiling and having fun, your job as a sports parent is to find a seat, sit down ,and be quiet," says Daniel L. Wann, PhD, a member of the Executive Board of Directors for the National Alliance for Youth Sports. For added insurance, ask one of the calmer parents to quietly tap you on the back when you're starting to go over the top.

Overinvolvement

Let's go to the replay: Your daughter's busted her hump during volleyball tryouts, arriving first and leaving last each day. She's confident she has performed well. On the afternoon the teams are announced, she storms into the house sobbing. She was cut. Before she can reach for the tissue box, you're on the phone with the athletic director demanding a reversal of the decision.

Breakdown the penalty: A child's lack of success is not fatal -- for you or for her. Nor does it signify that something needs fixing. "It's common for moms and dads to have continuing doubts as to whether they are good enough parents," says Alvin Rosenfeld, MD, coauthor of The Over-Scheduled Child (St. Martin's Press). This fear drives many parents to micromanage, even though it's unhelpful for kids in the long run.

Your winning new move: Sit with your daughter and have her write a list of questions for the coach. Tell her not to be accusatory but to ask what skills she could improve on. Of course, when that rare, dangerous, or sketchy situation demands your involvement, Jim Bloch, athletic director of New Trier Township High School in Winnetka, Illinois, reminds parents: "First find the source closest to the situation -- the coach or the teacher. Don't start with the superintendent, principal, or athletic director."

Mishandling the Quit

Let's go to the replay: Your son begged for months to play hockey. You relented. You bought him the expensive equipment and drove him thrice weekly to practice (even rising at 5 a.m. to score that coveted ice time). Then one morning out of nowhere he says he wants to quit. Flabbergasted, you catalog for him the price of each piece of gear and then detail how your personal life has crashed and burned due to the obscene hours of his Neanderthal sport. You tell him there's no way he's bailing.

Breakdown the penalty: You don't want him to give up easily, especially after the investment you've made, and you don't want to raise a quitter. But take heed. "In response to their fear of failure, parents run themselves -- and their kids -- ragged," says Fish. If your son's approaching you after serious soul-searching, his concern is probably legit and should be taken seriously.

Your winning new move: Skip the speech and take a moment to breathe. "Listen to your child's specific concerns and see if it is best to encourage further participation," says Fish. Why does he want to quit: Is it burnout? The coach's behavior? Does he feel like he's not good enough? "Put your needs on the back burner and really listen," adds Fish. "That will allow for a better decision." Maybe that means he gracefully bows out, and you give him your blessing to do so.

Be Your Kid's Cheering Squad

Always have some positive one-liners at the ready. Fred Engh, author of Why Johnny Hates Sports, suggests the following:

"You should be very proud of how much you've improved."

"I noticed you had a terrific practice. I can't wait to watch you play."

"You set a great example for the team by hustling on every play."

"I'm really impressed with how you've been hitting [kicking, shooting] the ball lately."

What Sports Can (and Can't) Do

Kris Bordessa, author of Team Challenges: 170+ Group Activities to Build Cooperation, Communication, and Creativity (Zephyr Press), gives the lowdown on how sports participation can -- and can't -- serve your child's development.

Sports can...

Sports can't...

Originally published in the October 1, 2008, issue of Family Circle magazine.

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