Having come of age during the Title IX era, I was a proud participant in the early movement that helped transform every field, court, and sandlot into blank slates on which girls could write all their stories of sports glory. Or at least try.
Softball, basketball, volleyball, cheerleading, gymnastics, track-and-field. I was on all the teams in grade school and high school. When I was a kid, there was nothing close to the recreational or travel leagues that exist now. At no point did I ever imagine I would play any of these sports professionally, and my family had long assured me that any college scholarship I might finagle would be the result of my brain power – not my vertical leap, not my overhand serve, and not my unusual upper-body strength. (True story: My sophomore year, I was the only girl at my school able to bench-press more than her weight.)
Times have changed, huh? Most kids don’t want to play all the sports, and most families couldn’t afford to let them if they wanted to. Even though experts tell us that our kids should not play one sport exclusively, it’s easier on everyone if they do, isn’t it? The kids know the ropes; we know the ropes. For lots of reasons, season after season, year after year, many children (even if it’s really not all that fun for them anymore) just keep playing that one sport.
Until the a-ha moment.
It was late spring of sophomore year, and our oldest daughter was wrapping up her JV soccer season in a fairly competitive high school program. Her coach emailed with a plan to help her make varsity the next season. There were camps! There were personal trainers! If she could work on her stride … He even sent us a link to sign up for a far-away camp that guaranteed results. We couldn’t wait to tell her about the opportunity. She came home that very day, after practicing with the varsity team because they needed more players to get ready for the state tournament, and asked if we would be disappointed if she didn’t try out for soccer the next year. She was concerned it would interfere with her schoolwork.
While we were this close (picture parental fingers pinching together here) to signing up our daughter for rigorous soccer training because we wanted her to play varsity, obviously, she had other plans.
Although this a-ha moment came relatively late in our daughter’s soccer-playing career, looking back, it’s easy to identify others. Here are some of the parenting lessons I’ve learned about kids and sports.
1. Winning is not everything. Growing and improving are everything. And fun is extremely important. Learning how to lose with dignity and grace far exceeds winning. If there is someone in your family telling a child that winning comes first, no matter what, ask them to stop – yes, even if it’s Grandpop!
2. Embrace differences and find the good in every team. Depending on where you live, the early years of team sports at the YMCA or other rec league might be the only exposure your child has to teammates who don’t have the same color skin as him, or run as fast as her, or eat the same snacks as the rest of the team. Use this exposure to teach your child kindness and the meaning of the word inclusion.
3. No matter their age, kids need to like the sport they are playing. They should want to play it. The first time they grouse about a game or whine about getting ready for practice, blow it off. The next time, make a note of it. If the complaints keep coming, you should say, “You don’t get to play this sport next season.”
4. “I like to watch you play” is the best thing parents can say to their sports-playing kids. I read this five years ago on a blog called Hands-Free Mama, and immediately hijacked it. I remember the time I tried to explain to one of my girls how to play a position in a particular sport, and she said, “It’s not as easy as it looks.” Of course it isn’t, and all the mom-talk in the world wasn’t going to change that. “I like to watch you play” is honest and from the heart.
5. It’s hard to make a team in middle school and high school, let alone get significant minutes. This is where playing a variety of sports might come in handy for your kids. If soccer is the most popular sport in your part of town, making the field hockey team might be an easier target.
Whether your kids are just starting to play sports or they’ve been at it a while, please remember my daughter’s words of wisdom: “It’s not as easy as it looks!” Take a deep breath, remind your child (lovingly) to have fun, and enjoy watching him play for as long as you can.