I have been writing this post in my head over the last couple years as I have watched my young kids start to play sports. There is something so magical about those first experiences with sports — they are innocent and fun and just pure. I love watching my kids play, seeing them get nervous, feeling that first little bit of competitive fire that drives them to work a little bit harder and run a little bit faster. They lose their first game and feel the disappointment of that, but learn that there is always another game coming. They get the thrill of having a stand full of people cheering for them when they score their first goal in soccer or hit a home run.
I love sports. I am competitive and always have been, and I love trying new things, learning and getting better, and I love to win. I played tennis throughout high school and a year in college, and I had the thrill of winning state championships and also felt the soul-crushing defeat of losing matches. I was never the best one out there and knew it wasn’t going to be a career for me, but it meant so much to me while I played. I often say I learned as much or more on the tennis courts in high school than I ever did in the classroom: the drive and dedication it takes to get better, and how that is fueled sometimes more by your fails rather than your successes; the intense pressure of standing out on the court in a big match with so many people watching and trying to keep your head together and focus; how to walk off the court with a loss and still hold your head up and handle it gracefully.
What I worry about with my kids is that it seems like things are much more intense much earlier than they were for us.
It seems like there is pressure to decide on your sport when you are seven- or eight-years-old, practice and play year-round, and play on all-star and select teams with multiple games in a week, late in the evenings. I wonder if this will all lead to better athletes or kids that are burnt out and lose the love of the game before they ever even really get started. To really be a great athlete that lasts for the long run, I think you have to love it and not feel like it is a job. I am not sure exactly how to foster this love of the game in my kids without letting it get too intense too quickly. I have a profound appreciation for how much work it took to be competitive with tennis, to make the varsity team, and to win matches; I just don’t know how to keep it all from being too much too soon.
I have tried to come up with some “rules” to teach my kids in the hopes that they appreciate the love of the game in general, so they don’t feel too much pressure to stick with one sport at this age, and that they don’t feel pressure from us as parents.
These are my main goals that I hope for with my young kids playing sports:
Try many different sports. At this age (my kids are nine, eight, and six), I hope that my kids have the opportunity to try different sports: swim, soccer, lacrosse, baseball, tennis, flag football, golf. This is the time to try everything and see what you like or what you might be naturally good at.
Stick with it for a season. If we try a sport, we commit to it for the whole season even if they decide it isn’t their favorite or they don’t love it. It is important to learn that when you commit to being on a team, you need to honor that commitment and stick with it until the end of that season.
Thank your coaches and the referees and umpires. This is a big one for us. Anyone who has coached a team or been coached knows that it is hard work, and most of the time for these younger teams, the coaches are doing it out of the goodness of their hearts and a love of the game. We remind our kids at the end of every practice and every game that they should always thank their coaches and the refs/umpires.
Win with grace and lose with grace. My son was on a baseball team and their coach said “Remember guys, we win with grace and we lose with grace” at the end of every game. This was such a good lesson and it could have been easy at six and seven years of age to be sore losers, so it was such an important thing for these kids to understand and learn. Learning how to walk off the field with your head up, to congratulate your opponents on a win, to high five or shake hands at the end — whether you won or lost — is one of the most important takeaways for me. Sportsmanship and how you carry yourself as the one holding the trophy or the one walking away with nothing is important in sports and in life.
Practice pays off. In any sport, this age is a great time to learn that practicing and receiving instruction from coaches and paying attention really does pay off. My son sometimes has a tendency to be a little over confident in some situations, and playing competitive sports has been a great opportunity for him to realize that there is almost always someone faster or better or with more natural talent, and that getting better at whatever you are doing takes practice and a drive to want to get there. It is also important to learn that most of the motivation to get better has to come from within. This is a great time to practice and realize how much improvement comes when you work hard at whatever you are doing.
Cheer for your teammates. Learn to cheer your teammates on. Learn to be happy for other people’s successes and achievements. This is another skill learned in sports that is applicable in all areas of life. You can be a great athlete and get all the glory and still be able to clap and cheer your teammates on when they do something great. Cheer your teammates on and high five them when they do something great. Be the first to offer a hand to pick them up when they fall down. Offer words of encouragement when they are disappointed.
Be a good sports parent. This one is a tough one. I read an article once that said that the best thing to say to your child after a game is, “I loved watching you play.” That really resonated with me. It is crazy how easy it is to get sucked into the competitiveness of it all and get too intense, to get annoyed at a bad call, to want to live vicariously through your kids and start thinking you’re the one out on the field or the court. I think of all things that kill the love of the game, this is one of the biggest.
My son was playing his first season of kid pitch baseball and pitching for one of the first times ever. He was so nervous and so excited. He was doing well until one kid came up to bat, and he threw a wild pitch and accidentally almost hit the batter. From outside the fence, an older woman yelled at him, “Hey! That’s my grandson!!” as if my son had thrown the pitch on purpose. I saw him pause, and I knew he was about to cry because he is so tenderhearted that it just killed him to think some kid’s grandmom thought he was trying to hit her grandson on purpose. His eyes filled with tears and he tried to throw a few more pitches, but he was so rattled and couldn’t keep it together, that he walked off the field in tears. We talked to him and told him he had to go back out there and finish pitching, and it was overall a good learning experience that taught him a lot. It was so disappointing to know how excited he was, and that he was just a nine-year-old kid pitching for the first time and that a grown adult could bring him to tears and completely embarrass and upset him.
There are so many opportunities that sports bring to our kids, but there are things we have had to learn as parents watching the game. The most important thing to remember is that these are just kids. They are learning and trying new things, and it is supposed to be fun and something that they love. We should get satisfaction and joy out of just watching them play. When the game is over, tell them that it was so fun to see them play and that you loved when they did this or that and pick out the good stuff and run with it. The kids that will end up being successful athletes will get enough drive and motivation from within themselves to be great.
I certainly don’t think we have it figured out as parents; I had no idea how hard it would be to be the one sitting on the sidelines watching and cheering, and trying not to be a crazy baseball mom or get too competitive and to remember that it is just kids out there. My main hope for my kids in all of these childhood sports experiences is that they lay the groundwork to have a true love of the game. I hope that they learn about good sportsmanship and how to be coachable. I hope they learn how to win and how to lose gracefully. I hope that they learn that working hard at something and putting in a lot of practice makes the difference between being good and being great. I hope they feel the fun of holding the trophy in their hands, but also understand that losing isn’t the end of the world. I hope they get to appreciate the taste of ice cold water out of a water bottle on a hot summer day, when you have run your heart out and played with every ounce that you had because it will never taste as good again.