If you have a young child who has a natural gift for athletics, you are in luck. Your child is in for a wonderful ride of competition, achievement, and the sheer joy of being part of the game. But being the parent of a young athlete has special responsibilities as well. You need to be there to make sure that he keeps the other parts of his life in balance – and that he stays healthy, happy, and in the game for the right reasons.
Given that there will be many demands on your time, you should follow a few simple guidelines for holding it all together:
Arm yourself with information: Make sure you learn everything you can about the team before you sign up your child. What kind of a time commitment is required? What is the schedule for games or competition? What kind of commitment or contribution is required from the parents? Do you agree with the general philosophy of how the team/sport/practices are run? For younger athletes, you’ll want to make sure that your child will have a chance to learn all aspects of the sport (i.e. playing all of the various positions on a baseball team) before committing to one specific position or event.
Put the basics first: All kids need good nutrition, plenty of sleep, and time to keep up with their schoolwork. If your child is in a sport that requires leaving the house at 5 a.m. for special workouts or practices, it is your job to make sure that she gets to bed early enough so that she gets a good night’s sleep. You also need to help her figure out when she is going to get her homework done, and how she can squeeze in time for extra help if she needs it, or if she falls behind.
Be the model of a good sport: Of course you should be your child’s best cheerleader, but take it a step beyond that: Cheer for all of his teammates, and even cheer for the other team when there’s a particularly good play. Befriend (or at least be cordial to) the other parents – even the parents on the other team. And of course, never yell at or belittle your child (or worse, the coach or another player) from the sidelines. Show your child that your priority is having fun and watching a great game.
Make the coach your ally: Ideally, you and your child’s coach should be in agreement on your child’s schedule and training goals. But even if you have disagreements, you need to keep the lines of communication open and keep the relationship friendly. Respect your child’s coach as the expert, and give him the space he needs to do his job of helping your child. If you feel that your child’s coach truly does not have your child’s best interests in mind, look for another team or another coach.
Ease up on the pressure: In this hyper-competitive world, your young athlete will face plenty of pressure. She’ll feel it from her coaches, her teammates, herself, and from the increasingly high stakes of the various competitions that she faces – so she certainly doesn’t need it from you. Even parents of the most elite athletes agree: If you can make your house a pressure-free zone, it will give them a healthy respite from the pressure that surrounds them at every turn. When she’s at home, let her simply be herself, rather than “star gymnast” or whatever other label the rest of the world has given her.
You may go through some difficult times with your young athlete, but remember (and help him remember) that losing is part of the game. Try to turn those minor setbacks into learning experiences, so that your child develops a strong and healthy attitude toward competition. If you raise a strong athlete, you will help prepare your child for years of satisfying athletic competition, and you will prepare him for the multitude of other challenges he will face in “real” life.