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Patch Parents on Getting Involved With Your Kids' Sports

Are you the yelling madly from the sidelines type? Or the parent who lavishes praise on all the young players on your kid's team? Read what some local parents have to say about their experience with organized youth sports.

As little leaguers warm up their pitches for the season, and young soccer players take their first shots on goal, Patch parents took up some questions this week about the role of parents in organized sports.

Are parents ruining organized sports for our kids? Is it time to re-think our attitude towards children and their sporting events?

Dale Gregory: When my son was in kindergarten at Roosevelt, I met the parent cohorts that would help shape the organized sports experiences of my kids for the rest of their lives.

I entered this new parenting arena knowing nothing. I grew up before Title IX, the 1972 law that guaranteed equal spending of federal monies for men’s and women’s sports in education. I didn't have any brothers to teach me about organized sports and my only experience was our PE program (that made me feel like a loser with a capital 'L') and our neighborhood foursquare games, which were organized by the alpha males who lived at the top of the hill. 

My mother was an actress, my father her biggest fan. So I can tell you a lot about theater, but Little League was an unfamiliar world.

In college I swam recreationally and loved attending Cal gymnastics, football and basketball, but being a spectator hardly prepared me for the "soccer mom" world waiting for my children. I naively thought they'd get plenty of exercise running around the neighborhood like I did.

The concept of having to get exercise through something "organized" by adults was foreign territory.

But I got lucky. By chance my son became good friends with a boy whose mom was well acquainted with this world and became my mentor and remains a dear friend today. I'll never forget her first invitation to peewee soccer.

I explained I had a little guy who liked to chase butterflies in a grassy field and wasn't this a little brutal for 5-year-olds? But my son was excited and so I thought we'd try it, since I shouldn't balk at something just because it wasn't part of my childhood.

Again we were lucky — having kind and compassionate first experiences.

However, walking around the fields where the older kids played, I began to see another side of these organized sports. I saw behavior that I wouldn't want modeled to my children and thus the first of many red flags was raised.

As I look back, we had a few near misses and some direct hits with the darker side of organized sports. Probably the greatest gift my friend gave me was introducing us to summer league swimming.

Both my children participated until they aged out, one joining at age 8, the other at 5 (young yes, but it was her choice and she loved every minute). This was a group of parents that cheered and clapped for every child no matter if they swam first or last.

I learned that individual sports can give a child the feeling they are on a team, while emphasizing individual improvement. The kids made lifelong friends, looked forward to their summer swim team rituals and generally had a very positive experience.

When parents did act inappropriately, yelling at their own children, we used this as an opportunity to talk about the issue. We talked about what is a parent's role? My kids were clear that parents should leave the coaching to the coaches, and parents were there to provide snacks and dry towels!

In middle school we noticed my son had an aptitude for baseball skills and so I went to observe the league he would join. Sadly, I told him this was way out of my comfort zone. There was yelling, swearing and generally demeaning behavior towards the children, and since our residence determined what league we could join, I told him that he'd have to wait and make his own decision in high school.

Both my kids chose to stick with swimming, soccer and added water polo in high school. My son went on to play water polo in college. My daughter left high school sports when she realized her personality did not mesh with the coach. That was a huge decision for her, but she knew she'd always have summer swimming to look forward to.

Both kids continued in soccer, my son in select and my daughter in indoor soccer. Both kids sustained injuries that put a halt to their soccer careers.

My son smashed up his ankle in a divot, my daughter broke her arm against a wall. Will they arthritically revisit their injuries in their 50s? Probably.

But the injuries some kids sustained to their self-esteem from words is probably far worse. I am so grateful those hurtful experiences were few and far between.

I would love a world where all children could simply play in nature. Make mud pies, climb trees, go on hikes, discover creeks and rivers, play for hours on a wooded trail behind their neighborhood like I did. But I know parents must look for and supervise these experiences in today's world. And there are plenty of opportunities out there.

So what did I learn about organized sports? My children learned how to cope with disappointment. They learned how to celebrate each other's successes and be happy for someone else's achievement.

They learned about commitment, responsibility, challenge, teamwork and compassion. As they got older they learned they might have to leave a team because the environment wasn't right for them.

Making tough decisions is certainly a life skill. So if you find the right match for your family values and you pay attention to those red flags, your children can have a positive experience in an organized sport—especially if you, the parent, are their biggest cheerleader.

Leah Hall: I can relate a great deal with major points brought up by Dale.  My own childhood teaches me little about the world of organized sports as it exists today, so I'm also learning as I go.

My 10-year-old daughter has been playing soccer for three to four years, the last two of these on a recreation-level team. Unfortunately, although my daughter didn't experience performance pressures in the beginning, now we see that as players mature, recreational-level teams become more challenging to sustain, due to a high player and volunteer coach attrition rate.  

For example, this season it was necessary to merge her team with another team for the first time in order to have enough players to qualify for league games.

Some of this decline is probably due to competing interests as children grow and mature, but another key factor is organized sports league's increasing focus and resources aimed at developing and promoting regional and state-level players.  

We lost our team manager, coach, and a few players within the last year, mostly because these players were selected for regional competitive teams. In addition, two team players became discouraged after competition try-outs and both went on to other ventures in the hopes of moving up in the league next year.  

Because my husband and I are very appreciative of this recreational team experience for our own daughter, I stepped in as team manager and he has been assisting with coaching as well as taking free coaching lessons from professional coaches within our club in the hopes of becoming another resource for her team.

Happily, our newly re-formed club, The East Bay United Soccer Club, is beginning to address this issue at an organizational level. Instead of viewing the recreational-level teams as merely a competition-level recruitment resource, these teams are now being supported by the club with the hope of sustaining a much larger volume of players and skilled coaches who will in turn carry the love of the game with them throughout life at whatever level is right for them.  

This should be a win-win for the club, as a larger pool of motivated players will be cultivated and can move in and out of the different levels with more flexibility.

Regan McMahon's book, Revolution in the Bleachers: How Parents Can Take Back Family Life in a World Gone Crazy Over Youth Sports, takes an investigative look at the evolution of the over-the-top youth culture and gives a practical plan of action to bring balance back to kids' lives and families. It is being used by the coaches and administrators of our team's club in order to frame new practices and policies in the hopes of bringing balance and fun to all its players.

You can also download a podcast of a recent talk show on KALW 91.7 that dealt specifically with the issue of parents in kids sports. McMahon was a guest on the show.

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