Athletic Dreams & Demands

Our Kids Want to Compete. But Are We Pushing Them Too Hard?


by Jon Finkel


Todd Marinovich had his sports career cut out for him, but his rise and fall is now legendary. His father, Marv Marinovich, was an offensive lineman and assistant coach for the Oakland Raiders, and he groomed Todd for the NFL from the moment he was born. By age 10, Todd was working with a throwing coach and weight-lifting became part of his pre-teen preparation to become a professional quarterback. He had the arm and the size, but ultimately he did not have the character. For a while, father’s champion-building strategy worked. Todd set a national record with 9,194 passing yards while at Capistrano Valley High in Mission Viejo, which led him to a scholarship to play quarterback for USC, where he was arrested for drug charges and suspended from the team twice. He was eventually drafted by the Raiders and played one season before his drug problems ended his career. For parents who like to see their children get involved in athletics, the lesson learned of Marinovich is to focus on the character bulding, not the champion building.


Fear, Failure and Frustration

“Sports help children build a sense of character,” Dr. Aubrey H. Fine, co-author of The Total Sports Experience — for Kids: A Parents Guide to Success in Youth Sports, says. “It allows them to be a part of a team, to experience an atmosphere that teaches commitment on a personal and group level.” A young child participating in sports will experience many areas of development, like different subjects in a class curriculum. Too much emphasis on any one subject, or in any one aspect of sports, and the lessons learned will be top heavy or bottom heavy.

“One of the first lessons for a child to understand is learning to cope with failure,” Dr. Fine says. While failing may be an unpleasant part of all of our lives, it is a reality, and teaching your child to handle it on and off the field is of the utmost importance. When a child does fail or performs under par, there are several ways to handle it. Coach Robin Bivona, a coach and the Athletic Director of South Coast Youth Pop Warner Football, believes in always starting with something positive.


“If one of my players gets burned, the first thing I say is, ‘I loved your effort on that play.’ I follow up with something like, ‘Next time, I know you’ll cover your man. I know you’ll do great.’” Coach Bivona explains. “I always like to sandwich teaching with positives, especially if a kid feels bad about a particular play.”


“As athletes, children are challenged to learn new [skills and responsibilities] that may provoke fear,” Dr. Fine says. This fear can lead to frustration and “children need to overcome frustration by acting appropriately.” In other words, being a good sport.

Even if you can limit fear and frustration and you create a confident child, there is still the issue of embarrassment. Even Michael Jordan clanked a dunk off the back of the rim sometimes. “The number one thing for young kids to learn while participating in sports is to have fun and enjoy themselves at all times,” Dr. Fine says, even if they mess up.

“This means they have the right to play as a child and not as an adult,” or more to the point, play free of an adult’s expectations of them. If a child makes a mistake, dealing with that mistake will “help them become resilient and handle difficult situations with grace and good humor.”

In the example of Michael Jordan, who beaned a ball off the rim in his final NBA All-Star game appearance, the first thing he did was laugh at himself. Teaching your child to do the same will help him or her deal with mistakes easier. The simplest way to encourage this: let them see you laugh at yourself after a goof or mistake. Surrounding your child with positive thoughts on and off the field or court will teach them that messing up is nothing to be afraid of.


Respect and Compassion

Next time you’re at your child’s game and they endure a tough loss, listen closely to how many kids will say it was the referee’s fault; that the officials blew the game. If you think your eight year old came up with that excuse on his or her own, you’re mistaken. They overheard it from a parent or coach and since they don’t know how to vent their frustration on their own, they echo their role models.

“A big problem is yelling,” Coach Bivona says. “Yelling at kids, yelling at coaches, yelling at officials. I’ve had instances where parents on the other team were yelling at the parents on our team.”

Any decent coach will know not to express negative sentiments around the children, which means it’s up to the parents to carry the torch at home and on the sidelines. Off the field, “it is a parent’s job to take on accountability for being responsible for sportsmanship,” Coach Bivona advises. The key is to teach kids to respect the game and respect themselves. You do this by showing compassion in the face of individual and team adversity. “They’re like sponges; you’d be surprised at how well young children can absorb the positive examples they see around them.”

“Children must be able to put winning in perspective,” Dr. Fine says. Coach Bivona agrees. “It’s important to teach children to go about their business after they score just as they would if they got scored against.”

Professional sports figures aren’t doing our kids’ winning attitudes any favors, either. A poor example of this was during last years’ Little League World Series where some of the young players were seen imitating Sammy Sosa’s Home Run skip out of the batter’s box or Barry Bonds’ gloating over a moon shot. Children need better examples to learn how to be humble and to win or lose, gracefully.

“The three most important words dealing with this are class, character and concern,” Dr. Fine says. “Kids must learn to develop empathy and become more interested in the well-being of the other competitors.” After all, everyone loses and everyone wins at some point. Again, your child’s reaction will stem from your reaction.


Skill Level and Adjustment

“As far as competition goes, one of a parent’s most critical jobs is to know their child’s skill level and to place them [in sport competition] accordingly,” says Dr. Fine. Nothing will turn a child off faster to a sport than putting him or her in a level of competition they aren’t ready for. “You have to evaluate your child’s skills realistically, so the kids don’t feel that they have to live up to lofty expectations at too young an age.” A child playing at the proper level will then have the ability to learn about the main realities of competition; winning and losing, on an even playing field.

A part of that winning and losing is adjustment (the act of sacrificing personal best to better fit the overall goals of the team), both in the game to affect the outcome, and after the game in dealing with the result. Every athlete has to deal with adjustment. Think about this year’s Los Angeles Lakers. With four Hall of Famers in the starting line-up, there just wasn’t enough shots or minutes in the games to keep everyone’s statistics at their career level. The players each had to make an adjustment for the benefit of the team. By sacrificing individual numbers, they’ve theoretically gained wins.

“One of the best ways we teach adjusting and leadership is by choosing captains,” Coach Bivona says. “We rotate captains in the beginning of the season so every team member has the opportunity to be one. Then, toward the end of the season, whoever is practicing the hardest and playing with the best sportsmanship will earn the right to be a captain.” This encourages and teaches leadership as well as the importance of hard work. Adjusting to being a captain one week and supporting another teammate as captain the next, teaches a sense of we instead of I.


There Is No “I” in Team

“We is the single most important word in sports,” Dr. Fine explains. “Team building and the importance of being a contributor are all elements invested in we. When children emphasize we, they begin to recognize the united strength of others.” This is both important on and off the field of play. The easiest way children learn this lesson is to have fun.

An often overlooked strategy in teaching camaraderie with teammates is time spent off the field together. “It is important that children see the value in carrying relationships off the field so they can use the skills they’ve learned on it with their teammates,” Dr. Fine says. One of the simplest ways to promote this is to schedule activities with team members away from practice or a game. If kids see you carrying on friendships with other team parents, they are more inclined to welcome their teammates into their personal lives as friends and not just teammates.

Of course, there are many sports, like track, tennis, swimming or ice skating, where there are no teammates, where the competitions are held on an individual basis. While much of the enjoyment of these sports is the same, many of the circumstances are different. There is a spotlight, a sense of personal accountability in every performance.

“As an individual sport, skating teaches you to be independent and self-reliant,” Sasha Cohen, World Figure Skating Champion, says. Cohen lived in
Orange County from ages 8 to 17, having only recently moved to Connecticut for training purposes. She took second in the World Championships last March and followed it up with a first place finish at the Marshalls World Figure Skating Challenge in April, beating Michelle Kwan. (See Sasha Cohen: Raising a Winner)

One great advantage of some individual sports, like tennis, for example, is that you can actually play full games with your child, as long as you adjust your play. A seven year old won’t be impressed with your devastating slice


Arnold Villajuan, an instructor with The Orange County Community Tennis Association and Director of their Tennis After School Program, says, “Tennis is great with younger kids because you can play with them on an individual basis while you’re teaching them. What I like to do is mimic what they do as a game and then I have them copy me while I instruct them on hitting the ball.”

Sometimes, the pressure of joining a team can also be intimidating to shy children. “At our after-school programs, a lot of kids who sign up for tennis don’t play any other sports,” Villajuan says. “When we start them off, we have them playing what they think are just fun games with lots of running, but without knowing it, they are developing reflexes, coordination and real skill.”

As with team sports, you have to keep positive as you go. Hitting a ball in the net is just as frustrating as swinging and missing in baseball — for a child and his or her parents. “What you want to do is let the child know that their grip was right or their footwork was right and that it was a good shot…next time it’ll go right over,” Villajuan explains.

With tennis, or other individual sports like golf, it is easy to see improvement in your child. Each little skill acquired builds confidence and the learning curve becomes quicker and easier to see. There aren’t as many outside variables; hitting a good serve is easy for a child to see, whereas sometimes a good pass in basketball that’s missed by a teammate — seems like a mistake. Mistakes are bound to happen in both team and individual sports, they key is to make sure the kids are enjoying themselves.


Keeping It Fun

So, how do you keep sports fun for your child? Don’t be overbearing or push your child into a sport he or she might not want to play. Being overbearing makes sports a burden, rather than a fun pastime, and is more likely turn your child off of sports than anything else.

“One of the worst things you can do is volunteer to be an assistant coach just to work with your own child,” Coach Bivona says. “I’ve seen this happen several times and it never works out; not for the kid and not for the parent.” Other kids can sense when one child is getting all the attention and even though as an adult, you understand that the father is working extra with his own son, the other kids still feel neglected.

The converse is also true: All the other children will notice the father giving his son all the attention and they will resent him and, in turn, neglect him. If you’re going to volunteer, treat each kid as if he or she was your own.

To rewrite a well known quote, “Ask not what sports can do for you, but what sports can do for your kid.” U




Books for Sports Parents

The Cheers and the Tears: A Healthy Alternative to the Dark Side of Youth Sports by Shane Murphy (Jossey-Bass, 1999).

Why Johnny Hates Sports by Fred Engh (Square One Publishers, 2002).

It’s Just a Game! Youth, Sports and Self Esteem: A Guide for Parents by Dr. Darrell J. Burnett (Authors Choice Press, 2001).

Positive Coaching: Building Character and Self-Esteem Through SportsP by Jim Thompson (Warde Publishers, Inc., December 1995).

101 Ways to Be a Terrific Sports Parent: Making Athletics a Positive Experience for Your Child by Joel Fish (Fireside, 2003).