How Mothers Can Make Youth Sports Safer and More Fun

A Sports Mom's Intuition

By Brooke de Lench

Mothers are protective, nurturing, inclusive and often great teachers. With those traits, moms can bring more balance to the increasingly competitive and demanding world of youth sports.
Mothers are protective, nurturing, inclusive and often great teachers. With those traits, moms can bring more balance to the increasingly competitive and demanding world of youth sports.

Recently I received a call from a mother seeking advice. While attending a youth football game in which her son's team was getting crushed, she overheard another mom repeatedly express frustration that her own son wasn't playing. As the opposing team scored again, this upset mom lost it: she stormed down from the bleachers and marched around the field to where the teams were standing, arriving just as her son went into the game and was promptly pulled back out again. She grabbed her son and dragged him away so quickly that the coaches didn't even notice.

The mom who called me recounted her husband's observation at that point: "That's such a mom thing to do," he said. And this mom thought to herself, "What's wrong with that? What's wrong with a 'mom thing to do'?"

On the one hand, she wondered, are moms supposed to just stand by while their kids suffer exclusion or other negative aspects of competitive youth sports? On the other hand, she wondered, what kind of message does a mom send by taking her kid off the field in the middle of a game.

"Mothers do get like mama bears," I told her. "We really do get very protective of our children." But while I recognized this mother's frustration with her son's lack of playing time, I couldn't endorse her actions.

Yet, I told her, a mother's protectiveness is not a bad thing. In fact, what serves mothers so well as sports parents is their natural protectiveness, along with their nurturing instinct, emotional openness, and their belief in the importance of fair play, cooperation, connectedness, inclusiveness and the value of doing one's best over winning and competition.

All of these traits give moms the potential to change the highly competitive culture of youth sports today in a profound way. Here's how using your special gifts as a mother can help your child - and all children - have the best possible sports experience:

Trust your "mother's intuition."

This is the single biggest key to being a good sports parent. You know your child better than anyone. You are your own expert. Are you trying to decide whether and when to let your child start playing sports, try out for a competitive travel team or begin specializing in a single sport? Or, even more serious, are you considering pulling your child off a team because you sense the coach is likely to abuse your child? Trusting your intuition in these cases is always the right choice.

Have the courage to say "no."
As a mother, you know when to say no: to candy right before meals, to staying up way past bedtime, to a new video game that isn't really needed. The same should be true for sports. Don't be intimidated into saying "yes" to letting your child play on two or three different teams during a single season, or paying $1,400 for that tournament at a fancy resort, simply because you worry that your child will suffer if you don't.

Make time for free, unstructured play and for family activities.
As a mother, you know intuitively how important downtime and family time are to your child's healthy development. And yet, today's parents are under enormous pressure to help their kids succeed and to keep up with other sports parents. Avoid getting sucked into unhealthy peer pressure from other parents to push your child into more and more activities. Set aside time just for the family, and stick to it. Research shows that teens who eat dinner with their parents at least five nights a week are the least likely to be taking drugs, suffering from depression or in trouble with the law; they're the most likely to be doing well in school and have a supportive circle of friends.

Set limits on sports participation that work for your child and your family.
For some, one sport and one team per season may be right. Other kids may thrive on more intense involvement. But you also need to consider the time you'll need to spend getting your child to and from practices and games. Set limits on how much participation your family can handle. It's best to work with your child on this; if you simply impose limits unilaterally, your child won't learn to structure her own schedule and to find the right balance between activities and free time.

Balance winning with having fun and skill development.
In general, women tend to be more process-oriented, while men seem more result-oriented. Thus, moms are more likely to reject the common supposition that, for better or worse, competition must consist of winning, losing and displays of power, dominance and control. Whether as a coach or as a parent, teach your child to define a successful competition as one in which everyone contributes and the most is gotten from everyone's individual efforts. Emphasize the journey, not the results; the effort not the outcome.

Protect your child from abuse.

Since the dawn of time, mothers have been the primary caretakers protecting their children from harm. Don't abdicate this critical duty by turning a blind eye to the physical, emotional or psychological abuse that can occur at the hands of coaches, spectators or teammates. Abuse shouldn't be the price your child has to pay to be able to play competitive sports. Learn about the different forms that abuse can take in the sports environment and be proactive in preventing it:

  • Model appropriate behavior and attitudes. Teach your child that violence - whether physical or emotional - is not the way to solve personal problems.

  • Limit training, whether in practices, games, at home or with a private coach, to reduce the risk of potentially permanent overuse injuries to your child's growing bones, joints and muscles. Experts generally agree that a child under age 18 is far less likely to suffer an overuse injury when he or she takes three months off from organized sports spread out through the year.

  • Refuse to let your child play with an injury.

  • Make sure he or she gets enough rest and is adequately hydrated before, during and after sports.

  • Insist that your child's club or league conduct background checks on all adults who work with youth athletes.

  • Insist that a two-adult rule be instituted for practices and overnight trips.

  • Speak up if you hear abusive language or see abusive conduct, whether from a coach, player or parent.

  • Get to know your child's coach by attending practices and games to see how he or she interacts with the athletes (private or closed practices are a red flag for abuse).

  • Educate your kids about the forms of abuse and create a safe, nurturing environment in which they will feel comfortable letting you know whenever abuse, in any of its forms, has occurred.

Become a coach.
While fathers still coach most youth sports teams, more and more mothers are becoming coaches. Here are just some of the reasons why moms can make excellent youth sports coaches. In general:

  • Women are natural teachers.

  • Women tend to lead by consensus, a leadership style that even boys often prefer, rather than a more authoritarian form of leadership.

  • Mothers are instinctive protectors of children - careful and cautious about children's safety.

  • A mother's instinct is to be a calming influence and peacemaker and to emphasize how we're all the same inside. Mothers tend to care about all children, not just their own.

  • A woman's emotional openness, communication skills and ability to detect mood from facial expression, body posture and gestures help her relate well to players and motivate them to do their best.

Reclaim your natural role as guardian of children at play.

While mothers have always overseen children at play, that role has been compromised by a youth sports system dominated by men and male values. It's time for moms to shed the label of "soccer mom" and to take a more active role in shaping their children's sports experiences. If we do, we can go a long way toward creating a balance in youth sports between feminine and masculine, between female and male values, between winning and having fun, and between competition and cooperation.