Be a Difference Maker 1

Advice to Parents of Athletes

I remember the first time I watched passively as my child failed. My six-year-old son was on the pitcher’s mound. The only training he had until that moment was a ten-minute pep talk from his coach and a few practice throws before the game. I remember how small and eager he looked. The air was still. My mouth twitched involuntarily from the stress. A few minutes later, I went to my car to practice my Lamaze deep breathing. I couldn’t bear to watch him fail.

After the game, I tried to encourage him through his tears. Yet, I too felt the disappointment deeply, wanting so much for him to succeed. I gave him a pat on the back, and a hearty “You’ll do better next time!” When really, I didn’t believe it. I thought of all the practicing we could do during the week. How his dad and I could teach him how to hit the strike zone. We could protect him from failing like that ever again.

Is the desire to see our children to succeed wrong? I don’t think so. Yet, a big problem with youth sports is the parents. How parents behave towards their children in sports impacts their kids as they become young adults, and beyond.

Real vs. Perceived Benefits of Sports

A friend of mine recently told me that her son is about to start high school. She let him know that he had to try out for a team. She thought it was the best way for him to have a ready-made tribe as he tries to navigate a complicated social system. Added to that is the benefit of sports in developing his leadership skills, helping him to set and work towards goals, nurturing a respect for authority, physical activity and, of course, healthy competition. Those are all real benefits parents cite for encouraging their kids to play sports, but none of them are true for the kids. The number one reason kids want to play sports is fun. In a 2005 study by Notre Dame University, it was found that 70% of kids quit sports by the age of 13. Why? Because sports isn’t fun anymore.

The Importance of Failure

“Genuine, healthy self-esteem develops when caring adults identify children’s strength but also allow them the satisfaction that only comes from trying and failing. Effort, failure and eventual triumph build great emerging adults.” – Tim Elmore, author of 12 Huge Mistakes Parents can Avoid

If we take an honest look at how we, as parents, may have contributed to the fallout of youth sports, we become better parents. The first place to start is failure. We do a great job at celebrating the wins in sport, being the cheering parent from the stand, giving the whistles and pats on the back. Yet, when it’s a loss, many of us struggle with how not to lose our composure. The greatest lessons in life are learned through failure. It is through failure that our kids become motivated to persevere and learn to succeed.

A University of Indiana soccer player, Paul “Whitey” Kapsalis writes in his book, To Chase A Dream, how he was told by the coach that he could never play for the team. Every year. For four years. “Whitey, you just are not good enough,” the coach told him. This lit the fire for Whitey to persevere. With the support of his parents, he worked harder each year than the year before. He did not give up. He had a dream and credits his parents’ gentle encouragement as one of the main reasons he never gave up.

As parents, we can let our children work out failure for themselves. Fortunately, my husband and I held back from trying to control the situation after my son failed at pitching. We let our son respond to the situation. He decided on his own to practice his pitching and asked his dad to help. He learned how to work out his failure. We saw him get less emotional about a loss, persevere and strategize on how to improve because he wanted to. And it was fun!

That time in Little League was such a fruitful period in his development into a young man. We, as his parents, learned to listen, not take over as the coach and to gently encourage him to get back up and in the game. The next time my son stepped on the mound, he learned to overcome failure, just by showing up and trying again. He is now close to 30-years-old, chasing bigger dreams, and we all know his time in youth sport played a huge role in making him who he is today.

Do you want to discover tools to navigate through and alongside your child and their sport? Do you know the most important words you can say to your child on and off the field? Are you aware of the pitfalls to avoid? Do you want to be part of the ongoing conversation with other parents? If you said yes to any of these questions, you can learn how to get involved with Parents of Athletes in North County. Be a difference maker in your athlete’s life!

Debbie Walton is the Whole Life Sports Director at North Coast Calvary Church and can be reached at