Q: [School-Aged] We were so stressed when it came time for All stars to be announced. It seems so political and the kids put a lot of weight on whether they make it or not. So our son made it (yay!) and now we are really getting a taste of what stress really is (boo!). The intensity and behavior of the adults — fans and coaches alike — is kind of shocking. How do we explain this to our 10-year-old.
A: Competition in youth athletics has never been more intense and, thanks to technology and the Internet, access to resources is now widely available. However, where pure enjoyment and “just having fun” once stood, pressure, discontent, and anxiety are setting in for student athletes. From what I’ve seen and experienced working with kids as both a therapist and a basketball coach, it appears that adults are largely to blame for the change in attitude and negative feelings associated with athletics today. Unfortunately, there is too much emphasis placed on finding the next LeBron James and not enough on discipline, respect, teamwork, camaraderie, and most importantly, integrity and character.
Parents, help your children learn to enjoy athletics by avoiding situations where there is poor role modeling by coaches and parents. The most important aspect of team sports should be the life lessons and skills that is learned from participating and not on how much potential that he has. Making an All-Star Team can be exhilarating for kids because they are selected for having more ability and a higher skill level than their peers. However, this does not mean that your child has “next level talent” despite what you have been told by money-grubbing coaches. The real data suggest that very few kids will get a Division I college scholarship and even fewer will make it to the professional ranks. Take that pressure off of your child now.
So how can you help your son have a fun and valuable experience playing sports under the current conditions? Talk to your son regularly about being in the moment and staying within himself. When he feels pressured by parents, coaches, or other players to perform at a higher level than he is capable, help him understand what is realistic. Encourage him strongly to have open communication with you about his feelings and take action, when necessary, to help him cope with the intensity of the competition. This could be as simple as doing damage control when he is upset about how he played and as drastic as pulling him from the team if it is not a good fit for his development and growth. My rule of thumb is if you are uncomfortable with the messages and behavior of the coaches, parents, and players then it is not a good fit for your son. Remember, playing on an All-Star Team is not a life-changing event and is not a necessary milestone.
Finally, allow your son a chance to breathe and be a kid. At 10 years-old, being able to have fun with his friends riding a bike, going to the beach, and playing video games is more important than playing on any team that is not presenting the same level of enjoyment. Parents, do not fill your child’s schedule up so much that is does not allow them to have time to be free and explore. Your son needs to have many different life experiences to be the well-rounded kid and eventual productive citizen that you want him to be.
Matt Fleischman, LMFT, earned his Masters in Clinical Psychology from Pepperdine University and currently practices at The Weichman Clinic at renowned Hoag Hospital, Newport Beach and is the South OC director of Chiron Behavioral Health.