Participation in sports is one of the healthiest, most beneficial activities our children can experience.  Through athletics, our children learn much needed social skills.  Athletes must employ strategies to manage anxiety, stress, injury and failure.  Children learn how practice and hard work lead directly to success.  Team sports foster the development of leadership, while teaching how to care for one’s body.  Athletes learn they are not entitled to success and that the world doesn’t revolve around them personally. As the years pass, the lessons learned and relationships built far outlast the polish on any trophy.

However, over recent years, there has been an influx of student athletes being treated on adolescent psychiatric units for suicidal ideation.  These adolescents are intelligent kids with good grades and bright futures.  They come from upper middle class families and have both parents involved in their lives.  Many of these patients are receiving letters of interest and scholarship offers from division one schools all over the country.  With all of the positives listed above, what could possibly be making these young people contemplate suicide?  These students often cite parental pressure as their foremost stressor.

We have all been to a sporting event that has fallen apart at the seams-not because of what happened on the field-but because of what occurred on the sidelines.  A fun learning experience can quickly turn into an emotionally damaging event in a child’s development. Children profit when parents adhere to a standard of beneficence.  Are we, the parents, placing our children in sports to benefit their development and to give them joy or to fill some need in our own lives?  How we, as parents, approach sports, school, practice time, and even failure can impact both our child’s athletic performance and their personal character.

Parents that complain openly about coaches in front of their children set up an adversarial mindset and damage the integrity of the player-coach relationship.  When we as parents take it upon ourselves to approach coaches, we rob our child of many important lessons.  The first is how to effectively approach adults about what they want or feel they deserve.  Our children will have bosses in the future and they need the experience of negotiating as a subordinate.  Second, pressuring authority figures for our child sends the message of entitlement.  We are telling our children that they deserve more playing time without learning what they must improve upon.  Third, when parents repeatedly step in for a child they damage the child’s self-image of independence.  Without meaning to do so, we tell our child subconsciously, “You are not capable of handling your own business.”

Children today are often not allowed to learn about failure.  Competition for scholarships and desirable jobs is at an all-time high.  Successful families fear that failure in the classroom will have great negative effects on their child’s future.  Athletics can be a way to fail without long-term implications.  We are not helping our children if we protect them from failure.  Failure is a part of life, and it draws many similarities to chicken pox.  As a child, the infection is irritating and may put you down for a few days.  Ultimately, you overcome the infection and carry immunity for the rest of your life.  When exposure to the virus is postponed until adulthood, the consequences can be much more severe.  People that fear failure face paralysis.  A boxer with a perfect record enters the ring with much more pressure than the challenger with a few prior losses and less to lose.

All children should be encouraged to diversify their athletic experiences.  The first question college recruiters ask about high school athletes is about the other sports they are involved in.  Players involved in one sport year round have three main problems.  One, they show increased frequency of sport-specific injuries.  Two, they are more inclined to burnout in college, and three, they show a decrease in the amount of possible gains after high school.  Recruiting coaches are not looking for a finished product.  They want to find enthusiastic kids who can grow in their programs.

All parents play a large part in promoting the physical and mental well-being of their child.  We should allow our children to encounter failure.  Encourage them to navigate through embarrassment, discouragement, and other emotions that come with a loss.  Allow them to see the need for self-evaluation, change and growth with the belief that they can be more effective in the future.  Our job as parents is to provide the resources for children to meet obstacles and to provide encouragement so children will continue to face those obstacles to completion.  We do not need to help our kids overcome impediments.  We should never aim to assist by lowering the bar for them, and we should diligently remain mindful that we ourselves do not become the hurdle.  Always check to see whether our actions are that of a spectator or that of a distraction.  As parents, we cannot force the love of the game, but we can definitely foster contempt for it.

Parents are the wallet that buys the gear, the car that transports to every event, the consistent example of support, the hands that clap for a strong effort and the shoulder to cry on in defeat.   Let the players play, coaches coach and the officials officiate – parents have enough responsibilities off the field.

If you are a parent, coach, or other adult with interest in these issues, feel free to contact us at WCPA.

Speakers are available for your program to assist everyone in creating the healthiest atmosphere possible for your youth.

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