A Team Effort: Thoughts on Children and Sports

Dr. Corinne Masur

I’ve just listened to an interview with Mike Matheny, former professional baseball player and manager of The St. Louis Cardinals. He recently wrote The Matheny Manifesto, a book on sports and life in which he makes some very, very good points.

Does your child play t-ball or little league? Are you considering when to start your child on a soccer or tennis team? If so, Mike has some great ideas. He examines how to talk about your child and sports – and if you don’t have time to read the book or listen to the podcast (Fresh Air, 5/4/15) look at these brief points (some his, some mine):

1. Take the long view. When you start your child in sports, your job is to introduce him or her to the joy of playing the game. Whatever that game is – baseball, soccer, basketball, etc. – you want your child to enjoy the physical exercise, find delight in being on a team, learn how to be a good sport, and most of all, HAVE FUN! This idea should guide everything you do in that first year or two.

2. When you put your child on a team, commit to being there for the games. However, this doesn’t mean you have to yell and scream during them. In a survey of children of all ages (elementary school through college), when asked what they wanted their parents to do at their games, the most common response was, “NOTHING.” You don’t need to yell encouragement or exhortations to succeed. Your child will be trying hard enough to do a good job that she doesn’t need pressure from you. A few words of encouragement or a “Go Alisha!” will be enough.

3. Teach your child to respect the coach and never criticize your child’s coach in front of her. Remind your child to call the coach by their preferred name, whether it’s “Coach,” “Sir,” “Coach Maria,” etc. This serves as a model for how to treat authority figures throughout life and it’s a good habit for your child.

4. Parents need to respect the coach too. Don’t call the coach with your opinions– even if you’re convinced your child would do better at second base, keep it to yourself. Let your child play and stay out of it!

5. Do not expect good umpires. At this level, teams are lucky that there are any umpires at all. They’re mostly volunteers with little training, and their job is just to do the best they can and to keep some order on the field. Encourage your child to respect the umpire by modeling good behavior. Occasionally there will be a bad call – this is a good life lesson too.

Interested in signing your child up for sports? Here are a few questions to consider:
• What are your attitudes about sports, and how did you feel when you played sports as a child?
• What do you want your child to gain from this activity?
• Consider choosing a sport that fits with your child’s personality: Are team sports for him, given his age and maturity? Would she do well on a sports team that also includes individual competition (e.g., track and field)?

Remember, your job is to help your child have fun while forming bonds with teammates and coaches. Sports can provide opportunities for exercise, problem solving, emotional expression and regulation, competition—the list goes on. Let us know what guided your decisions about signing your kids up for a team!

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