Balancing Character, Skill Development and Fun
Introduction by Sara Noon, Managing Director of Membership at US Lacrosse. Main article by Dr. Richard Ginsburg, Ph.D., Stephen Durant, Ed.D, and Amy Batzell, Ed.D.
As I reflect on character and the role parents play in our child’s athletic endeavors, I think that I have felt every single emotion that Dr. Ginsburg discusses in his article below. I believe that I have gone from “a not so good” sports parent, to a “supportive” sports parent. I wish I had the advantage of Dr. Ginsburg’s book “Who’s Game is it, Anyway” six years ago when my daughter started her club lacrosse career. I learned the hard way how to be a “good” sports parent – by letting go of trying to control my daughter’s abilities. I believed in her so much, that I was one of those parents that “quizzed and critiqued” her in the car following a game. Yuk. The good news is that it did not take too long for me to learn that this approach did not work, that her club lacrosse experience was about her and not about me–I backed off and let go. Six years later, a rising senior, her club lacrosse team just won the National Club Championship. Her team displayed grace and class in the final game that was very physical and intense. When I think of character, her team, the parents and the coaches, embody and define character. They (players, parents and coaches) have been supportive, nurturing, encouraging, believing, and tolerant. There were definitely moments, but those were when the coaches “raised the bar” on the players and expected more. But there was never a moment when the players or parents were competitive with each other. Now, all of the girls are going on to play lacrosse at the college level, to continue playing the game that they love. Even my daughter, who was one of the last to commit, has ended up in a perfect school for her. I am so happy to see her, and all of the girls, embrace the character and strong virtues that they have learned through the sport of lacrosse. That regardless of what they do in life or where their lacrosse takes them, they have an internal sense of maturity, compassion and dedication that makes all of the parents proud. So please read Dr. Ginsburg’s article with seriousness of heart, if I had the insight he provides earlier on in my sport parent career, it would have been a smoother ride. My other children will benefit!
Organized sports are, in reality, just a serious form of play. Sports structure play, there are rules to obey, skills and positions to learn and plays to follow. The demands required to become good at any sport combined with the intensity of competition, introduce our children to the pursuit of excellence. In their demand that children channel their behavior according to rules, organized sports provide a natural place for many life lessons. The hunger for mastery and worthy achievement, the willingness to accept one’s own strengths and limitations, as well as the recognition of the needs and rights of others are crucial aspects of responsible, mature adulthood. Sports can help develop these areas of competence, but it does not happen without guidance, direction and strength from caring parents and coaches.
The challenge for all adults involved in youth, high school and even collegiate sports is to preserve the enjoyment of playing while introducing the structure and discipline of proper teamwork, skill and technique. Because children are vulnerable and still growing, they need our ongoing help in mastering this struggle. Yes as parents, we face our own struggles, knowing when to push our child and when to back off, when to stick to principle and when to be flexible and when to maintain control and then to let go and simply let kids play. As parents, we must live with the anxiety and the uncertainty of those decisions while trying to teach our kids the crucial lessons of life, yet allow them the freedom to make mistakes.
Another challenge to teaching our children how to play well, have fun and be a good kid is our own emotional baggage, which we parents carry from our past and project into the future. The desire to see our kids achieve what we ourselves couldn’t or didn’t often makes it difficult to remain under control. It can be troubling to observe our children perform in a public arena where they may experience the euphoria of victory, the agony of defeat, the humiliation of publicly making an error or the pain of injury – they’re on display at very vulnerable moments. Competition can also trigger memories and the feelings that accompany them: “that coach sucked, he screwed me my senior year too. Now he’s screwing my son.” Some parents become vocal and combative as spectators, but others withdraw and watch in isolation, standing off to the side. Others will cheer and use every ounce of emotional energy to support their children. Occasionally, parents can’t bear the tension of watching and won’t attend competitions at all. Add to the scenario parents’ own daily pressures and problems, and you can see how parents and youth sports can become a volatile mix.
The “post game quiz and lecture” during the ride home might not contain twenty questions, but it is one of the most corrosive ways in which we, as parents, can suck the joy out of sports for our children. There is no need to list the number of times that otherwise rational parents have overstepped the boundaries of proper behavior in their zeal to protect, promote or exalt their child in the heat of those competitive fires. Some parents make their displeasure public. As parents, we must find the will to present ourselves as role models for youth athletes. Sometimes the first step is slowing down, catching our breath, and reviewing what we really want our children to experience in sports participation. We can replace the question “did you win” with other questions that reveal our values:
• Did you have fun?
• How did you plan?
• Did you learn anything new?
• Did you give your best effort?
• Did you play as a team?
These emphases give more than lip service to building character.
So sports don’t build character – people do. Character development requires unselfishness, restraint, thoughtful reflection and a stilling of the passions. Parenting or coaching to form good character means at all times that winning takes a back seat to fairness, safety, the good of the group and long-term growth. As parents, we must make the joys and lessons of competitive sports readily available to our children without tainting sports with our own unrealistic expectations, or emotional outbursts, of those of other adults.