Subscribe to our free Wellness Junction Professional Update


Click here for more information!

Search For:

Managed Care
Information Center

Health Resources Publishing

Managed Care

Health Resources Online

About Us
Bookmark Us

home / at home / exercise / story

For the Love of the Game?

In the blink of an eye, your 10-year-old son stole the ball from the defenseman, dribbled toward the middle of the field and sprinted 15 yards toward the defending goal. The goalie is celebrating a little prematurely with merely 10 seconds left in the league's championship game. Your son is just inside the 18-yard box, and all he has to do is tap the ball to the right corner of the goal, past the off-guard goalie, and the game will go into overtime.

You realize that this is the moment you've dreamed about: your son is going to be the hero. This is why you signed him up for recreation soccer. This is why you paid $78.95 for brand-new Adidas Copamundial soccer shoes. This is why you dropped $150 for a week at the "I Wanna Be Pele" soccer camp. This kid's going to play for a National Champion someday; maybe he'll even win a gold medal.

"It's not just a game anymore," Dr. Darrell J. Burnett told "Parents see it as a potential for a scholarship. They have to get back to approaching it as a game."

Then what happens? Your All-Star son shoots a dribbler right to the feet of the shocked goalie, who picks it up and boots it down the field to end the game. TWEET!! Game over. As your son walks off the field, an opponent snickers, "What happened? Blinded by the glare in your shoes?" The coach hangs his head, gathers the team together, and tells them they played a great game and should have had a chance to win, but some players just didn't give 100 percent. After the post-game handshake, your son walks over and looks as if his pet rabbit had just died. So what do you say to him? "Hey, what happened, buddy? You could have tied the game for the team."

Did you forget the fact he started for the first time all season? Or that he executed three perfect throw-ins after having foul-throws all season — something you see him working on every day after practice?

In every youth sport around the country, parents are vicariously climbing inside the bodies of their children, trying to relive the glory that evaded them at that age. Through their children, they are able to start the championship game they watched from the bench, or sink the winning basket that clanked off the back rim 20 years earlier. While parents should play a large role in the promotion of youth sports for their children, some parents go three steps too far and end up taking the fun out of the game.

The severity of parents' over-involvement in youth sports came to a head July 5, when one father allegedly beat another parent to death following an argument about physical contact between their sons during a no-contact "stick practice" in hockey. This was possibly the worst in a long line of incidents around the country in the last few years.

Psychologists and other professionals nationwide are in the spotlight more than ever, attempting to provide solutions to these unnecessary acts of violence and disruption that occur at youth sporting events. One of these psychologists, Burnett, has worked with children who dropped out of sports and understands the reasons they quit. He said parental pressure and a negative coach were the top two reasons kids stopped playing. In response to these reasons, Burnett offers advice on how parents and coaches can play a more positive role for youths in sports.

Parents Just Don't Understand

"It's just not a game anymore."

Parents need to see the events that unfold simply as a game, and not a final testament for future success, Burnett said. Children play sports for fun, not so they can get a scholarship 10 years down the road. Why do 5-year-old children draw pictures? They draw because it's fun and it's a way to impress their parents. It's not because they want to become the next Pablo Picasso. A child is praised for anything he or she draws, despite what it may look like or is supposed to look like. The same has to be applied to sports.

"We have to think in terms of process instead of product."

Burnett asked, when kids finish a game, what's the first thing they ask? Who had the snacks? Or, where are we going for pizza? Conversely, what's the first thing parents ask when the kid gets in the car? Who won? Or, how many goals did you score? Burnett noted that while the kids are playing video games at the pizza parlor after a loss, the parents are huddled around a table discussing which play cost the game, and which players performed the best. Process, instead of product, needs to be stressed more.

"I praise my kids just for participating in sports."

If you only praise children when they do well, then that becomes their identity, Burnett said. The child will feel the only way to get a positive response from his or her parent is to always do well. This sets an unattainable standard for children, and when they can't reach it, they feel they have failed their parents. Kids have to be praised just for trying a sport. Naturally, parents will make critical remarks to their children. However, Burnett recommends there should be a 4-to-1 ratio of good remarks to bad remarks, so parents should mentally record the types of comments they are making to their children.

"Sports teach kids a really good life lesson: it's OK to make a mistake."

One of the biggest lessons parents need to learn is to stay calm when their child makes a mistake, Burnett continued. As the old saying goes, everyone makes mistakes. But, the value in making a mistake is learning from the mistake to become a better player, and more importantly a better person.

Kids think of mistakes in two ways. First, they may think of them spatially or mechanically. For example, the child thinks, "I messed up; I'll have to do this differently next time." On the other hand, children may think of mistakes judgmentally: "I can't believe I screwed this up. Now I won't make this team or get this award."

Some other points:

  • Don't yell out instructions. Kids have a hard enough time trying to perform their best while attempting to impress their parents at the same time. The last thing they need is directions coming from teammates, the coach and their parents, all simultaneously.

  • Don't yell at the officials or the other team. Kids feel that if their parent is yelling at the officials and giving them a hard time, the officials might take it out on them, and penalize them for their parent's behavior. Burnett advises parents to "be ideal sportsmanship role-models."

  • Try to avoid an autopsy after the game. Kids know when they mess up. They don't need their parents re-inforcing that fact.

Burnett offers a "Checklist for parents in youth sports — on and off the field," in his article, "Parents and Sportsmanship." This article, and many others by various psychologists and youth sports' professionals, can be found at

Put Me in, Coach!

Some coaches also have a difficult time handling the youth sport atmosphere, and some may underestimate their importance to their players.

"The No. 1 reason why kids come back is positive coaching," Burnett said. "Coaches must grasp the idea that their role is important. When I talked to the coaches and we define a successful coach, it isn't determined by [their] win-loss [record]. The coach has to keep the kids involved."

According to Burnett, there are four needs a coach must establish for a child to keep him or her returning to youth sports.

The first need is a sense of belonging. If the children cannot find a group to come to them, they'll go to the group. The coach can add to that sense of belonging by making the child feel like part of the team. This point leads to the second need, which is to feel worthwhile. If the coach relates to the kid as a person and as a member of the team, it will add to the value of youth sports. The third need is a sense of dignity. The coach's job is to treat the children with respect, and let them know they will be treated with respect simply for coming out and playing. The fourth need is a sense of control. The coach lets the children know they are in control of their own destiny, and lets them work their way into a role on the team.

The other job of the coach is to control the parents to prevent a situation from getting out of hand. The first step is to define unruly behavior.

"If you're going to deal with unruly parents, you've got to have it all spelled out before the season begins," Burnett advised, noting a preseason meeting with the parents can help prevent any unwanted situation. Coaches need to tell parents that offensive language, and the berating of players, coaches and officials are unacceptable. The coach also must provide consequences for any action considered inappropriate.

"If there is a situation, the first step is to remain calm, otherwise you can feed the fire," Burnett continued.

When a situation occurs, the coach has to have some way of dealing with it. One way is to have other parents who participated in the preseason meeting, talk to the offending parent to try to calm him or her down. After the event occurs, the coach must become the teacher, so the parent understands what he or she did wrong, and why it was considered unacceptable. The coach has to look for the positives in every situation.

Some other references for youth sports issues include:

  • Gatorade's "Playbook for Kids" — A parent's guide to help kids get the most out of sports.

  • — The National Alliance of Youth Sports.

  • — Dr. Burnett's official Web site.

  • — a Web site offering articles and advice on youth sports topics.

Address: Dr. Darrell J. Burnett, 30101 Town Center Drive, Suite 202D, Laguna Niguel, CA 92677; (949) 249-2882.

— Andrew Tufts —

© 2001 Health Resources Publishing