parents can be the solution

In my recent TED Talk, I jokingly referred to parents as “idiots”. It was a bit of a reference to a movie trailer that I had seen called, Dealing With Idiots. I’m not sure if the movie ever made it to the big screen, but it was a movie about parents and their exploits in youth sports. Over the years, I have heard plenty of our “professional” coaches berate parents, mainly because the mindset within the coaching ranks is this: “we coaches know what we are doing, and how dare some idiot parent try to tell us otherwise.” Arrogance at its best.

Certainly, having coached collegiately for 19 years, and having spent the past twelve years deeply involved with the development of young children (over 15,000), I have seen my share of parents who do act like idiots. However, I think it is a total misrepresentation to group all parents into such a category.

As I pointed out in my TED Talk, I believe that parents are well-intentioned, but starved for information. Parents want help and direction, they just don’t know where to go to get that creditable information. Having immersed myself in the world of youth sports, I get the impression that parents are often the scapegoats for all that is wrong in children’s athletics. In my opinion, this is simply not true.

This dynamic that we call youth sports is so complex, that there is plenty of room for blame to go around. Anyone with a point of view is able to express their thoughts, and while some of these ideas may sound plausible, we really need to stick to the research and the experience of those who have spent the most time working with children, parents, and coaches.

Having worked with so many families in this realm, it has become clear to me that fear is one of the biggest factors in parental decision-making. Fear that if they do not keep up with every other kid in the neighborhood, then their child is going to fall behind in the race to higher levels of competition. Overcoming this fear is one of our biggest challenges in our effort to return sports to the children who want to enjoy it.

Another factor controlling parental decision-making is the parent who “thinks” they know what is best. This is merely my hypothesis, but I see a lot of parents who have played sports, and this playing experiences seems to provide them with a false sense of confidence that may be more dangerous than helpful.

While chatting over lunch a few months ago with a friend of mine who is a surgeon. We were having a discussion about parental involvement in the lives of children and I pointed out that in my profession, I get parents all the time who think they understand coaching and children just as well as I do. This, despite my 40 years in the coaching profession, and my work with so many thousands of children. I pointed out that parents are very comfortable offering me advice on how I should coach.

When I said that at least you don’t have to deal with this advice giving in the medical profession, my friend quickly stopped me and indicated how wrong I was. She began telling me about a patient who quizzed her on her intended surgery methods and insisted on certain procedures for stopping blood flow during the surgery. This patient had read something about cauterization and insisted that the doctor not use it to stop blood flow. The patient seemed to think that the flow of blood would stop automatically. The other doctor at the table said, “oh yeah, it’ll stop automatically, once she bleeds out.”

And here I thought that only in the area of coaching was everyone an expert!

Getting back to parental fear, I’m wondering if there is a strategy that we can employ to help parents overcome this fear? One of my goals as an educator is to create the right environment for children to overcome fear of failure in their sporting efforts. One method that I employ is to force kids into situations that are uncomfortable, and to insure that every child is included in this struggle. As children begin to see that others are failing as well, it helps to reassure them that failure is not necessarily so bad. Another term for this is risk-taking. To complement this, we as coaches (and parents) must never berate a child when they try something and fail. We should cheer the effort and encourage them to keep trying.

Parents need examples of situations where others have been patient, and where this patience has paid off. Because I have experimented so much with this, I have seen it work and I have the confidence (through my research) to continue in this patient manor.

One of the most important steps in fixing a problem is to first be able to admit that there is a problem. Because the repercussions in youth sports are not immediate, there is no sense of urgency to fix anything. Remember, no parent believes that their child will be part of the 75% who quit by the age of 13. Until we can convince parents that it can happen to their kid, our challenge remains rather daunting.

My hope is that more and more parents are willing to see the eventual problems and become willing to make the needed changes. We know the problems are monumental, and the stories of dysfunction becoming more prevalent; it appears that some parents are starting to pay attention. As we teach our children to be more willing to take risks, are we able to achieve the same thing with parents? It’s not easy. We only get to do this once with each child and we don’t want to mess up.

We need a ground swell of parents who are willing to say enough is enough. Are you willing to take this calculated risk and return sports to the children? If not, how can we help you move in that direction?

- Steve Locker