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helicopter parents

College Scholarship Myth


College Scholarship Myth

NPR published the commentary from John U. Bacon’s talk about College Scholarships. You should listen to it or read it: To Get a College Scholarship: Forget The Field, Hit The Books.

About ten years ago, a family friend invited me to dinner to talk to them and their freshman son about preparing for college soccer. Their main quest wash to navigate high school and club soccer in such a way as to best prepare their child for the ever elusive college scholarship.

With nearly twenty years of collegiate coaching experience, they assumed that I would be able to provide some valuable insight into the process. As we sat down to the dinner table, the first thing the dad shared was that they had been spending approximately $15,000 per year for the past few years on Joey’s (not his real name) soccer development. The first words out of my mouth were, “you should take that money and send Joey to a private school.” They laughed.

Dinner was fine, and I shared some philosophy and perspective on player development, which I believe mostly was disregarded, as it really wasn’t what they ‘wanted” to hear. They wanted a road map to a college scholarship. It doesn’t really exist.

The sad news about this particular story is that this same young man called me four years later in February looking for a job. You see, he enrolled in a university that did not even have a men’s varsity soccer team, and he failed out after one semester….academic probation! Maybe my advice wasn’t that far off after all.

Why is it that parents refuse to believe the statistics about success rates within youth sports? If I took 10 parents and asked them to stand up together, and then asked them if they thought that their child would quit sports by the age of 13, I bet that not one of them would raise their hand. Parents cannot believe that their child would ever quit.

The fact is, 7 out of those 10 will have a child quit. With 70% gone, we now have the remaining 30% go on to play in high school. Oh, by the way, those 70% are now relieved because they have just gotten their lives back…no more running around the country every weekend, schlepping the entire family to some random tournament.

Now, of those 30% who made it into high school sports, only 2% will get a college scholarship. It should be noted, that in most sports outside of football, most collegiate coaches are splitting up their scholarships so that more kids can get help. So, while your kid might get a scholarship, chance are it’s only paying a small percentage of their actual college costs.

Are you ready for some more hard facts? 33% of all collegiate athletes quit. Roughly 50% suffer from severe anxiety and/or depression, many of whom are seeking counseling or medication… and illegal.

Isn’t it time that we ask ourselves just what we are doing? John U. Bacon has got it right. We need to send our kids outside to play. They need to figure out how to play on their own and create fun games. No coaches, no parents, no referees…..just kids figuring it out!

- Steve Locker



A Testimonial For The ‘Average’ Kid

Average Kid

I recently had the pleasure of having a conversation with a Head of School and we were discussing some of the correlations between education and athletics. The bulk of the conversation was spent exploring ways for educators and parents to collaborate more on methods of developing children in a more well-rounded manner through both sports and education. As the conversation evolved, it became obvious to me that this educator had an incredible amount of knowledge regarding the development of children (from an educational perspective), and many of the terms that she used happened to be the same terms that I was applying to athletics.

She shared with me a story about her adult son who was a baseball fanatic as a child. He loved baseball. He loved playing the game, watching the game, and studying the game. As a family, however, they decided that they would not allow him to play ‘travel’ baseball in the summer. She feared that that decision may have held her son back at that particular point in his life, but she and her husband were not willing to force the kind of sacrifice that was necessary for this to happen, upon the rest of the family.

At first, it started out as one of those stories where parents lament that their child never fully experienced the game as perhaps he could have. This story was different. It turns out that he was able to make his high school team, a perennial power among top schools in the state. Not only that, this young man became a very productive member of a team that won a sate championship. Imagine the memories that go along with such a wonderful accomplishment.

My Head of School mom who was sharing this story was a bit perplexed by the entire phenomenon of how this all played out for her son. Most confusing to her was the fact that, in comparison to his classmates, her son wasn’t that strong of a player as a young athlete. She said there were plenty of other boys his age who were much better, but it seemed like they all quit before high school. She said they were the boys who were playing year round, had special coaches, played in multiple tournaments, and weren’t able to play other sports.

I get asked the question all of the time from parents about just wanting their child to be able to play high school sports, and I often advise them that everything should work out fine because 75% of the kids will quit by age 13 anyway. Most of those kids who are forced into specialization will usually burnout before they get to high school.

Because we parents only get one chance per child to do this right, we’re always a bit scared about doing it well. We don’t want to make any mistakes, and we don’t want our children to be left behind. As children are developing through their formative years of 6-13 (pre-puberty), the comparisons are difficult to ignore. What I have found to be very consistent is that so many of these children do catch up with each other around the age of 14, and those that have had a more relaxed, patient experience actually end up with better attitudes and a significantly increased chance of being successful in sports at older ages.

- Steve Locker



Teach Your Kids Well

Teach your kids well

Recently, we have been hosting some 3 versus 3 pick up games for eight and nine year old boys and girls. They are really fun events that we hold on Friday nights, we bring in some pizza, and the kids play until their hearts are content.

For the most part, the parents drop off their kids and head to a pub with the other parents and enjoy a little adult time. Some parents do like to stay and watch the kids play. Because I have created an environment where the kids own the games, the parents who do stay understand that there is no coaching permitted. They are not allowed to talk to the kids while they are playing. It should be noted that the reason for this is that when children are allowed to own their play, there is an increased likelihood that they will develop a stronger sense of passion towards that activity.

For anyone accustomed to the typical screaming and yelling during a youth sporting event, the relative calm during our pick up games is quite comforting.

While all of this really positive play is going on, there is an interesting phenomenon that begins to unfold while watching the children play. I started to pick up on this several years ago when my kids were about six or seven years old. Every time my child touched the ball while playing soccer, he would turn around afterwards and look towards me. For the parents who do stick around to watch, I’m seeing the same thing happen with their children.

Have you ever wondered what they are looking for? While I know fully well what’s at play here, I wonder how many parents are cognizant of the dynamic that is taking place? Like the input that we often provide before or after a game, our children have become accustomed to seeking feedback during the game, only this time it’s nonverbal.

I’ve addressed this issue of non-verbal feedback in my book, but as I learn more and more about the long term emotional challenges that children are carrying with them into adulthood, I see where the early onset of this behavior is leading to these more serious emotional problems. We seem to be programming our children to be dependent upon our constant input and feedback. Without even realizing it, our body language is sending them very clear messages. These can be messages of approval, disapproval, disappointment, or possibly, a message that gets misinterpreted. As discussed in an earlier article (Could Over Praise Be Polarizing Our Children?), children have become too dependent on our praise of ordinary achievements to the extent that when they become adults, they do not possess the confidence to succeed in the competitive real world. They are afraid to take risks.

Last week while attending a high school basketball game, a dad in the stands kept coaching his son from the bleachers. A high school game. What struck me was the fact that the boy kept looking towards his dad when he was yelling to him. For me, this clearly illustrates a significant problem that we have in youth sports. Not only was the dad wrong, but the boy kept acknowledging him...also wrong. In my facility where we host these 3 versus 3 pick up games, I make it a habit to clearly state the expectations for everyone (kids & parents) at the first event. I tell the parents that they are not permitted to talk to the children during play, and that they should refrain from any kind of coaching when the children come off the floor. I ask them to abide by my rules so that I’m not forced to embarrass them should they not comply.

I, like most parents, truly enjoy watching my kids play sports. What I started to do when my son kept looking at me after he touched the ball was to immediately look away or pretend to be engaged in a conversation with another parent. I got to enjoy watching him play, and he soon began to own his game and not feel dependent upon me for an immediate response.

Teach your kids well. Let them own the game!

- Steve Locker



Could Over-Praise be Polarizing our Children?


There appears to be a shift in the media attention given to youth sports and it’s overall impact on our children. While previous attention has been focused on parental behavior and coaching behavior, we are now hearing more and more about the psychological and emotional state of children as they transition from youth sports, into their adolescent years and then through college.

It seems that finding the correct balance is our challenge. As parents, we harbor many goals for our kids, some reasonable, some not. Surely, it would be nice for our children to have an adequate level of self-esteem, and to be able to face life’s daily challenges in a resilient manner. However, for many, achieving these goals seems to be an exercise in futility.

While I have previously addressed the emotional challenges that many athletes are experiencing as they enter into young adulthood, I would also like to speak about a recent conversation I had with Dr. Brad Bushman, a noted professor at The Ohio State University, regarding the effects of praise on children’s self-esteem.

Dr. Bushman, and his research partner, Eddie Brummelman (Utrecht University, Netherlands), have done extensive research on the impact of different types of praise on children’s levels of self-esteem. Much of their work correlates perfectly with the conversation on youth sports.

Many of us as parents see sports as the perfect venue to help children realize success, raise confidence and boost self-esteem. One of the side effects of too much praise, especially for achievements that are rather ordinary, is that our young adults are not learning to deal with any kind of adversity, and they begin to suffer emotionally when they grow up and don’t receive praise for accomplishing their daily mundane tasks.

What Bushman & Brummelman did was to study the effects of praise on children to determine if it was having the desired effect that we parents were hoping for. Their study looked into several different types of praise, and it also took into consideration the existing levels of self-esteem that children had. For instance, they labeled praise as follows:

Person Praise: This is praise that is focused on the child, and not the behavior. An example is, “You’re so smart.”

Behavior Praise: This is praise that is focused on the task. For instance, “You figured that out well.”

Inflated Praise: This is praise that goes beyond the normal level of response. For instance, “You made an incredibly beautiful drawing.”

While person praise and inflated praise are administered with every good intention, it’s likely that they could send a harmful message to children, especially to those with low self-esteem. Parents are inclined to use person praise and inflated praise when they hope to help a child with low self-esteem.

The risk is that when a child receives this kind of praise, they begin to think that they must always perform at an exceptional level to justify their self worth. When presented with a task that is challenging, children who receive these inflated types of praise often do not have the confidence to try more challenging tasks. They are afraid that if they fail they will not be recognized as exceptional.

What this means in sports is that children become less inclined to take risks. They are more fearful of failure, and we all know that this level of confidence is not at all conducive to success in athletics. As a coach, I have always found it important to provide positive feedback in reasonable doses. If I were to praise a player too frequently, the power of the praise is easily diminished. When a player hears me praise them, they know that I don’t over praise, and the praise that they do receive has a higher value.

In my many parent lectures I offer advice to parents about sideline behavior. I often ask parents to try to watch a game without saying anything, particularly, not to say anything that is perceived as a decision-making comment. Usually at the end of the conversation, a parent will ask, can I tell them “Nice Play”? While that comment may seem fairly harmless, it is often a comment that is repeated over and over again by many parents. At the end of the day, how many nice plays is a typical 8 year old going to make in one game? Save the “nice play” comment for one or two exceptional performances and don’t overdo it.

Kids know the difference between normal and exceptional. If we keep trying to make them think that a regular achievement is exceptional, they are going to figure us out, and our input becomes less credible over time. Let kids fail and let kids figure out how to work harder to accomplish tasks at a greater level. It may be a bit difficult for us in the moment, but our children will be so much better off in the long run.

- Steve Locker



Decision Making


One of the beauties of soccer is that it is truly a “players” game, with coaching from the sidelines forbidden. Unfortunately at the youth level, this rule is never enforced. Unlike most of our sports though, soccer has very few stoppages, and this allows for players to make their own decisions during the flow of the game. Because of the environment that exists in soccer, it really is a wonderful avenue through which to develop children.

In a typical game, there is lots of running (fitness), change of direction and change of pace (agility and athleticism), decision making, risk taking, ball skill development, vision and spacial awareness, fakes and scheming, teamwork, and most importantly, fun! Kids can experience the ups and downs of sports in so many ways, and this is an excellent environment to learn how to deal with these challenges in a positive manner.

One of the best methods for developing good soccer players is to play “pick-up” soccer with friends. In this environment kids often play with children of varying ages, they play uninhibited because parents are usually not around to yell instructions and set demands, and they get to “own” the game on their terms.

Over the past weekend at a soccer tournament, I heard countless coaches directing their players non-stop. It was truly annoying. As I sat and quietly watched my team play on their own, I was complimented by many referees, field marshals, and opposing parents for my quiet demeanor. It didn’t hurt that our girls were able to relax and play some really beautiful soccer....on their terms. They were the champions of the weekend in every category!

All of us as parents would love for our children to grow up and be good decision makers. If we can have the patience and the fortitude to allow the process to work in youth sports, stop all of the screaming and yelling, our kids now have a better chance of learning these very important decision making skills.

Enjoy the games!

- Steve Locker



Participation Trophies


In this week's blog Steve Locker responds to the controversy surrounding Pittsburgh Steelers player, James Harrison, returning trophies that his children received for participation. You can read another authors take on the situation here.

Below is Steve's response:

When we examine the many issues with youth sports, providing “participation trophies” is just one small aspect of a bigger problem. Importantly, all of these smaller issues contribute not only to the demise of youth sports, but perhaps even more alarmingly, to the creation of overly dependent adults.

There is so much being said in the media about dysfunctional parental behavior, and while it is clearly a big problem, perhaps we are missing some of the bigger issues. For instance, parental decision making!  So much of what is wrong with youth sports can be tied directly to money. Simply stated, youth sports is big business. As it pertains to trophies, parents love seeing their offspring “light up” when they receive a trophy. Youth leagues, which are competing for this segment of a family’s budget, recognize what parents want. So they cater to the whims of parents, even though those desires are often off target.

This “cowering” to parental desires is contributing in more serious ways to our problems of keeping kids in sports. For instance, parents want to see their 4 & 5 year olds play “real” soccer. Guess what, 4 & 5 year olds aren’t capable of understanding real soccer. That’s why we have “beehive” soccer in this age group. While we THINK it looks cute, it’s actually quite boring to most kids, and a huge reason why 35% of children are quitting a sport each year. Imagine a typical 4-year-old chasing a ball around for 30 minutes every Saturday, only to touch it 3-4 times in that time period. Do you really think this is fun?

Youth leagues are not adequately supporting parent coaches, so when the coach runs out of ideas on what to do with ten 4-year-olds clamoring at his ankles, they resort to the easiest solution....let’s just play a game. Most us know that the simplest solutions are rarely the best solutions!

I do think that Harrison is on to something very important as he addresses this issue. We have created a generation of children who seem to get rewarded for just about everything they do. A pat on the back for the most mundane achievements. Combine these experiences with issues like grade inflation in our schools, and it’s no wonder that our children think of themselves as gifted. Sure, they are special to us, but in the bigger picture, they are not necessarily learning how to deal with adversity, develop a strong sense of self, or an attitude that focuses on work ethic and persistence. They don’t know how to create and to fail.

In her article called “Tough Enough?”, Martha Anne Tudor talks about the epidemic we are facing in our colleges with students who are so poorly prepared to deal with the reality of not being the best. “They are not learning the lesson they need most: how to become resilient adults.” Collegiate counseling centers are over-burdened all over the country.

In this same article, Furman University’s associate director of the Counseling Center shares, “Parents seem to expect that their children will become independent naturally, not realizing that their over-involvement and doting hamstring the process. Beyond the college years, there seems to also be a growing concern that many young adults have a difficult time coping with the notion that their bosses and not patting them on the back every time that they do something well. Their self-esteem is not that strong, and the counseling centers keep growing. Perhaps this trophy thing is more problematic than we want to think.

- Steve Locker

Read Martha Anne Tudor's article "Tough Enough?" published in the Fall 2014 issue of Furman Magazine found on page 33 here.



What Does Youth Sports Have To Do With Handing Your Sixteen Year Old The Car Keys?


As my oldest son approaches his fifteenth birthday, our conversations often gravitate towards allowing him to drive the car in the parking lot at school, of course, when no one is around. And what it’s going to be like for him to get his Learners Permit when he hits fifteen-and-half. He’s even excited planning our family summer vacation and what leg of the long haul to the beach will be his turn to drive. He argues that it will be a great relief for his mother and father to sleep while he drives. Fat chance that there will be much relaxation going on while he is at the wheel!

Given the daily newspaper reports about all of the traffic deaths due to distracted driving, and other irresponsible behavior, I have to say that I’m a bit trepidatious about this upcoming, defining moment for my young son.

How do we as parents gain the confidence that allows us to feel at ease with this decision?

In many ways, I see my development as a safe and effective driver, and that of many others, as having been greatly impacted by my athletic development. While athletics often has us pushing the envelop, going fast, taking risks, etc., these are probably not the best attributes of a safe driver.

However, on the other hand, what about the other skills that we have honed throughout the course of our athletic endeavors? How about our vision, spacial awareness, decision-making, and reactions? These are all skills that positively influence our ability to handle a motor vehicle with a greater level of success.

Let me ask you this: Are you doing everything within your power to allow the development of these skills to take hold? For instance, do you find yourself often yelling instructions to your child while he or she plays? Telling your child to shoot during his soccer game accomplishes what end? Is your child not capable of deciding when to shoot on his own? Maybe as your daughter gets a little bit older, do you find yourself making excuses or blaming teammates (or coaches) for poor results or losses?

The things that we parents say to our children with regards to their youth sports experiences greatly determine the amount of personal growth that we can expect to take place. If we can somehow allow them to make their own decisions, suffer their own consequences, fall on their bottoms every once in awhile. These lessons and adversities will go a very long way in shaping resilient, responsible young adults.

Think about it!

-Steve Locker