There is an old proverb that states, “You can’t put the cart before the horse.” But metaphorically speaking, this happens quite often in youth sports. Parents preoccupied with their kids getting scholarships or playing professionally is an obvious example. But when the primary focus is on these long-range goals instead of playing for the sheer joy of it, expectations of young kids can become unrealistic with some real consequences.
During my coaching years, my expectations for my players were that they gave a good effort, had a positive attitude and were team players. Having respect for coaches, teammates and their opponents was mandatory. If we were to win, it would be a direct result of applying these things over which we had 100 percent control. Through continuous work on technique during team and individual practice, we would improve over time.
For many parents sitting in the stands, expectations for their kids are quite different. Immediate success is more of a priority, whatever the cost. But competition, like life, presents many things that are out of our control, sometimes causing success to elude us. A parent’s inability to recognize this truth can lead to out-of-control emotions.
When unrealistic expectations are present during competition, failure is inevitable. This is not just failure on the scoreboard, but failure to provide a nurturing environment for kids to have fun while learning life lessons provided by youth sports.
The world in which we live can be a loud, distracting place not unlike the field of competition. We should prepare kids to achieve success under these conditions, not protect them from it. But the training must take place one step at a time, mastering basics before attempting advanced technique. When a person’s expectations during training are unrealistic (wanting things too quickly), steps will be skipped and real learning will not take place. When the emphasis is on long-term development, however, it is understood that each step taken produces immediate results toward that goal, even though the progress is subtle and sometimes unrecognizable at first.
When emotions are in charge during competition, mental and physical control are at risk. Parents throwing fits and coaches arguing with umpires in front of impressionable young kids are just a couple of examples. I’ve seen much worse.
Young people are often very quiet about what they see and hear when it comes to their parent’s out-of-control behavior. But if this embarrassing behavior continues, a young player’s enthusiasm for the game can become stale. It creates conflict for them because they’ve been taught to control themselves by the very people who are “losing” control over a game that is supposed to be fun. The truth is, competition can make the most disciplined of us lose perspective when it comes to our kids. But there’s no excuse to allow out-of-control behavior to continue.
Unrealistic expectations by adults turn youth sports into a job and threaten to derail the once-in-a-lifetime experience of being a kid.
The truth is, fun is a major factor why young athletes sign up for sports in the first place. If kids aren’t having fun because of too much pressure to perform, good luck trying to teach them the difficult skills associated with their sport.
When a young athlete consistently fails, the reason may be that they lack interest or their level of training doesn’t equal the level of competition. Either way, they’re in over their head. If parent’s expectations are also out of balance, no one will be having fun. Being challenged with new techniques at the proper time is what will help all young athletes have fun and develop the necessary skills to compete. By doing this, parents and coaches are allowing a young player to enjoy the process instead of dreading the experience of embarrassing negative behavior by adults, caused by unrealistic expectations and out-of-control emotions.