Giving the game back to today's young athletes
By Linda Alberts
For most parents, their child’s introduction to organized youth sports starts out innocent enough. Their goal is for their child to learn the value of hard work, how to be a part of a team and make friendships with other kids – maybe even a lifelong “band of brothers.”
However, along the way, something changes. Cheers turn into jeers. Family vacations revolve around team’s travel schedules and the outcome of their child’s game becomes the highlight – or low point – of their day. And their child is only in elementary school!
There are many common explanations for this type of parent behavior in youth sports, from parents living vicariously through their children to expectations of college scholarships. But Heidi Geier Woodard, founder of GivetheGameBack.com, lays a new reason on the table: peer pressure.
“It seems we never really outgrow peer pressure,” she says. “And it could change your perspective of youth sports.”
Woodard is a former Division 1 softball player at Creighton University in Nebraska and was inducted into the school’s Athletic Hall of Fame in 2006. She is also the mother of three children actively involved in youth sports.
As a self-described competitive person and former collegiate athlete, Woodard brings a unique view to parenting and youth sports.
She acknowledges that at one point youth sports was running her life, leading to her personal breakthrough moment one summer afternoon when her son was up at the plate.
Despite her advice to him between practice swings and her attempts to help him through mental telepathy (her words), her son, who was nine years old at the time, struck out.
Exasperated, she recalls muttering something along the lines of, “I just don't know what else to do to make him get it.”
And this is when her ah-ha moment happened.
Her son’s gym teacher, who was also watching the boy bat, turned to her and said, “Heidi, he's a great kid.”
“I'm sure he didn't realize the impact that simple observation had on me at that moment, but those five words helped me see how my obsessiveness was not helping my boy enjoy baseball that day,” Woodard wrote of her recollection of this moment on her website.
DEVELOPING THE WHOLE PERSON
Since then she’s worked to change the youth sports environment of their Nebraska community through the Give the Game Back movement which promotes letting kids enjoy sports on their own terms. But it’s really a message that needs to be heard nationwide.
Woodard explains that parents can get caught up with concerns about how their child’s performance will affect the team and what others will say about their child. Although no one was saying anything negative about her son’s struggling performance that day, she had doubtful thoughts.
“I remember thinking that if he doesn’t get on base, we can lose the game,” says Woodard. “Why am I getting so caught up in the game when the kids are having fun? We overanalyze youth sports. We think that if they’re not on a certain team they won’t make varsity in high school. Kids may not even peak until high school so why are we burning them out before junior high?”
Instead, the whole child needs to be developed – not just the athlete, but the student and the type of person they will develop into, as well. (See: Are you raising a humble athlete?)
“Academics need to be given the same level of support as athletics,” Woodard says.
If your child’s grades are suffering as a result of sports, that’s one sign youth sports may be running your life, as are repeatedly cancelling family vacations to accommodate sports schedules and frequently eating meals around a fast food table or from the drive-thru in the car, says Woodard.
Without a doubt, a lifetime of memories can be created through youth sports experiences. Many adults today cherish the post-game ice cream cone they had as children – and there’s nothing wrong with that. And it’s not to say that families can’t bond while traveling to a tournament. The issue occurs when an emphasis on competing interferes with other opportunities to bring the family together and create joyous childhoods.
Lots of parents enjoy the competition of youth sports and that’s okay as long as they keep the proper perspective on sports.
Woodard says parents should ask themselves if they had an error-free week.
“I doubt any adult could say they behaved and performed perfectly all week – yet we expect this of our kids,” she says. “Kids are their own worst critic. They don’t need more pressure from their parents.”
Woodard’s husband was also a college athlete. He played football. They acknowledge all the great things sports gave them, but they also know that was their life, their story.
“I’m never going to push them to do something they don’t want to do,” says Woodard of their children’s sports. “It’s their life.”
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