At their best, sports can be the healthiest addition to a teenager’s life. Every athlete will also tell you that, at their worst, sports can be just as unhealthy. From cutthroat competitors to negative coaches to lunatic parents, it’s hard to avoid the lost perspective and low self-esteem of teams gone wrong. It can be hard to know what coaches want parents to know about keeping sports healthy and positive for teens. So you don’t have to guess! We’ve done the asking for you.
As sisters and teammates, we’ve had the benefit of some amazing(!) coaches, so, in considering ways to keep sports healthy, we reached out to one of them for his advice and perspective. John Noonan is known for training WNBA All-Star Elena Della Donne and coaching the Ursuline Raiders to multiple state championships, but we met him as third and fourth graders at his OHP basketball camp. We both responded immediately to his positivity and jam-packed drill sessions, and, despite the fact that our basketball careers maxed out after middle school, we’ve carried much of his coaching into our other sports and activities.
When asked for his perspective on keeping sports healthy, Coach Noonan said that everyone involved – coaches, parents, and players – should focus on the main point of kids playing the game they love to play. “While it’s easy to lose sight of that in the context of winning and losing, we have to remember that these are kids; they’re people. They want to do well. They want to score or swim fast or make a basket, but the main reason they’re out there is because as little kids they used to wake up every morning excited to play their game.”
Want to know what coaches want parents to know? Coach Noonan offered six insights that athletes can share with their parents and coaches to keep things healthy:
1. Every kid is different. What helps one player could hurt another, so it’s important to know your kid and know what works best for them. Some are self motivated and the adults’ role will be to calm them down and not let them be too hard on themselves, while others have the talent but need motivation. Make your words less about winning and losing and more about giving your kid what she needs from you.
2. Kids need coaches AND parents. Both roles are important, and adults should work together to make sure they’re complementing each other. If a coach has to be critical about a tough game or practice, parents should resist the urge to jump in on that. Instead they should sit back and be supportive, letting the athlete initiate conversation or ask for guidance.
3. Sports are sports. Parents play a big role in defining what sports are going to be for their kids, so remember to schedule regular reminders about goals and expectations – like we want you to work hard, we want you to learn how to win, we want you to learn how to lose. The world is a tough place – you might not get into the college you want, or you might have a tough day at your job – and sports are supposed to help you prepare for that.
4. Listen to your kid. It’s the athlete’s job to set (realistic) goals and the parents’ and coach’s job to help get them there. It’s important to be ambitious for your kids and want the best for them, but it’s also important to listen to what they really want and to make sure that your actions as a parent are informed by what they want for themselves.
5. Keep it positive. Remember that your son or daughter is not trying to mess up. They want to play great. They want to swim fast, make a basket, score a goal. Screaming at them from the sidelines when they make a mistake is not the right time or place to criticize. Instead, yell that it’s okay – that they can do it.
6. Pick up on your kid’s happiness. Don’t forget that athletes have lives off the court, including pressures socially and with schoolwork. If a bad day translates to a bad practice or a bad game, let them know you’re there for them. And here’s another place that parents and teachers and coaches can complement each other. By communicating about stressors, the adult team can work together to give the athlete the support she needs.