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Talking Points: How to Support Your Youth Athlete this Season

08/28/2018, 10:45am EDT
By Jenn Skinner

I've been around the horn a few times as a mom of three current and/or former baseball players and the wife of a youth coach.

All three of my boys started playing baseball as 5 year olds with tee ball. We've played travel ball and Little League. We've frequented hitting lessons, pitching lessons, catchers' clinics and strength and agility training. Over the past fifteen years or so, I have sat in bleachers and fold up chairs and the waiting rooms of indoor facilities countless times. Add in as many years on the sidelines of a basketball court and that means I have seen or heard every sort and type of sports parent. And if I'm honest, I have, in fact, been every sort and type of sports parent - good and bad - at one time or another myself.

If you have happened here on this blog you're likely involved in youth sports in some way, so I don't have to tell you that there are a zillion and one opinions about how to be a reasonable, supportive, sports parent. I am certain that there are folks with fancy degrees and legitimate professional training who could give advice much more effectively than me on how to successfully parent a student athlete. 

So, at the outset, let me say it loud and clear: Despite having been involved for so many years, I am not an expert on being any kind of parent. I'm pretty sure as soon as you name yourself an expert in anything you have set yourself up for spectacular failure. I have gotten things wrong over and over again when counseling my kids and I imagine that my future parenting moments will be wrought with mistakes. What I have is just a little bit of time behind me and a heckuva a lot of hours sitting behind home plate.

So here are some things I've gleaned out there on the diamond and in the gym that I try to remember when helping my athletes respond to all the failures, successes, and fellow human beings - both coaches and teammates - that come with participation in youth and high school sports. Take these ideas or leave them, understanding that I am well aware that every child is different, every circumstance is different, and that some lady who writes words on the internet is not the boss of you.

Here goes.

Remind your child (and yourself) that there is a difference between something being unfair and something being just a big ol' bummer.

"It's not fair!" is a favorite phrase among kids of any age when disappointment comes. And a good retort can often be, "Life ain't fair, kid." That is true and yet, that's not my point here. I think sometimes we overlook that there is a difference in something being unfair and in something being simply a disappointment.

Another kid took the position you wanted? You weren't picked for the team you thought you were meant to play on? Your place in the lineup changed? You're not a starter?

That's a bummer, Son, but not necessarily unfair. Whether you disagree with a coach's position or not, jumping to "It's not fair" is frankly, unproductive and also, very often not true. Sometimes it's timing. Sometimes there's a hole in the lineup and your skill set might be a better fit somewhere else. Sometimes you haven't hit your growth spurt and you just need some more strength to compliment your skill. And here's the tough one, but what has been the reality many times for my own kids: Sometimes another player is simply better than you are. To consider that you've been handed a raw deal in some way because you didn't get what you want or to determine that something shifty is going on might be the case sometimes, but more often than not, it just isn't true.

When I was young, I wanted to be a back up dancer for Janet Jackson. The fact that it never happened is not unfair. It's just kind of a bummer.

Seriously, though, in my experience, "unfairness" can fester and lead to resentment, gossip, and really nothing good. "It's a bummer" is an easier place from which to move forward. It shifts the focus from "them" to "me".

Control what you can control.

You cannot control the weather. You cannot control the umpire. You cannot control how well the other team plays. You cannot control how the coach sets the lineup. No matter what you do, ultimately, you have no ownership over what Jimmy, Tommy, Bobby, or Coach Larry does. (Unless your name is Jimmy, Tommy, Bobby or Coach Larry. If that is the case, then by all mean, carry on, Larry.)

You can control how much you practice, how mindful you are of what you're putting into your body, your attitude, and your focus on the game and your teammates rather than on how many minutes you're getting. You can commit to getting better yourself. You have ownership over yourself. You do you, kid. You only can do you.

Hard work pays off. . . except when it doesn't.

Stay with me. There is no bigger fan of seeing a kid work hard than I. I believe wholeheartedly that hard work pays off. It's just that it might not yield the outcome he anticipated it would. Hard work gives a kid enormous benefits in his life - pushing his limits, setting incremental goals and attaining them will always be worth it. Positive outcomes to hard work are a given if you look at those specific outcomes in the right light.

But here's the truth. Sometimes you work harder than the next guy. You put in more time than the next guy. You sweat and you struggle and you do every last thing asked of you. And sometimes, it still doesn't work out. You still don't make the team you want or get the position you want or get the praise you want. Sometimes, you still lose the game. Again, this is not necessarily life being unfair, but it can definitely be a bummer.

Don't talk about another kid's flaws in front of your kid.

This is a big one for me. I'm not sure there is an inch of wiggle room here. I could see that maybe you want to use an error a kid made or something you warranted as misbehavior as a teaching moment for your own child. That might be okay, but, let's be honest. If your kid has played the game long enough, he already knows the lesson without you chiming in on the way to the car. There are other ways to teach lessons without throwing your kid's teammates under the bus. Again, if you can help your son focus on owning his own development, his own mistakes, his own improvement, and his own game, he will better himself which is in reality the only way he can benefit the team.

Last but not least, this is where I bring the Jesus, so be ready to duck out of the way if you don't want the Bible beating.

The Lord puts people in different situations for different reasons all.the.darn.time. Deal with it, learn from it, and bloom where you're planted.

Do I think the Lord himself wrote up the contract for that coach or that teammate, handed it directly to him, and had him sign on the dotted line?

Maybe not.

But I do think there is something for my kid to learn from every last person that God puts in his path. I might shake my fists and mutter under my breath and never fully understand His reasoning until I get to heaven, but in our experience He has yet to make a mistake with our children.

I can tell you without exaggeration that I have heard folks praise a coach as if he were the next Vince Lombardi and I have heard others complain that a coach was akin to Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

Guess what? Same coach.

Now, I will say that if your child is so unhappy or so anxious or so distraught by who he is playing for or with that it is ruining his love for the game then that is wholly different than just not agreeing with a coach's style or a teammate's attitude. Sometimes a change is necessary and warranted. Every parent has to decide that based on their own child.

Barring a situation like that though, in my humble opinion, you're better off skipping the relentless complaining and instead, reminding your kid that this is part of life. He will have teachers, coaches, bosses, co-workers and employees that won't be his favorite people and with whom he might have enormous disagreements. And yet, there is nary a person in the whole wide world that won't teach you something that you need to learn if you'll be open to receiving the lesson.

How 'bout letting your kid learn it, Moms and Dads? Have some faith in his resilience. You might be surprised when it's all said and done by the man he has become for having gone through it.

We wish you and your ballplayer the best this Fall. Have a great season. Let's play ball.


Jennifer P. Skinner

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