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What Every Parent Should Know Before Their Children Begin High School Sports

by Martin Davis

Monday night, I stood on the field at North Stafford High School in Virginia surrounded by about 40 young people who had just played their fifth and final Junior Varsity football game of this delayed, basically fanless, schedule-challenged season. One by one, we coaches celebrated the changes each of these young people had experienced, both individually and collectively.

As I expressed my gratitude and appreciation to these players, I had another group in the back of my mind – their parents. They had just gone through a transition, too. Coaches would do well at the end of their seasons to think about what these parents go through, and how to help the parents of incoming first-year players adjust.

Here are some points that coaches can share with the parents of incoming players to help them, too, prepare for what’s ahead.

  1. It’s the Bond That Matters: Coaches, players and parents all want to win. But there are more important things than winning. Helping incoming players bond with their new teammates, with their new coaches, and with their new classmates is arguably the most important. Coaches must help parents understand this and seek their assistance in making it happen. One easy request to make- don’t coach kids from the stands, at the fence before and after the game, or at half-time. This happens all too often in youth sports, and parents have a tough time turning their well-meaning, but ultimately unhelpful, advice off. Every moment a parent pulls an athlete away from their teammates and coaches slows these new athletes’ growth in bonding with the team.
  2. Junior Varsity Isn’t Failure: Every new season, coaches receive lots of complaints from parents disappointed that their kids aren’t on the varsity squad. It’s important that coaches help parents understand why. Over the next four years, these new high school students are going to undergo a lot of changes – mental, emotional, and physical. Few first-year students are ready for the rigors of varsity play. This isn’t a failure on their part. This is simply an acknowledgment of what developmental experts already know. Young people mature mentally, emotionally, and physically at very different rates. Coaches see thousands of incoming students in their careers and are well-suited to evaluate what level your incoming player should participate in. Parents need to appreciate this, and help their kids embrace the growth. After all, they’ll be starting at the bottom, so to speak,  at every new stage of their lives. When they go to college, start a job, join a social organization, or get involved as a volunteer in their community. Learning to grow into an organization is critical to students’ future success. Help them to appreciate this and savor every step of the journey.
  3. Players Need to Learn to Handle Their Own Problems: Yes, there are going to be times when you disagree with the coaches. And, there are going to be lots of times when your kid will come to you complaining about something going on with the team. Parents should to be prepared to hear any number of things from their newly-minted high school students including:
  • “The coach isn’t fair.”
  • “The coach doesn’t see how good I am.”
  • “The coach isn’t playing me enough.”,
  • “The coach is not using me properly.”

And the list goes on. The solution is not to pick up the phone and meet with the coach. The solution is to empower your child to approach and talk with his or her coach, articulate their concern respectfully, offer a solution, and be prepared to accept the coach’s decision. Learning to express your frustrations professionally, to have those complaints heard and arbitrated, and to accept the results is a life lesson every child needs to learn.

  1. Don’t count titles – Count These, Instead:

a) The growth in the number of times your children take responsibility for their actions: Every season, coaches teach new players in small and big ways to take responsibility for their actions. Punishments like docking playing time for forgetting a piece of equipment may seem trivial, but the lesson is not. Each player, and each player alone, is responsible for having what they need when they need it. When they don’t, they fail themselves, and most importantly, they let down their teammates. Without that tough lesson early on, the new high school student will continue to look to others to cover up for their mistakes. Parents should watch for moments at home when their young person begins to take responsibility for their actions and acknowledge that growth.

b) The ways in which these young students come to accept, instead of battle against, their circumstances: I work with specialists on the football team. My players learn early to accept the circumstances and play through them. Oftentimes, I have discussions that go like this: Player: “I’m not doing well because: insert excuse here -we’re on grass, not turf; I didn’t sleep well last night; my holder bobbled the ball; my shoes feel weird, why this holder and not that holder.” Me: “We all have our challenges. Control what you can control and push forward.” Find moments to reinforce this lesson. On a night when things don’t go well, celebrate how your student handled the struggle, “I know it’s tough playing in the rain, but I loved the way you played through without making excuses, the way you picked up your teammates, and the way you congratulated the other team, which played in the same lousy weather you did. I’m proud of you.”

c) The number of times that these new high school athletes support their teammates, and not turn on them. Young kids will turn on their teammates when things go wrong. It’s natural. But high school coaches work hard to break them of this habit, and to lean on their teammates and support them, especially when things aren’t going well. Call it out when you see it and encourage that behavior.

d) How little your young adult complains about practice: One thing young athletes learn early in high school is that they’ll practice far more than they’ll play. At the youth level, kids often complain about practice. At the high school level, practice should become something they embrace. It’s the time they bond with their teammates and friends. The time they sharpen their skills. Ideally complaints about practice should end very quickly in their careers. If they don’t, it may be time to have a serious conversation about the sport the young man or woman is playing. It may even be time to consider if your child is signaling that they want to pursue an interest outside of sports. This is not failure if they do. This is growth.

e) Enjoy How Much Your Children Enjoy the GameMy son’s football coach said something at my first parent meeting that has always stayed with me. “The worst 15 minutes of game day for too many players is the 15-minute ride home after the game.” Don’t let that happen. If your child’s team loses, or he or she has a bad game, make no mistake that no one feels worse than they do. The last thing they need to hear is you asking probing questions about why. Similarly, in wins and good performances, some parents will want to pick on something they perceived the athlete doing wrong or start a protracted conversation analyzing the game. Don’t go there. If your athlete wants to talk, they will. Be happy that your kids are enjoying the game – whether they’re the star or the 3rd-stringer. Don’t let your frustrations, or your desire to dig deep into their successes, spoil their joy.

There really is nothing quite like high school sports. It’s a time that launches young boys and girls on their path to young adulthood. Coaches are really good at helping them do that. Just don’t forget that this is a time of transition for the athletes’ parents, too. Help them learn to let go – lovingly.

Martin Davis, Freelance Writer and Editor
Author of the Forthcoming Book:
30 Days with America’s High School Coaches | 
Mid-Atlantic Leadership Council, Positive Coaching Alliance |
Assistant Football Coach, Riverbend High School