School sport: Where did the fun go?

There is a ‘sign’ that can be seen on the side of sports fields around South Africa. With variations, it goes something like this: “Please remember: They are only kids, they are here to have fun. The coaches are teachers. The referees are volunteers. This is not the World Cup.”

As a parent, attending your child’s sports match can be a challenging task, especially when you have many wannabe expert coaches in the parental spectator crowd. According to an article by John O’Sullivan (author of Changing the Game: The Parent’s Guide to Raising Happy, High Performing Athletes, and Giving Youth Sports Back to our Kids) titled, “How Parents Take the Joy Out of Sport”, there are six ways adults can ruin the joy of sports for children:

  • Coaching from the sideline.
  • Yelling instructions while the ball is rolling.
  • Disrespecting officials.
  • Questioning the coach.
  • Commenting on the child’s teammates.
  • Making the ride home/post-game talk a ‘teachable moment’.

Every parent wants to help their child, to comfort them when they might not have had their best game, when they don’t understand a decision, or to help them be the best they can be. But what is the best approach?

Hayden Buchholz, director of Sport and Physical Education and head of Community Engagement at Somerset College Prep, offers the following advice to parents:

Resilience, resilience, resilience

As parents and coaches, it’s crucial to remember that children have varying emotional maturity and cope differently with losing. Younger children may be especially vulnerable to feeling upset or discouraged after a loss, and it’s important to be sensitive to their individual needs and feelings. Offering appropriate emotional support and encouragement can help children build resilience and coping skills that will benefit them in the long run.

Remember, sport is a marathon and not a sprint. School programmes are carefully designed by educators who want the best for children. Children will show grit when they feel supported and comfortable with the expectations. Help them manage these expectations by partnering with the school. Take time to understand these programmes yourself so that you can communicate effectively with your child.

It is crucial to introduce children to diverse activities and experiences, regardless of their proficiency level. Do not overwhelm them with too many extracurricular activities but, equally, avoid a narrow focus on a specific sport or position at an early age. By diversifying activities, children can explore new interests and cultivate an array of skills that will benefit them in the long run.

It must be fun! They are children. It must be fun.

Acknowledging and celebrating our accomplishments is crucial for our personal growth and motivation. However, it’s equally important to acknowledge and wisely praise the effort that led to our success.

According to Carol Dweck, a renowned psychology professor at Stanford University, we should avoid solely praising our children’s abilities or skills, such as saying, “You are so clever” or “Good at chess”. Instead, we should offer honest and meaningful feedback about the process that led to their achievement. This helps children understand that success is the result of hard work and dedication, rather than just innate talent or intelligence. By doing so, we can motivate our children to put in the effort and hard work required to achieve their goals, leading to personal growth and development.

What should a post-match conversation with your child look like?

Don’t comment on the game or how they played. Your child is already mentally and physically exhausted. Instead, start with five simple words, “I loved watching you play.”

If your child starts talking about the game, encourage them to reflect first before verbalising it. This also gives YOU a moment to collect YOUR thoughts, too. Encourage them to take a warm bath and have something to eat or drink before discussing the match once emotions have settled.

It is crucial that we give our children the opportunity to self-evaluate their performance, independent of our opinions as parents. As such, before we place our stamp of approval or disapproval on something, we must encourage our children to reflect on their performance and share their thoughts with us. By doing so, we can gain valuable insight into their perspectives, and we help them develop a stronger sense of self-awareness.

It is important to remember that we should never have a (potentially) permanent discussion on a temporary emotion. Keep in mind there are valuable lessons to be gained from losing, making mistakes and failing. These experiences offer chances for our children to cultivate resilience.

Let your children know it is okay to feel disappointed and express their emotions. However, it is equally important to remind them that losing does not define them and that there is always a way to move forward. Life presents challenges, and shielding children from disappointment will only limit their growth and experiences.

How to react if they think something unfair has happened

Parents see the best and worst of their children. Teachers don’t. Listen to your child in the evenings when you’re tucking them in at night and they share their fears or concerns about school. Partner and engage with the school by sharing these conversations (that which you can) with those concerned. At the heart of it, we all want the best for the children in our care.

How to counsel them if they are ‘dropped’

We take this very seriously at Somerset College. Player feedback is an important part of our programme. Feedback is given before, during and after practices and matches and this can take on many forms, whether verbal or non-verbal. We have a rotation policy in the lower grades which aims to give every child a turn to give their best effort. Things get more serious when they enter the senior teams.

When a player is dropped for performance and not rotational, we pull them aside and communicate the reasons clearly. We encourage them to ask questions, not to debate but to understand. We then announce the team to the group in a controlled manner that keeps the emotions of the group in mind.

Parents are also welcome to ask questions about selection and responses are given. Learn to understand the reasons for yourself and then (re)communicate these reasons to your child.

Sometimes, children are just playing a sport because they THINK this is what their parents want. A key question to ask is therefore, “Do YOU want to play in this team?” If they answer in a negative manner, then give them the space to respond. If they answer in the affirmative then ask, “How can I help you get there?”

It is natural to get emotional about team movement, but again, it is important the parent remains supportive and partners with the school.

Tips on how to support your child

1. Allow the coach to coach. The parents’ role is to emotionally support their child. For a child to love sports, they need to believe the following:

My coach will support me by giving constructive feedback that is purposeful and functional.

My coach will teach me new skills and help me understand the game and my role in it.

My parents will provide me with comfort and support.

My parents will support the coach and help me meet the expectations.

Children don’t need coaching from their parents while playing sports.

2. Partner with the school. Ask questions to understand the philosophy. You’ll see the best and worst of them in the privacy of your home, so equip yourself to answer in a way that supports the school and your child.

3. Keep your distance at practices and matches. Watch your child perform, but don’t instruct from the sidelines. That’s the coach’s job and this places undue stress on the child. Remember, children are brutally honest with each other, and your child’s peers will let them know when they feel you have overstepped.

4. Wait for the right moment to chat about their performance, whether good or bad. Tell them how much you loved watching them play, then encourage them to take a moment to reflect on their performance before verbalising it.

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