Admit it — when you watch your kids play soccer, your sideline behavior mimics the pinball wizard. You are swooping left and right as they dribble down the field. You’re bumping and grinding in an effort to influence a shot. We should expect a giant "tilt" to flash across the sky every time we try to will our child’s kick to the proper target, whether it be a teammate or the goal. Worse, we parents turn into competitors when we arrive at the field, ready to do combat vicariously. We also become critics judging everything during the game, including the coaches, the referees and most importantly — our own children. Not wanting to appear judgmental, we bite our tongues, chew the skin off the inside of our cheeks and swallow our injured pride as we glide toward our players with a sunny smile plastered on our face.
We bring to games at minimum the wisdom of age and at maximum personal prowess in the sport. Therefore, we have a huge context in which to place all the events of a game. If we are the least bit competitive, which to be honest applies to all of us, we want to see our children, their team and their club, succeed. In the first place, achievement is definitely preferable over failure. But more importantly, our children’s accomplishments reflect positively on our parenting. We take pride in their triumphs and bask in the reflected glory. Therefore, it’s natural that when we see possibilities for improvement we want to rush in and offer them. Should we also have experience in the sport, or any sport, then we come from the point of view of a knowledgeable teacher. We feel our instruction is warranted because we come from a place of experience. We also understand that our kids are far less receptive to us as teachers than actual teachers. All they want is unconditional support, which leads to the shredded cheeks and punctured tongues.
How should we handle our own competiveness, especially when we see great potential in our kids that they don’t rise to? It’s not easy. Our kids have the power to drive us crazy. Luckily when they are pre-teen, most don’t recognize how much power they have. Thank goodness! Otherwise, we’d have to deal with their purposeful pressure on top of our own internal pressure. Can we just stand by and let everything play out naturally? I seriously doubt it, and I’m not convinced that’s the right way to handle it. We do have a responsibility to nurture our kids, support them and, yes, teach them. Sports exist in their world and are part and parcel of our kids’ experience and growth. But we do have to tread lightly, especially if we have experience either in sports in general or in soccer specifically, lest our passion be interpreted as criticism. There are three specific things we can do.
First, long before you talk to your child, your actions will speak volumes. Don’t be that embarrassing parent on the sidelines screaming and yelling at anything that moves. I wish following games parents would have to watch a video of the game, but only focused on the sidelines. My son-in-law is the team videographer for my grandsons’ football teams. They live seven hours away, and since football season runs concurrent with soccer season, we don’t make many of our grandsons’ games. Therefore, we watch the videos. Oh boy are they revealing. While the boys play with zeal, the audio feed reveals what the parents are saying the sidelines. Fifty percent of the dialog is R-rated, around 80 percent is attacking, and only a sliver is positive reinforcement and usually comes when a long run or a score is made, not just spontaneously during the game. When our kids look over and see us getting worked up, fighting with referees, fighting with other parents or just showing stern faces and clenched jaws, they feel the tension. So a broad smile and a "good game" at the final whistle contradicts the behavior the kids observed for 60 minutes, totally confusing them. Letting go of our own vicarious investment in the game to just support our kids and pushing our judgment into the background will set the stage for a dialog later.
Second, when the game is over find the things to praise even if the game was a blowout and not in favor of your kid’s team. It is actually amazing how that helps the knot in your stomach, quells the urge to start lecturing and gives everyone involved the time to feel good even if the atmosphere is bad. Knowing that you have to say something positive at the end of the game means that you have to pay attention to find those positive moments, which helps take the focus off the negative. Sometimes kids feel so badly about a game that there is little you can say. They will reject any attempt to offer a positive outlook. They just want to feel bad. We learned with both our sons that after a loss or a game where they were on the bench more than on the field, we needed to just keep silent. After a while they initiate a conversation usually not about the game, but eventually they segued into the game. We let them vent. But we still presented them with something we witnessed that was positive, not always easy to locate, but even to say "glad the rain held off" can bring a smile to a child’s face.
Third, open a dialog not by offering advice but by asking your child, "How did you feel about the game?" This gives them the opportunity to locate the topic. Kids are intuitive about their performance, the performance of the team and the performance of the adults involved, so let them decide what they want to talk about. It will often happen that your child ends up asking your advice or at least opening the door for you to offer some suggestions. Your child might say, "I thought I was really passing the ball well, but the coach kept telling me that I wasn’t doing it right." This gives you the chance to ask, "What exactly did the coach think you were doing wrong?" — creating the opening for a discussion about passing. Perhaps you noticed that she was rearing back too much with the leg or not passing with her head up, so if she tells you the coach saw this as well, it gives you a chance to talk about how valid that criticism is. Let your child take the lead. "I think my head IS up!" Your response could be, "Well let’s work on that at home. Maybe we can make it more obvious to the coach." Avoid taking sides against your child, which just makes the situation not only adversarial but also makes your child defensive. Often sincere suggestions can seem attacking. That’s why playing off your child’s perceptions lets you be supportive while actually pursuing an agenda of instruction. Kids do manipulate us, but as adults we should be able to manipulate a situation such that we don’t come off as the bad guys and have the opportunity to deliver positive life lessons. As an auxiliary to all of this, remember not to start this dialog while walking off the field or even during the ride home unless your child begins it. Wait a bit (here’s where the tongue biting and tooth gnashing come in) and then broach the subject. Everyone will be calmer, time heals wounds, and time offers you the chance to gather your thoughts so you don’t express knee-jerk comments based on your competitive disappointments.
I sat for four years watching my daughter come in last in the 1000-meter freestyle swimming races. She didn’t just come in last. She came in last a good five minutes after her next competitor. I hate the smell of chlorine, the race was always the last event (last is the theme here), and she was always last out of the locker room afterward. My tongue, lips, teeth and cheeks all suffered permanent damage while I held back. The fact is she was always happy, talked about how certain times she earned were her best, how she improved on her turns and how the coach told her she was getting better. So I never had the opportunity to even talk to her about the things I thought she should work on. She didn’t want to hear it, so it wasn’t my place to offer it. She wasn’t going to be Missy Franklin, and they don’t race the 1000-meter in world competition. So what difference would it have made? All I would have done is created an atmosphere where she felt diminished. That’s the real lesson here. Sometimes as parents we just need to step back and let things unfold naturally. My son, Robbie, spent his first two years in soccer wandering around, passing the ball to whomever ran by no matter the jersey color and watching the clouds overhead. We never expected him to eventually become Gatorade Player of the Year in Wisconsin or be elected to the Second ESPN Rise team in 2009. We thought he would play soccer for fun for a few years and then move on to something else, perhaps being a meteorologist. But when he moved to a select club because his brother, who was always driven, moved there, he blossomed. Once again, we never offered any advice, but in this case there was little advice to offer once he decided soccer was his passion.
Therefore, I would say that as parents we can enjoy our kids’ play, but we usually can’t do much to change it. If we want to change it, we have to be very cautious in how we approach the discussion. And most importantly, we have to accept that our child’s investment in the sport can’t be taught. Our kids have to decide that they care enough to improve, even to push themselves to the highest levels. Our role is primarily to support that drive as best we can with good coaching, travel to appropriate tournaments, and the best club we can comfortably afford. The rest of it is far too ephemeral like those clouds Robbie liked to watch. We have to accept we can’t sculpt the clouds.