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Are high-pressure sports good for my child?

Q: I think sports are a wonderful team-builder. But I’ve noticed that some of the parents on my son’s soccer team are so focused on winning that they are screaming at 9-year-olds who make mistakes and calling the referees names. Is playing soccer doing more harm than good in these circumstances? How can I change things?

A: Asking whether sports are good for a child is a bit like a backpacker asking if wild berries are safe to snack on – “It all depends.” If the trail is winding through wild strawberries, then snacking is just fine. But eating handfuls of pokeweed berries is bound to lead to headaches, stomach pain and worse!

Sports spectators out of control.

 The National Association of Sports Officials reports abusive parents in nearly every sport. For example, Roger Bratcher was attending his child’s T-ball game when he didn’t like a call. He ran out among the 5- and 6-year-olds; when a scuffle began with the officials, a player received injuries to her face. As a consequence, Bratcher was banned from Daviess County (Kentucky) parks and playgrounds from 2003 to 2008. In Canada, in 2001, every single spectator was removed from an arena when Pee-Wee hockey fans screamed and threw objects at referees. Although your son’s games aren’t at this level, they aren’t positive experiences; stepping in to make a change is a good idea.

Promote a healthy culture.

 Are there parent meetings you could attend to encourage healthy goals? Children shouldn’t be “in training” to earn a college scholarship! Their focus should be on learning how to work with one another toward a mutual goal, developing the sense of what it means to function as a group. Parents who are tempted to scream when they view a mistake need to remember that they can’t judge whether that child is doing well for his or her level of development. Each child has a different level of physical maturity that needs to be respected; childhood includes maturation of the corpus callosum, which facilitates integration of information across the two hemispheres of the brain, which is important in sports. Sports should help a child earn a sense of self-esteem for putting forth a good effort. Remember what Thomas Edison said: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” We make mistakes when we learn new skills; we try out things that don’t work. Parents should try to catch every team member making good plays and yell out your support!

Be creative!

 It may be that a particular team culture is set in cement. Can you coach a team? Then you can set the climate from the beginning. Bringing the Gospel to the field doesn’t require preaching – you can set a good example by the way you coach.  Is your child interested in a different sport? See if another team has parents better attitudes. Keep working as an advocate for a healthy sports climate for your son because the psychological and physical benefits will bring him lifelong advantages!

Dr. Cathleen McGreal

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