Take the Stress Out of Youth Sports

Early on in our parenting “careers” we run into a lot of different personalities at school and at the park, some of whom we can relate to and others that simply mystify. But one type that you can’t avoid for long is the hypercompetitive sports parent. The mom or dad who can’t believe their child isn’t in the starting lineup, whose face is always red from yelling out directives from the sidelines, or, even worse, is berating their kid for a missed play or lost game. In a day and age where we’re far less tolerant of peer bullying in schools, there are some parents who take on the antagonizing role with the intention of making their kid the next Tom Brady or Venus Williams.


But here’s the thing – real athletic ability doesn’t show itself until after puberty.


Or so says Bob Bigelow, a former NBA player and first round draft pick who co-authored the book Just Let the Kids Play (HCI, 2001) and works tirelessly to make sports better for children.


“I was down in New Jersey in the late eighties and I was shooting baskets, and there was a little soccer game going on 20 yards from where I was,” he recalls. “They were probably 5 or 6 years old. But I noticed that whenever the ball went in one direction, a team’s parents started hyperventilating. And then the ball went the other way and some other parents started hyperventilating. I’m thinking to myself, ‘What the hell is going on here?’ So I sat there and watched in wonderment thinking, ‘These parents are crazy!’ They’re yelling directions at their kids, meanwhile the kids are wandering off to the side to pick a daisy or chase a dog or something like that, which they’re supposed to do because they’re kids.”


When Bigelow became a father himself (he has two grown sons), he decided it was worth investing some time researching what was happening in the youth sports arena, which was decidedly different from the climate in which he grew up in the sixties. Back then he recalls playing Little League baseball as a kid, but admits he never played basketball until he was a freshman in high school. So how does a guy who barely touched a basketball until the age of 14 go on to play professionally, meanwhile today’s kids are honing in on one sport early on, playing as frequently as possible to get better?


“The first thing I discovered was pretty simple – athletic ability in a child doesn’t even begin to forecast the ability of that child later on until after puberty, which made all of the sense in the world to me,” he says. “My pre-pubescent years I spent thousands of hours with other kids playing games, playing around in the backyard, climbing trees, riding bikes, the stuff we did all of the time in the sixties. I was developing athletic ability and I didn’t know it. I was just playing every day.”


After years of explaining this concept to parents and youth sports organizers, Bigelow came across the more technical term of Long Term Athlete Development (LTAD) coined by Istvan Balyi; his research further explains that athletic ability doesn’t manifest until after puberty. Essentially this means that you can sign your kids up to play soccer 12 months out of the year, but it has zero influence on whether or not they’ll go pro one day. Oh, and all of that yelling you’re doing as a “coach?” Yeah, knock it off, the only impact it has is a negative one.


“Please remember something – these games belong to them,” says Bigelow. “These are the kids’ games. Whether you’re coaching or watching, you’re a guest at their games. Take a deep breath, America. So much of what goes on in youth sports is this sprint toward adulthood. Everyone is always looking ahead. Who is this kid going to be? Who cares? Let’s enjoy this 6-year-old while they’re playing now.”


While the current motto in youth sports seems to be that starting kids on teams earlier means they’ll be better (which developmentally is not the case), it’s also important to remember that as a coach, there’s nothing you can apply from watching a replay on Sports Center that will apply to your Little League team.


“I tell these guys all of the time, ‘Turn off ESPN. It’s killing you,’” says Bigelow. “There’s nothing you can learn in televised sports that’s going to help you coach second-graders or fourth-graders. You’re looking at some of the greatest athletes in the world who are playing on TV. What are you going to learn by watching USC play UCLA that’s going to help you with a seventh-grade basketball team? The only thing they have in common is they play with a round ball.”


We all want what’s best for our kids, but at what cost? And why would a child want to keep playing a sport that is so ridden with anxiety and stress? Instead of always looking ahead at what “could be” for your child, take a second to live in the now and enjoy the activity that they’re doing in the moment.


With that being said, Bigelow emphasizes that we should provide our kids with a well-rounded offering of activities and sports. It’s important to keep them moving, but not a priority to work them to the bone.


“In elementary school I am dead set against playing any sport more than once a year,” he says. “I am very big into experimentation. I’m always telling parents to expose their kids to golf or tennis, individual sports, running, track and field, martial arts. They have some great bonuses just for coordination and balance. But the rule of thumb, by age 12 you should have tried to expose your child to at least three team sports and three individual sports. This is the cookie store approach – let your kids dabble in a whole lot of stuff.”


And if you just can’t seem to help yourself at your child’s games, try to withdraw a little, even if it means standing an extra five feet away from the field. And it’s OK to skip a game … really.


“Take a break,” says Bigelow. “Parents will say, ‘I have to go – they’ll miss me.’ They’ll be fine. Remember, it’s their activity. You don’t go to school with them!”


Kelly Bryant is associate editor of Boston Parents Paper.

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24 Mar 2016

By Kelly Bryant