Crazy coaches. Pushy parents. Sometimes, amid all the sideline noise, it’s hard to remember that teen athletes are playing a game. And games are supposed to be fun, right?
If you’re like most U.S. parents, you have plenty of good reasons why you want your teenager on a team.
Nearly 90 percent of parents surveyed in a 2015 poll by Harvard University, National Public Radio, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation reported that sports helped their children stay healthy, while 81 percent said sports instilled discipline in their kids.
In fact, teen athletes do tend to be physically fit and stay busy and out of trouble, says Donna Merkel, a sports clinical specialist who wrote about the impact of youth sports for the Open Access Journal of Sports Medicine.
But the benefits of playing sports are even broader. Teen athletes are less likely to smoke or do illegal drugs. Teen pregnancy and suicide rates are lower among athletes, while levels of self-esteem are higher.
Benefits turn up in the classroom, too. Teens who are active in sports and other extracurricular activities are better at setting goals and managing their time, according to several studies Merkel cites.
“When you look at kids who participate in sports, generally they are the kids who do better in school,” Merkel notes. “They have a better sense of time management because they know, ‘I have to be at practice from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m., so if I want to be in bed by 10 p.m., that gives me four hours to do my homework.’”
Despite these perks, research shows that up to 70 percent of teenagers drop sports by the time they hit adolescence, mostly because they stop having fun.
Whether your teen is a casual player or has hoop dreams, you can help make sure their sports experience is positive—even if every season isn’t perfect.
7 Tips to Keep Teen Sports Positive
1. Avoid Negative Talk
Naturally, your teenager’s sports experience will be a topic of conversation, but be thoughtful in your approach, advises Jim Thompson, author of The High School Sports Parent and founder of the Positive Coaching Alliance.
Win or lose, remember to tell your teens that you enjoy watching them play and that their performance doesn’t affect your feelings for them. Ask open-ended questions such as, “What was the best part of the game for you?” rather than, “Why didn’t you throw to second?” Remember that you aren’t just talking sports; you’re building a strong relationship.
And that bond, says Thompson, “is the emotional equivalent of a full-ride scholarship.”
2. Share Your Values
In the heat of the game, when a coach loses control or a teammate’s parent forgets to act like an adult, model behavior and counsel your teen to remember your family values out on the field, Ken Kish of Grosse Pointe, Michigan says.
“There was one game the summer after my son’s freshman year when they had to clear the field because the coaches were fighting with the other coaches on the field,” Kish recalls. “I explained to my son that’s not how he was taught or raised and that’s not how you play the game.”
3. Deal with the Coach
Some teen athletes spend more time with their coach than with their families, so finding someone who is a good role model is key, experts say. But if the coach fails to hit the mark, write it off as a life experience.
“Having a positive coach is a gift,” Thompson says. “And when you don’t have one, it can still be a valuable experience because you can help your kid develop strategies to deal with people who are hard to deal with.”
4. Stay out of the Fray
If your teen clashes with a teammate, another parent, or a coach, brainstorm strategies to resolve the conflict, but if possible, let them handle it.
“I think parents really should stay out of it,” says Merkel. “The only time I really think they should intervene is if they think their child is in a toxic situation.”
Urge your teen to be their own advocate with the coach. If they’re not getting enough game time or are dissatisfied with their position, encourage them to ask their coach to outline his expectations. Role-play with your child to work out potential scenarios. Help them set attainable goals like keeping a positive attitude and working hard at practice.
5. Be a Cheerleader
“Be supportive and don’t judge them,” advises Daniel Gray, an 18-year veteran coach who teaches coaching skills to American Youth Soccer Organization volunteers throughout Los Angeles. “Assume that they’re always trying their best.”
And unless you are actually your teenager’s coach, be content with being her biggest fan, Thompson adds. Applaud and cheer, but don’t offer direction—it can sometimes conflict with the coach’s strategy. Remember this is their game, not yours.
Finally: “Do not embarrass them by screaming at an official,” Thompson says.
6. Listen to Your Teen
Don’t force your teen to stick with a sport they no longer love. Motivation to play needs to come from within, says Gray.
Even if your athlete shows promise, forcing them to play a sport they hate, or to stay with a difficult coach, is rarely going to help them get the scholarship that you’re sure they deserve.
“I know the old saying, ‘Never Quit,’ but if your teen has come to the realization that they disagree with a coach’s philosophy of life, then it’s time to step away,” Gray notes. “It’s more important for mental health. If a teen is unhappy playing a sport, then the parents should respect that.”
7. Find a Fit
Perhaps hand-eye coordination isn’t your teen’s strength and they don’t enjoy the Rah! Rah! spectacle of conventional team sports. You can still encourage them to participate in sports like fencing, tennis, rowing, or squash, Merkel says.
Gray coached his two older children in soccer, but his youngest, Stevie, recognized that he wasn’t “a team-sports-type guy.” Instead, Stevie ran cross-country two years in high school and is an avid skateboarder.
And if the intensity of team sports is a turn-off, take the competition down a notch. Check out local recreation center programs and more casual neighborhood teams.
“Your goal should be to have your youth athlete enjoy what they’re doing, participate without getting hurt, and establish good rapport with their teammates,” explains Merkel. “It should be looked at more comprehensively than just being sports. It should be one part of their growing up, not the only thing they focus on.”
In other words, it’s a long season. Keep your eye on the ball.