A guide to sports parenting

Almost every sports parent comes from a place of love for their child. We all want to help our kids, give them the most opportunities, and give them what we didn’t have but wish we had. My definition of the American Dream echoes this idea; the American Dream is wanting better for our children than we have or had in our lives. This includes their high school sports career, too.

I do not have all the answers, but I like to deal in honesty. I know we can’t solve all our problems in three easy essays, but let’s be honest about what we can do to help our parents, our players, and our coaches in high school athletics.

As a parent, how can I best support my child in high school athletics?

  1. Focus on what you can control

I have a sticky note on my school computer. It reads “Ignore the Noise-Focus on what you can control.”

I first heard this quote stating that Nick Saban, the head football coach at Alabama, has it in in his office. I have never been to his office so I have no idea if that is true or not.

However, this quote has been a mainstay in my life. Teaching, coaching, or my family life — focusing on what I can control is a big part of how I try to achieve my definitions of success. That sticky note is at least 15 years old. I have to tape it to new computer screens because all the sticky is long gone.

I believe parents focusing on what they can control helps them understand the bigger picture. As much as parents would like to, they do not make the decisions for high school sports teams. Coaches control playing time, schemes, strategy, who plays where, logistics, and the day-to-day coaching of the team.

Parents do not get to vote on team issues. However, by focusing on what is in their control, parents can help set a tone for their student-athlete. Parents also need to understand that high school athletics are high-level competition. Playing time is not guaranteed.

Each player on a team is a piece of the puzzle. The puzzle will be incomplete without all the pieces and each piece is important. Players and parents might not like their piece as much as another but they can make their role, or their piece, very important. By players embracing their roles, and by parents helping their player embrace their role, players can control what they have in their control.

In finding this role, parents should encourage their player to talk to the coach and identify areas for improvement. If you want more minutes on the basketball floor, what skills do you need to improve on? This conversation can help focus athletes on where to spend their time and can help the parent know the coach is interested in helping their child improve. However, when and how much that improvement happens is an evaluation made by the coach, which is out of the parent’s hands.

This process of improvement is a marathon, not a sprint. The parent and the coach may not agree on the timeline, but the coach’s vote is the only one that matters. Remember, Michael Jordan was cut from his 9th-grade basketball team. Where would he be had his parents encouraged him to move schools? Instead, he worked diligently on his skills and made himself into the player he was.

The changes between an athlete as a freshman and a senior can be incredible. My son grew seven inches and gained 30 pounds during his sophomore year. He was a much different athlete as a senior than as a freshman. Had he given up and not worked hard as a young player because he physically wasn’t there yet, he would have never been the varsity athlete he developed into.

High school sports are a four-year marathon of building a program, not a one-week or one-game or one-season sprint.

  1. Be realistic and understand other perspectives

I believe that all parents come from a place of love for their kids. We want the best for them. We want them to have success in sports and school. As parents, we have been watching (and paying) for our kids’ athletic success for years.

However, just because I believe my kid is the best athlete does not mean that the coach may see it the same way. There are many lenses and many reasons for this, but the bottom line, even if the coach is “wrong,” it is still the coach’s decision, not the parents’. Just because I have paid for private lessons and all the travel club fees does not guarantee my child is the best athlete.

Many times, coaches see a player’s strengths and ability to contribute differently than the parents. While he might be the second-best linebacker on the team, that player is also the very best offensive lineman and we are better if he plays Tackle for us. He may have been a linebacker his whole life, but now he is being moved.

Parents, support this for your kid. It’s a badge of honor when coaches are looking for ways to redesign a player’s piece of the puzzle. Your child is so good that he or she could be several puzzle pieces. The coach’s job is to fit the piece correctly to give the whole the best chance of success.

If the parent can buy in with the plan at the dinner table, chances are so will the player. However, if the parent doesn’t, is that really going to help your child? It’s probably not going to change the coach’s mind. It’s probably not going to result in more playing time for your child. It’s probably not going to help your child learn the lesson of striving and overcoming. It’s probably not going to help the program win more games.

In fact, by undercutting the coach and program, the athlete’s chances of success are far slimmer — the success of playing time, winning games, and the grit that comes with the process.

A lot of parents push high school athletics for the unicorn of the college scholarship. Parents need to be realistic about how hard it is for athletes to earn a college scholarship.

According to NCAA.org, the likelihood of earning a college athletic scholarship is between 3% (men’s wrestling) and 26% (women’s ice hockey) of all high school athletes. To check your child’s specific sport, click on the link above for the exact numbers from the NCAA. Most of the sports listed are below 5%.

That means for every 100 kids on the football field over the summer, less than five of them will play football in college. The other 95 kids are working to be the best high school player they can be.

Parents, be realistic. Not every child will go to college and play, no matter how bad we want them to. Far more of them will have to pay to go to college and use their brains for their degree, not their athleticism.

  1. Remember the key to any relationship is communication

There are very few times in life when over-communication is a detriment.

If there are issues on a sports team, a lot of times it is a simple misunderstanding. To address this, a parent’s first step should be to talk to their player. Is what the parent is seeing really an issue for the player, or is it just the parent? A lot of times, the player does not feel the same way about an issue as the parent does. And is the parent or the player the one on the team?

After talking to your player and confirming the issue, the next step is to talk to the coach about the issue. Please write or call the coach requesting a meeting. Don’t try and grab them after a practice or game. Remember, coaches have emotions and families, too.

In a lot of cases, this meeting with the coach, parent, and player will fix most issues. That doesn’t mean the coach will change her mind and make your daughter the starting shortstop. However, you may come away with clarity as to why your daughter is NOT the starting shortstop and what she can do to reach her goals.

Sometimes, parents will approach coaches and say “Don’t tell my kid I’m talking to you.” This makes it difficult for all involved to deal in an honest, open line of communication. Remember, communication is the key to a relationship. We can’t build a relationship by hiding things from one another.

If there is still an issue after meeting with the coach, set up a meeting with the building athletic director. After that, if there is still a need, is a meeting with the building principal.

Too often, parents skip to emailing the superintendent and district athletic director. This is inefficient. Start by talking to the people in your building before jumping to the top of the ladder.

  1. Remember the point of high athletics

Why do athletes lift all those weights and run all those sprints? Because it makes them stronger.

Adversity makes our athletes mentally stronger. Life is not easy; sports help prepare us for this. When our children are challenged, it makes them grow. Too often, we as parents want to grade the road for our children. We want to remove the adversity.

Parents, we need to react to adversity in a positive way to show our athletes how to overcome it. Athletes need adversity like they need to lift weights. They also need their parents to be role models in how to deal with adversity.

Amy, one of my favorite student-athletes ever to come from the West Ada School District, was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer at 19 years old. As a college athlete, she went from having it all to almost losing it all overnight.

Amy clarifies how important sports were to her struggle.

“Because of sports, I knew I could work through the pain of the surgeries, the fatigue, tears, and struggles through chemo, and life thereafter. But now that I am sitting here typing this I consider being an athlete the biggest blessing in disguise. It gave me the tools to fight for my life, create friends, create my community, and learn who I am. Sports have played an extremely important role in my life. I learned how to battle, I learned how to be a part of a team. I learned how to take my losses, rub some dirt on it, and stand back up stronger.”

Amy, now a 35-year-old professional, credits being a high school athlete for saving her life. Cancer was just more adversity for her to overcome, like a slump that lowered her batting average or a broken nose on the soccer pitch. She attacked cancer treatment like she knew how to attack opponents on the field.

In addition to maybe saving an athlete’s life, high school sports also help athletes earn money. I have listened to many CEOs of large companies explain why they want to hire high school varsity athletes. Athletes understand work ethic, how to put someone else’s goals ahead of their own, how to work as a team, how to be a leader of a team, and how to compete with external forces and focus on strategies that lead to success.

The point of high school athletics is bigger than wins and scholarships. When parents see struggle and adversity, remember what the point of all this is. What are we really trying to teach and learn?

  1. You never know when your player’s number might be called

If your player is second string, they are one play away from being a starter. If they are third string, they are two plays away.

It’s never going to be perfect but we might miss out on the perfect moment if we aren’t ready. If your player has spent the last three weeks kicking grass because they aren’t playing, upset at the coaches, not focusing on his or her craft, then he or she might not be ready when the lights are brightest.

In 2001, in the 4th quarter of a 13–10 loss, Drew Bledsoe was knocked out of an NFL game with a concussion, a collapsed lung, and internal bleeding. Bledsoe almost died from the violent hit.

His backup, with two minutes left in the game? A nobody named Tom Brady.

Tom Brady went 11–3 the rest of the year and won his first Super Bowl. He did not miss when his moment was presented. And he hasn’t left the field for the last 21 years.

Second string is one play away.

In addition to being ready, many times coaches see a player make an impact in a way that wasn’t anticipated. A sophomore can run down on special teams and makes a big tackle in space which changes his future from wide receiver to defensive back. A backup infielder comes through with a big hit in a big spot, which prompts a move to the outfield since there was just an injury.

Even though your player might not be making contributions to the team in the way you had planned or hoped for, focus on the fact they are making contributions and the lessons that come from that.

In The End

Ultimately, we want our West Ada players, parents, and coaches to have great experiences. In writing these three essays about high school athletics, Jason and I, among many other trusted colleagues, have been forced to think and talk about why we do the things we do. At the heart of it, we love high school athletics and high school athletes.

I have enjoyed reflecting on different coaching stories and how I handled certain situations. I haven’t always been right. I haven’t always been wrong. But with time, I have learned to look at lots of different perspectives and to try to see where others are coming from.

Our goal is to try and have parents look at their athletes and their athletics from multiple perspectives. My encouragement is for parents to communicate with their coaches, support their student-athletes, and try to focus on the awesome lessons that come from high school athletics. Not everyone will end up with a college scholarship or in the NFL, but every high school athlete can be a part of something greater than him or herself and learn these awesome lessons.

Nathan White

Nathan White

Nathan White is an English teacher at Eagle High School and has coached the West Ada School District for 20 plus years.

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