Behaving on the Sidelines: Finding Ways to Engage with Our Young Athletes

It’s that time of year again. The trees are turning and it is time for fall sports to begin. For my family, that means soccer. For you, it may mean football, volleyball, fall baseball, or a combination of activities.

Our family is ready. We’ve washed last season’s sweat stains from the shin guards, found the correct size soccer balls, and purchased snacks for the team. Several weeks ago, my family started the countdown, as we all get excited for the season to commence. Because crisp fall mornings on the fields watching kids work hard and do something they love is fun, most of the time.

As adults, we hold a significant role when it comes to children’s athletics. The few and bravest of us will volunteer to coach. To you, I say “thank you.” The repeated pleas for more coaches were hard to read but I honestly just didn’t want to do it. Someone had to, so thank you for answering the call.

For the rest of us…the leftover parents, the grandparents, the aunts, uncles, and occasional neighbors, teachers, pastors, and neighbors who sit along the sidelines watching the games…we, too, have a great responsibility.

As I have sat along the sidelines for many seasons now, I have learned a few things about myself, about the players, and about our tendencies as spectators. I have some thoughts for all of us…

Let us remember who the coach is. Honor them by letting them coach. Remember that they answered the call to step in and we did not. Thank them for their time. Recognize that no matter how organized and assertive they are, some practices may still resemble herding cats. Give them grace when they forget to rotate players in a fashion that allows each player to have the same amount of playing time. Notice that they are doing something risky but beneficial when they allow a player to try their hand in the goalie box for the first time because the child had bravely shared that they’d like the chance to give it a go. Remember that they are trying to stay focused on introducing your child to the sport while nurturing their interest and eventual love of the game. Encourage them by telling them what they are doing well. If there are legitimate concerns, go to them privately and express them in an adult manner with a foundation of respect. Much of the same can be said for how we honor the officials. Keep in mind that kids watch how we interact with and respond to authority. Our children see how we treat the officials…whether we question, argue, or consider their calls ridiculous.

Let us remember that the players are kids. They are not college athletes and they are certainly not professionals. I have been watching my kids play soccer for years now, and I still get confused when we talk about “off-sides”. I’m getting closer, but people, let me tell you that it has taken a while for my mind to make sense of it. And if my “developed brain” has struggled to catch on to this rule, can we agree that our kids are working really hard to soak in a lot of new concepts. They are consistently being introduced to new skills and rules each time they are on the field. Cognitively, a child’s brain functions in a highly concrete manner of reasoning until reaching adolescence where they grow in their ability to think logically about possible scenarios and abstract ideas. We, the adult spectators, can not only quite literally view more of the field than the players on it, but we are also thinking with adult reasoning brains, therefore again viewing the field and the possibilities from a different perspective.

Let us resist talking negatively about our own children or another person’s child. Just don’t do it. Don’t talk about how clumsy they are because their body hasn’t caught up with the size of their feet. Don’t talk about how they are too slow or lazy on the field. Don’t talk about how they should have made the goal after they obviously didn’t make it. Don’t talk about how they should have stopped the goal that obviously went between their legs. Don’t talk about how your team would have won if so and so had done their job. DO intentionally look for specific ways to encourage and affirm them. Look for ways that demonstrate that they are enjoying the game, focusing hard, making steps towards mastering a skill, or treating their team and coach with respect and kindness.

Let us find ways to interact well with our kids immediately following their game. When your child runs up to you after their game, pause your adult conversations and engage with your child. Be ready to do this because it is really important to them. They may have been waiting patiently through the entire game to see how you will respond to them. Don’t worry about having too many words at this time. Let them know with your eyes and your smile that you are proud they are your child no matter how they played. Hug them. Kids always want to know that their people are proud of them. Heck, adults like to know this too…but that’s a topic for another time.

Consider the conversation in the car ride home. Be balanced. Resist pointing out all of the ways that they could have worked harder or played better. Choose your words wisely because they’re really only going to take in a portion of them. Better yet, draw thoughts out of them by asking good questions. Ask them what they learned today as they played. Ask them what was most fun. Ask them how they noticed their team working together. Ask them if anything was hard for them today. But in this process, we must remember that they will clue us in when they are done talking and we must try to honor this. Bulldozing past their desire to move on to a different conversation is usually more about our need to “coach more and make them better” than actually wanting to engage in a meaningful way. My boys tend to give us fairly bold cues that they are ready for a shift in topic…generally it has something to do with what we are going to eat for lunch or what are plans are for the rest of the day.

Lastly, try not to take it all too seriously.Let your kids see you cheer, laugh, and enjoy the process. Think about letting them coach you at home by teaching you what they are learning. Quite literally…grab the ball and ask them to teach you a skill they are attempting to master. Let go of control. Resist correcting them as they coach you. (Hint: If there is arguing, it may be that you may need to resist correcting even more.) Demonstrate how to listen, respond, and engage in the process with eagerness and a willing mind. They’ll be grateful you did…and your relationship will be grateful too.

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