McNerney: Sports and Parenting

By Neil McNerney

It’s that time of year when our children’s sports are in full swing. For most families, this is a busy and fun time when the kids can get out and burn off some energy. But these days, it seems that it can also introduce a number of stressors and difficulties.

I have the pleasure of raising two kids who enjoy sports quite a bit and would be considered athletes. Therefore, I have spent a good number of hours in the stands watching not just the game, but the parents and the coaches as well. I usually designated myself as the team videographer, which forces me to shut up, lest my comments be recorded in full volume.

The good news is this: The majority of grown-ups do a great job of supporting our kids and remembering that the primary benefits of youth sports is physical activity, working together as a team, and—oh yeah—having fun.

But, you might ask, what about competition? What about learning how to compete and win? Isn’t that a life skill that sports are supposed to instill? How will my kid learn to win in life if he doesn’t learn that “eye of the tiger” mentality early?

At the risk of alienating my readers, I think this is an argument that doesn’t hold water in real life. Let me explain. In my experience, most kids either have a strong sense of competition or they don’t. Either they were born that way or learned to compete in the family at a very early age with their siblings. Usually, if your child does not have a competitive spirit, they won’t get one by playing sports.

The second reason I reject the competition argument is that teaching kids to compete does not reflect the majority of careers that will be available to them. Think about your own job. I would speculate that the majority of us don’t have careers that have a primary goal of beating someone else. Most careers in this area are focused on teams working together to meet a goal, not on beating a competitor. If hard work and cooperating as team are paramount, shouldn’t we focus on these characteristics instead of competition?

A few years ago, my son and I tossed around the idea of a book on this subject for parents. When I asked him about the title, he said: “The Ride Home.”

He told me: “Lots of my friends tell me about how they hate the ride home from a game. They are tired and, if they had a bad game, just want to forget about it. Then their dad starts talking and they know where it’s headed. He’ll start with one or two positives, but the kid knows exactly what’s happening. Pretty soon, it’s a list of every play the kid did wrong. If he tries to argue with his Dad, he is told he’s being disrespectful. If he just sits there and doesn’t say anything, he’s told that he doesn’t want to get better. Kids hate the ride home.”

Now, truth be told, Max is a very nice guy and didn’t group me with those dads. Although I have worked very hard at staying positive, I still make mistakes occasionally and share with him an observation or two. But I try hard not to do it on the ride home.

Our constructive criticism is rarely received by our kids in the manner we would like. When we say: “You need to follow-through after the kick,” our child hears “You stink at soccer.” Regardless of how nicely we phrase it, our feedback to our kids is always taken very personally. We mean too much to them. Coaches, on the other hand, can do a great job of giving feedback because our kids don’t view them through the same lens they view us. When a coach says, “You need to follow-though,” that is exactly what our child hears.

A rule of thumb to consider is this: Unless our kids specifically ask for our help, leave the coaching to the coaches. If you feel compelled to give advice, try to give it in the most tentative way possible, such as “Have you thought about trying it this way?”

What does that leave you with? Being supportive. My son had a coach that would share one positive thing each player did during a game. These after-game talks were great. You could see the positive energy increase as the season progressed. During the game, think of three things you saw that impressed you, and share them on the way home. The rides will become more enjoyable for everyone.

If you find that you can’t stop yourself from coaching from the stands, assign yourself as the team videographer. I assure you that it will decrease your desire to shout out instructions for all to hear.

Neil McNerney is a licensed professional counselor and author of Homework – A Parent’s Guide To Helping Out Without Freaking Out!and The Don’t Freak Out Guide for Parenting Kids with Asperger’s. He can be reached at

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