Sports weren’t a huge part of my life growing up.
I was a cheerleader in the days when being a cheerleader meant you were probably popular and could clap on beat. I spent more time teasing my bangs than I did actually learning cheers.
I did play a couple of seasons of softball in middle school, but that only lasted until I decided I hated hat hair. Then, in high school, I ran a couple of seasons of track, but that ended when I decided I hated running.
And before you even go there, none of this was because I sucked. I actually wasn’t horrible at anything. I just wasn’t interested in devoting the time or effort required to get my body to perform in that way. Plus hat hair is ugly, sweating is gross, and so is running.
When I found out I was having my first son, I remember thinking I couldn’t wait to sign him up for a hip hop dance class. I used to do Darren’s Dance Grooves DVDs while he sat in his exersaucer and I swear he was so into them.
I had visions of him being a background dancer for N'Sync (yes, he's old, they were still around then).
Only, fast forward a few years and we discovered that despite his mom’s great ability to clap on beat, it was a skill that eluded him.
But man could he kick the crap out of a soccer ball.
Not one to push my dreams on my child, I signed him up for some peewee soccer team at 2 and he has played EVERY. SINGLE. SEASON since that year.
And so it was with his younger brother and basketball and his even younger brother and football.
They have all found their callings not on a dance floor, as I’d once hoped, but on a court or a field where I never imagined I’d also find my own.
And yet I have.
Why I Love Youth Sports
I have spent the last 14 years donning spirit wear and taking on the role of cheerleader to my sons and their various youth sports teams.
And, believe it or not, no one even cares that I can clap on beat. In fact, they call on me regularly to perform a multitude of duties that rarely require me to clap at all.
I have watergirled and team momed, volunteered at the concession stands and the gates, made uniforms, bought uniforms, bandaged fingers, and inspected sweaty feet (and let me just say, there exist few things in life that make me puke in my mouth the way feet do, sweaty or otherwise). I’ve tied laces, fixed broken shorts, duct taped shoes, and hog tied pants. I've run the clock and kept the score. Taken photos and recorded game video. I have donated countless hours and almost as much money to the teams they have played on. I serve on committees and boards, host events, plan fundraisers and parties. I’ve even broken a sweat or two, and we’ve already established how much I hate that.
It is time consuming, exhausting, and stressful, and yet, I’ve never once regretted it.
In fact, I love it.
I gladly give up almost every weekend of the year to watch them do this thing they love.
Because while they love challenging themselves, pushing their limits, and being a part of a team, I love seeing them grow and mature in ways that are unique to being challenged physically, mentally, and emotionally on the field or court where they have to make decisions without mom or dad to guide them.
Then there is the team aspect. We have made so many wonderful friends who have added to our family in beautiful ways. I can hardly imagine not spending weekends filled with some of their faces.
A few weeks ago, Dude 2 and his football team suffered a heartbreaking loss in the second round of the playoffs. It was a tough loss at the end of a beautiful season. It reminded me that losing is hard, for everyone involved, but it's also an opportunity for parents to teach their kids things that can only be learned in the face of this type of adversity.
At the end of the day, I want my boys to be able to face a loss with the same joy and pride they face a win with. I want them to know that it’s more about the journey than the destination, more about the effort, than the outcome, and more about who you are when it's tough than who you are when it's easy.
I have spent hours inside of the NFL headquarters working to create a safer, more rewarding youth football experience for kids across the country and, while that work has been beneficial in many ways, nothing has taught me more about positively parenting an athlete than my 14 years on the sidelines.
Sadly, I see less positivity from the adults in the stadiums at youth sports than I do when I go to NFL games.
The jeering and shouting, the anger and aggressiveness, the obvious lack of ability to maintain perspective while standing on the sidelines of a football game being played by people who haven't even spent a decade on this planet.
It. Will. Blow. Your. Mind.
And, because I really don't think parents want to be the problem -they get caught up in the experience, they think their child isn't getting a fair shake, they lose perspective and things spiral out of control, we're gonna talk about it.
10 Truths About Youth Sports to Remember as a Parent
Your child’s coach is not a professional.
Chances are (unless we are talking about elite, club soccer and then totally profesh), your child’s coach is just one of his teammate’s dads who has enough time, patience, and desire to spend a few nights a week and most of his Saturdays trying to help your kid learn and love a sport. He's not a certified trainer, he probably doesn't have any high level coaching experience, he doesn't have a degree in sports medicine or sports science or anything related to sports or coaching or even child development. He may have not even played the sport himself beyond the youth level. He's just a dude, with a passion, and maybe that's all he needs.
Because, if I'm honest, most of our best coaches in youth sports have been the ones who are just super passionate about this thing. The ones who aren't doing it for the hometown glory or to get their kids more playing time. The ones who do it because they genuinely love the sport, work extra hard to learn it and teach it, and truly just want to pass their love and knowledge on to a group of kids. Not because any of those kids are future hall of famers, just because they are there and want to play.
Which means no one is paying him to be there.
And, if you think you can do a better job, I am almost certain that a youth sports organization in your neck of the woods would love to have you join them.
Your kid is probably not going to the NFL.
Truth bomb for you, but even the most awesome player you know is probably just going to look back on their youth sports experiences and be like, “Yoooo, that was fun”.
Because the great thing about greatness is that it’s just not a thing you encounter every day.
If that tidbit isn’t doing it for you, let’s look at the numbers: even if your kid makes it onto their high school team one day and is still playing as a high school senior, only 0.08% of them will ever play in the NFL.
Nope, my decimal point isn’t messed up. It’s actually less than one percent.
I'm no expert here -I took a couple of stats classes in college that I basically bombed, but we can math this out...
So, say there are about 1 million high school football players in the US, and about 250,000 of them are seniors, that less than one percent matriculation number I gave you earlier means about 200 of them will go to the NFL. With over 36,000 high schools in the nation, you really, truly probably won't have one at your child's high school -and that includes your child.
And, the odds are less for most youth players.
Thinking college is your goal?
But, odds aren't great for a D1 situation either. There are over 4 million male high school athletes in America in ALL sports. Less than 8% of them will play at the collegiate level. And most of those won't be D1.
And don't even get me started on basketball!
Your child is so much more than just an athlete.
And you are a parent first.
So it's important that your choices reflect that. Because there might not be an "i" in team, but there is one in parenting, and when it comes to that I have to always do what I think is best for my boys. Not for the coaches, not for the other players, not for the team -for my son, the child who trusts me for protection and nourishment, guidance, love and support.
I will never feel badly for putting my youth athlete's health, safety, academics, or general wellness and development above his team, and you shouldn't either.
There are lots of problems, and not enough solutions.
It’s okay to complain. Totally. I do it allll the time. But, it’s more effective to offer a solution –volunteer to help, point out a resource, do something that will help alleviate the problem.
This explains why I spend all day Saturday and most weeknights in the evening at a field or a court or somewhere -I want to be part of the solution.
Your kids want you there.
To support them and cheer for them and their team. They are cool with some tips and pointers for the next game over dinner on Tuesday. But they're not cool with hearing about everything they did wrong the moment they step off the field. They don't want you to scream obscenities at them from the sidelines. They don't want you to yell like a madman at their teammates or their coaches or the other parents or the opposing team. They don't want you to lay into them at halftime or show them that you're disappointed in their performance. And no, they don't think you do it "because you care" or "know they're the best". They think you do it because you think they suck.
Remember, it’s not all about you.
In fact, it’s not really about you at all. It’s not your opportunity to live out your lost dreams. And really, at the end of the day, you don’t have to love it.
But your kids do.
And if they don’t, then maybe they’re not in the right place, and neither are you.
It is also not all about winning.
I’ll be the first to admit, I LOVE to win. At everything.
Challenge me to a game a of tic tac toe right now and I will do everything in my power to wreck you.
So, I get it. Everyone likes to win, losing sucks balls, end of story.
Only, not really.
Because the true end of any good story involves a lesson –a takeaway, something that sticks with you and makes you a better person than you were before.
And everyone knows that whole thing about losing building character.
It’s totally true -losing builds character. But, it also lets you see who already has it, who needs to work on it, and who you’d hate to be facing a zombie apocalypse with because they will break your knees and leave you hobbled in a field to let the zombies eat your brains to save themselves in a heartbeat.
Note for my TWD fans: There are lots of Shane's in this world and not as many Rick's.
But it is all about the kids.
Their development, their experience, their love of the game. And it’s our job, as parents and coaches to make sure they develop and have a youth sports experience that helps fuel that love while building a healthy appreciation for teamwork, physical fitness, and competition (I am a firm believer in not everyone winning and getting a trophy, how the heck will your character development happen otherwise?!)