Parenting your student athlete

Remember when Opie had to chose between football and piano lessons? Trying times indeed for the sheriff.

I wrote the following for the Charlotte Observer and The News & Observer in Raleigh, where it originally appeared August 16. See the related post on student athlete injuries that appeared here yesterday.

As school approaches and a busy round of athletic seasons — from football to soccer to cross country — begins, parents face a variety of concerns as their student athletes hit the playing field.

More often than not, says Jeremy Boone, author of “Parent Your Best,” those questions have less to do with their kids getting hurt than how they can help make playing a sport a fulfilling experience for their kids.

“Sports parenting is a skill,” says Charlotte-based Boone, who’s also the founder of Athletes by Design, a sports consulting firm, and works with the Carolina Panthers in the offseason. “It’s about influence, not control. It’s about being nonjudgmental, yet accountable and responsible.”

Here are some tips on how to be the perfect sports parent.

1. Agree on what competition means to you and your kids

Dad may have grown up playing football and has one idea; Mom may focus more on the social benefits. Dad may be disapproving because the team lost; Mom may be beaming because the team hung together in defeat. “The child gets caught in between,” Boone says. “They don’t understand who they need to be like.”

A good starting point for discussing competition should start with students looking at sports differently: “Instead of thinking of it as you vs. them, look at it as you vs. you,” says Boone. Start with looking at how you compete with yourself. “What’s the best you can bring today for yourself?”

2. Determine your core values

“Do you believe in hard work? Trust? Honesty? Create a litmus test of values that your son or daughter must be willing to be accountable for.” If they show those agreed-upon values in practice and in games, says Boone, it helps everyone define whether the season is a success.

3. Be honest with praise

So your son struck out. Says Boone: “If you say, ‘Don’t worry, next time you’ll hit a home run,’ your kid will look at you and say, ‘Really, because I’ve never hit a home run.’ ” False praise benefits no one.

Instead, use it an opportunity to “build better decision makers, to build their self-awareness and encourage self-reflection. Ask, ‘If you could hit the rewind button, what would you have done differently? What would you do next time?”

4. Encouraging or pushing?

“I have a real simple litmus test for that,” says Boone. “If for five days straight the family conversation at dinner is about the kid’s sport, you’re pushing them too much. Make (dinner) an off-limits time to talk sports unless they bring it up.”

5. ‘I want to quit’

A real angst-builder for parents, especially considering the precedent this decision could set, not just for sports but for life. Begin by discussing your core values, says Boone, one of which probably involves commitment. “Nine times out of 10 it’s because of some damaged relationship on the team, with the coach, another teammate,” says Boone. This is a life lesson in the making, says Boone: Work together to identify the real issue, then talk about ways to deal with it.

6. Dealing with the coach

When you feel the need to talk with a coach about an issue involving your child, keep one thing in mind, says Boone: “They make the final decisions. They are the CEO.”

“Where most parents go wrong is they start with blasting the coach with their opinion about what’s wrong, what needs to be fixed. No coach is going to listen to that,” Boone says.

Rather request a meeting and be clear about the topic and objective. You want to have a discussion, not diatribe. The goal is to get the coach’s perspective on whatever the issue is. “If your intention is to manipulate the coach for better opportunities for your child,” cautions Boone, “you’re lost, you’re done.”

7. ‘Trow da bum out!

“Part of being a good sport parent,” notes Bob Graham, “is to avoid yelling at the officials. Within the officiating community,” adds Graham, who officiates high school lacrosse, “there is much discussion about how to handle parents who ‘ride’ the officials, especially those parents that don’t really know the rules.  In many sports the Youth Level officials are high school aged and inexperienced.  They are learning too.  Parents should set a good example and ask the official at a time out or break (quarter or half) to explain a call instead of yelling at the ref.”

And you’ll know if you’ve succeeded  …

At the end of the season. That’s when the report card comes in for Brannon Cashion, a Charlotte dad whose 7-, 9- and 11-year-old sons play a gamut of sports. Come season’s end, that’s when Cashion, who often doubles as the boys’ coach, finds out whether their season — and to a degree, his role — has been a success by simply asking, “Are you going to keep playing?”

Correct answer from an enthusiastic kid: “Yes! I can’t wait.”

* * *


With all the talk about concussions, you might think that would be on Kevin Bottomley’s mind as he watches football practice on his son’s first day.

“I think with all the attention it’s been given they’re probably safer today than when I played,” says Bottomley, who’s son Mason is a freshman defensive back at Cary High School.

In light of recent media attention, primarily at the NFL level, there’s been considerable attention given to concussions in sports. “Parenting Your Best” author Jeremy Boone believes it’s a valid concern, especially for football and women’s soccer. But when cross-country runners come home needing a concussion waiver signed by a parent, then the topic may have become “emotionally overblown.” As Bottomley, who graduated high school in 1991, observed while watching Cary’s football practice last week, “They use to teach us about avoiding head-to-head contact, but now they really drill it into the kids.”

Still, concussions are a growing concern for parents of student athletes in contact sports. Many schools are sending out information sheets on concussions: how to recognize the symptoms, what to do if you suspect your child has suffered a concussion. You can also find out more at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Concussion in Sports Web page.

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