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5 questions: Psychologist weighs in on specialization in youth sports and a parent's role

Parents are well-intentioned. And they are trying to help their son or daughter navigate competition in the year 2017.


Parental tirades and children's tears on the sidelines of sports games are almost common fare.

Parents know they shouldn't lose their cool, but sometimes they just can't seem to resist.

Joel Fish aims to help.

A parent of three kids in sports, a licensed psychologist, and a sports psychologist, Fish is also director of the Center for Sport Psychology in Philadelphia, where he works with athletes of all ages and skill levels. And, sometimes, with their parents. He's been a sports psychology consultant for various professional teams, including the 76ers, Flyers, Phillies, USA women's national soccer team and the USA women's national field hockey team.

He's also the author of 101 Ways to Be a Terrific Sports Parent. We talked to him recently about just that.

Why are we talking about sports parenting in the first place? What is amiss?  

Sports is different today than 20, even 10, years ago. It's more intense. It's taken on a greater meaning in our culture — the status, prestige. It's different because we define success much more as winning. So there's more cheating going on in sports than ever before.

One of the myths out there is that more is better.  That can drive a parent to sign up their son or daughter at a very young age for an abundance of sports activities. A full schedule. It can lead parents to feel that specialization is better. If my child is playing 12 months a year, that's better than six months a year.

Parents are well-intentioned. I think they are searching for direction in how to help their son or daughter navigate competition in the year 2017.  Because 2017 is different – not only in the world of sports, but also in education, in business, financially.

Okay, so where do we start?

Step one is that mom or dad has to understand how competitive they are. What is the parent's attitude about winning, losing, success, failure and competition?  What I've learned is that something gets triggered deep down inside when you see your child out there with the bases loaded. I can't tell you how many times a parent has said to me, "I can't believe what I said last night at the game."

You need to understand your own attitudes so that you can manage them.  So that, knowing how you're feeling, you can pick and choose the right spot and the right way to say something to your child, to the coach.

Once you're aware of that, now we get into some dos and don'ts of sports parenting. One basic tool is the sandwich technique. Start with something positive. "That was great, Janey." Then a suggestion, "Next time, you might … ."  Then something positive again, "Boy, you played great."

Watch your own body language. Maybe you're saying to 8-year-old Johnny, "You've got to have fun out there," but your body is uptight. The message isn't consistent with how you're saying it.

A parent might need to give permission to another parent or someone else to give them honest feedback. "If you see me pacing on the sidelines or expressing frustration to my child, or complaining to another parent, would you let me know please?"

Sometimes parents just need to have a self-talk. I had a parent who, before watching a daughter practice gymnastics, would repeat, "Be myself. Chill. Trust myself. Trust my daughter. She's a champion no matter what happens."  Those anchors for our thoughts can really help control our own anxiety.

One of the main points of sports parenting: Remember that kids aren't pro athletes. I had a dad say to me, "I've got to teach my son mental toughness. I'm going to get in his face and challenge him." The kid was 10 years old. This just hurts self-esteem.

What about the trend of specialization in youth sports?

That's a big issue for parents these days. The underlying concern is that if I don't have my child specialize, he or she might fall behind in that particular sport. But you can't paint every child with the same brush. For some boys and girls, 24/7 is not enough. They want more. For others, it's totally different.

I like to give parents facts: 80 percent of professional athletes out there played more than one sport as kids. When you specialize in one sport, there is all kinds of evidence you can develop overuse injuries.  You can burn out. I had a 12-year-old who said to me, "This feels like a job." If you play a variety of sports, you meet different people. From a coordination perspective, you're using different muscles.  You get to sample different things and learn more about yourself.

If you're going to specialize, high school is the time to do it, not before, when a child is still trying to figure so many things out.

How does a parent assess whether a child is experiencing too much sports stress?

Youth sports is a good news/bad news story. On the one hand, from age 5 to college, more than 40 million kids are involved in sports nationwide.  The bad news is that more kids are dropping out of sports in those formative years. The No. 1 reason overwhelmingly is that it's not fun, it's too much pressure.

Do you see a pattern where, in practice, your child finds a particular skill much easier than in a game situation?

Do you see marked personality changes in your child when they have to compete? It could be an outgoing child who becomes withdrawn. Or a withdrawn child starts bouncing off the wall.

Do you see significant changes in your child's eating or sleeping patterns? What about enthusiasm for the sport?  A child who used to be waiting at the door for practice now has to be dragged to practice. We all have a bad day, but if you see this pattern for two weeks or more, it's something to note.

Also, a child might claim injury consistently even though there isn't medical science to support that. I always take it seriously when a child says, "I don't feel well." But if there's a pattern to it, that could be an indication your child is experiencing significant competitive stress.

With everything you’re saying, it is all worth it?

I've been doing this for 30 years. I'm as convinced as ever that sports are worth it, and that sports are a terrific arena – not the only one, but a good one — for parents to teach their kids life skills. By that, I mean goal-setting. I mean parents helping kids learn the mental skills to handle their emotions.

Sports is a terrific place to learn delayed gratification and that you can't always get what you want. It's a great place to learn how to be part of a team, to work toward a common goal, to learn how to deal with an authority figure like a coach, which is kind of like a boss.

You can't script it.  That's the beauty of sport.  How do you cope with that? The main thing parents can do is to always keep the foundation of sports in mind, rewarding effort, participation, skill development. Let's model healthy competition — sportsmanship, fair play. It really does matter how you play the game.