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An Open Letter to Parents: Mindfulness Supporting our Children in Youth Sport
by Stacy DeLonge

As summer comes to an end and the craziness of fall sports begins, it is important to be reminded of ways we can continue to positively support our children through the power of sport. From pregame pep talks and in-game encouragement, to post game car rides home, we as parents have an awesome opportunity to teach our young athletes respectful ways to approach and deal with the ups and downs of the sport they play and love.

As a young soccer player, I was thankful for the day my dad decided he was no longer competent enough to coach me at the competitive level in which I desired to play. Don’t get me wrong, my dad was an extremely talented athlete and coach, however, soccer was not such a big sport during his childhood. For many parents of my generation, it was the same. As I migrated to the competitive club scene and continued to receive high quality training in my new environment, I was lucky that my parents fully understood that their daughter knew more about soccer then they ever would. It was this reason alone that some of my fondest memories were simply the car rides to my games. For our early morning away matches, we would always stop at the local gas station, pick up our favorite donuts and orange juice, (hey, the power of nutrition was not as highly valued back then!) and rock out to the Beach Boys. The only soccer “pep” talk was my dad yelling “Nobody in your house!” at the top of his lungs before the start of the game. He was referring to the 18 yard box and having the mentality that I own every ball that came inside my area. At first, it worked like a charm. I remember at 14 years old thinking, “yeah, right on! Don’t mess with me!” As I got older, it became our thing. He continued yelling is catch phrase before my college matches, I would chuckle to myself and think, “really dad? Still?” But it reminded me, in a world of standings and stats, not to take my game so seriously, to relax and feel lucky to still be playing the sport that I love.

It is important to recognize that youth sport, especially at a club level, is a privilege and opportunity that not all are fortunate to have. As parents, we need to remind ourselves not to take the game so seriously. In the long run, a win or a loss at 13 and under means very little. If we put too much pressure on our young ones to win or perform, we might place upon them the wrong idea, that winning is everything. WRONG. Sport can offer so much more than that, for example, the ideas of teamwork, inner confidence, and problem solving to name a few.  

As a sensitive young athlete, I was always very aware of my teammates, coaches and the fans. As a goalkeeper, I heard everything. I can still hear competitive parents living through their children, opposing coaches yelling at their players and athletes talking “smack”. It wasn’t until I was much older that I was not only able to filter these comments. Until college, I did not have the mental ability to focus solely on the game in front of me. It took that long. Again, that was when I was almost 20 years old. I remember opposing team’s parents yelling at teammates of mine. I remember my team’s parents yelling at children other than their own. And heaven forbid, I remember parents yelling at referees (most of the parents did not even know the rules back then…) I was very lucky, my parents seldom got excited and raised their voices. My mom had been known to yell out “don’t hurt my baby!” on occasion (Yes, mom, I heard you too!). So in turn, I was a well-mannered athlete who did not yell back at my parents, teammates or coaches. I cannot speak the same for others. They were simply learning behavior from their adult parents. Looking back now, it is so easy to understand why this teammate acted this way and that teammate acted that way. Don’t get me wrong, I had many wonderful families and teammates that I still communicate with to this day.

Whether we have played the game before or not, we need to remember that how we act on the sidelines, in front of our children, other parents, coaches, opponents and referees is one of the most important ways we can be positive adult figures in the lives of our athletes. We are setting the example for our children. We are showing them through words and actions what is acceptable behavior. At my youth club and at this current club, we preach respect. Not just for our athletes, but our parents as well! While many of us model the behavior we love and expect at Cap City, some are not fully aware of their actions and words and how they are perceived. I challenge all of us (because I know I am going to need to be challenged in 5-6 years!), to really take an honest look at ourselves and how we act. It might be through on field coaching, yelling (at our kid, someone else’s, or referees), poor body language or demonstrative actions. Each of these sends a clear message to our kids and the one thing I know, is that they really really struggle with disappointing not only their coach, but more importantly, their parents. We know it can be tough watching your kids face the adversity from time to time. But this is how they will learn to be resilient. One of the most awesome traits our kids can utilize in this world! No one is perfect and games can get pretty darn emotional. We all slip up once in awhile. It is important to be mindful of when that happens and make a correction. Let our children know that what we said or how we acted was not appropriate, because chances are, they noticed.

The most rollercoaster emotional time of my youth career was after a match. Whether it was club games, ODP tryouts, high school matches and even college matches, I was tough to be around. I expected perfection and was single handedly my worst critic. Trust me, my parents knew this. God-bless them for trying to help however, we had a couple of #familyfails along the way. I remember after losing a U13 game, I started to cry. My dad pulled me aside and said sternly, “Stacy Renee, if you cry one more time after a loss, we are done with sports!” Of course, this sent me further down the emotional waterfall. What I missed was, “this is supposed to be fun. And when you are crying, you are not having fun”. Sports were my world and my identity. Needless to say, as I matured, I got better handling my emotions. It doesn’t mean that I was perfect. I remember my senior year of college, my sister (9 years younger) begged my parents to drive to Ohio State to watch my game. Coming from Madison, Wisconsin, this was a 10 hour drive. They executed the drive and made it to the game.  We lost in the last minute of over time and I didn’t say a word to them after the match. Looking back, this is one of my biggest regrets of my entire soccer career. Again, I was not perfect, but they still supported me. We look back now and laugh and I think about how I would have handled it differently. Hindsight is always 20/20.

As you can see, my parents were pretty cool. However, they were not perfect. During car rides home, comments were hardly about my play, as they found out quickly not to go there. But that didn’t stop them from having their own conversations in the front seat about this player and that player, and why the coach made the decision he did. Heck, after raising two division 1 athletes, they still watch my matches and question things. I remember sitting in the back seat thinking, why are they talking about my teammates and coach this way. The worst part was that sometimes it got me thinking, wow, they are right, why did he or she make that decision. Just like that, my trust in those around me started to waiver.
As a parent, you may have a plethora of questions throughout your son or daughter’s seasons. These questions might pertain to his or her coach, teammates or even your own child. We must do our best to remember that how we frame our questions or figuring out whether they should be asked at all is extremely important. Even comments such as, “I can’t believe coach did this…or played so and so. Wow, Susie struggled today” can affect the trust in which our child has for their teammates and/or coach. We will not always agree with the choices our coach, teammate or child makes, but we must be mindful of the way we react to these choices. (This is all provided that the coach, teammate and/or child never places anyone in danger or in an unsafe environment.).

As mentioned several times throughout this article, we as parents AND coaches, will never be perfect. The key is mindfulness. There will be plenty of teachable moments (for all of us!) along the way. We may get confronted by another parent, a referee or as my team knows, your coachJ It is important to take the emotion out and listen to the message. We have all been guilty and with a little self reflection, we can learn how to be an awesome supportive role model for our child. Am I worried about my behavior when our son reaches the age when he can play sports with friends?  Yes! (I mostly worry that I will embarrass my husband or even child! Sorry Eric!). But I am hoping to be surrounded by optimistic, fun-loving parents in case I need a good smack or a lollipop inserted into my mouth! Hopefully, you do too!
Best of luck this fall! (I have extra lollipops if you need them!)

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