Youth sports long have been seen as a ticket to a college scholarship, and as college costs go ever higher, many parents are putting more pressure on their children to snag some of that cash.
"It's become a win-at-all-costs culture," said Jason Sacks, executive director of the Positive Coaching Alliance, a nonprofit organization founded at Stanford University.
As the stakes grow, parents push harder, sending their kids to sports camps and buying them the newest gear — expenses that up the ante and make the parents even more focused on their youngsters' success.
In the end, it's the children who are the ones losing, according to Sacks. Seventy percent of children drop out of sports by age 13, and a big reason is that their parents are putting too much pressure on them.
"Parents are putting in all this money and time," he said, "and they think that if they put it all in, they'll see a light at the end of the tunnel in the form of a college scholarship."
There's a balance between encouraging a child's athletic interests and stressing him or her out by becoming a second coach. Some coaching associations are encouraging parents to take a gentler role in the hope that children will be happier and healthier team players.
In a July study published in the Journal of Physical Activity & Health, researchers interviewed children who played organized soccer and found that having fun was the primary reason for their participation. Other top reasons included learning and improving, developing team friendships and participating in team rituals.
Winning ended up way down the list. Out of 81 determinants that make playing sports enjoyable, the children rated winning 48th, said Amanda Visek, lead author of the study and associate professor of sports psychology at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
"While surprising, this is positive," she said. "Sports by definition includes competition, and the outcome of a competition results in winning and losing. But the findings from our study highlight that the fun experience is not determined by the end result of a game but rather by the process of physically engaging in the game."
Parents still can be highly involved with a child's team without pressuring or pushing, said Wendy Grolnick, co-author of "Pressured Parents, Stressed-out Kids: Dealing With Competition While Raising a Successful Child" and a professor of psychology at Clark University in Massachusetts. In fact, it's when they find balance that their children are most likely to enjoy sports and to persist at them.
"Being involved is great, but it is important to do so in a way that is not pressuring," Grolnick said. "I like to say that parents should be just behind the child, matching their level of interest to that of the child."
Those interests should not be marred by whether your child won or lost a game, said Alan Goldberg, a Massachusetts-based sports psychology consultant and author of "This Is Your Brain on Sports." Instead, parents should give consistent support regardless of the outcome of the game, he said, because the actual outcome isn't important to the child.
Be of good cheer
"Most parents lose sight of that," he said. "You want to go to your kid's games, to enjoy the experience, to cheer for them and for every one of their teammates and to be a good role model."
Many parents push their children too much, thinking they are doing the right thing when, in fact, they are causing damage, Goldberg said. They're creating performance problems that can be avoided if they simply stay quiet and calm and happily cheer on their little athlete from the sidelines, he explained.
It's especially important to show the right level of support after the game if your child loses or doesn't do as well as he or she envisioned, said Bruce Brown, co-founder of Proac tive Coaching, a company based in Washington state that coaches other coaches.
Brown, who has coached football, baseball, volleyball and basketball, always asked his players what their best and worst memories were so he could continue what he was doing right and fix what he was doing wrong. Consistently, he found that their worst memories had nothing to do with him; it happened during the car ride home after practice or a game, when their parents would grill them about their performance.
"What they really need is time and space," Brown said. "The more competitive the kid, the more time and space they need."
Parents also should be alert to signs of emotional strain such as headaches, stomachaches and fatigue that might be indications that it's time to re-evaluate whether the sport is too stressful, Grolnick said. This would be a good time to sit down with a child to see if he or she wants to cut back or switch to a different team or league.
After all, it's supposed to be fun.