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  • Writer's pictureGreg Graber

The Best Advice for Sports Parents

Over the years, I have had the honor of working with sports teams and athletes on just about every level. From NBA players to collegiate student-athletes to little leaguers, I have coached thousands on mental performance skills. During the process of working with these athletes, parents often ask me what they can do to help build their kids' mental skills in hopes of elevating their games to the next level. My advice is always the same: "The only words to utter before a game to your child should be, "Have fun and try hard." After a game it should be, "Win or lose, I love you. I hope you had fun." That's it. Nothing more. Nothing less.

Without a doubt, most parents love their kids more than anything in the world, and would never intentionally inflict stress, emotional turmoil, or pain on their kids. However, if I had a dime for every time I have seen a loving parent with great intentions end up killing the love of a sport for their child by becoming over-involved in the nuances of the game, I could retire. The best way a parent can ruin a child's passion is to interfere and become too overly involved in it. Children like autonomy. Sports are a great vehicle for children to build this autonomy. It becomes difficult for a child to build self-confidence in his or her respective sport if dad or mom is always trying to "coach the child up." Kids don't need mom or dad analyzing their play and giving a critique after every practice or game. Let the coaches handle the critical advice. That's their job. Parents need to be there congratulating their kids after a big win, and uplifting their spirits after a tough loss.

Having worked with some of the top college and pro coaches in their respective sports, I can assure you that if your child is good enough, he or she will be discovered. Coaches on all levels want to win. If your child is good enough, and the coach thinks your kid will help the team win, nine times out of ten, your child will play. More often than not, coaches don't hold biases against players. That's not to say that there aren't some terrible coaches. If your child has a coach that is abusive, inappropriate, or reckless, by all means, find another coach. Unless it is one of these types of extreme cases, do not remove your child from the team. Let your child know at the beginning of the season that he or she will fulfill the commitment to the team by finishing the season, and factors like playing time or playing a position your child doesn't prefer will not change this. By letting your child quit over something like this, you are teaching your kid that life is only about him or her. This is a huge disservice to your child, because the type of "lesson" children learn from these kinds of experiences is to quit when things get difficult.

Parents should also avoid talking badly about the coach in front of their children. Blaming referees in front of children also sends them mixed messages. The best thing to do once game time rolls around is for parents to sit on the sidelines and cheer in a positive manner for their children and their teammates.

One of my favorite college basketball players to ever work with was a young man who was a McDonald's All-American. He had more God-given talent than anyone I have ever worked with since. It would be an extreme understatement to say that he was a "natural." During his freshmen season, expectations were tremendous for this young man from fans, the media, and most notably, his father. In fact, his father, put so much pressure on him, he suffered from performance anxiety for the first half of his freshman season. By the time the coach hired me to work with him, he was a nervous wreck. I was able to teach him some effective stress reduction and focus techniques that helped him quite a bit. We also were able to speak to his father and explained to him that he was a large part of the problem. As a result, his dad backed off, and the kid's play began to flourish. He was destined for the NBA. There was no doubt that he would be a first round draft pick.

I am sad to say that he never made it to the NBA. After playing very well and garnishing many accolades for about a year and a half, his father started up again. His antics became so bad and his dynamic with his son became so dysfunctional, the young man quit playing basketball altogether in the middle of his junior season. I have no doubt in my mind that this father loves his son more than anything in the world, like most parents do. However, he pushed too hard. In some respects, he may have been living vicariously though his son. I often use this story as a cautionary tale to over-eager sports parents. It's an extreme case, but I see similar instances on smaller levels, from Little League Baseball to AAU Basketball to Pop Warner Football.

The young man in my story ended up finishing his college degree and doing well in life. I'm also happy to report that he has a wonderful relationship with his father now. We still talk every now and then. He once told me during one of our sessions that the reason he liked working with me was because I seldom talked about basketball with him. This was important to me. I wanted him to know that my care for him was unconditional, not transactional. We had a running joke. Whenever the subject of basketball came up between us, I would tell him that it was all about the "F WORD." The "f word" is FUN.

Greg Graber, the author of Slow Your Roll- Mindfulness for Fast Times, teaches mindfulness and Social & Emotional (SEL) skills to schools, top sports teams, and various organizations around the world. Graber, a frequent keynote speaker, currently serves as the Director of SEL at Lausanne Collegiate School. He may be contacted through his website:

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