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Parents and Playing Time

In our last issue I related the saying, “Prepare the child for the path – not the path for the child,” in my article, Is it All Right to Win? We love that our kids play sports for the many life lessons that are learned. But when we intervene and try to influence our son or daughter’s coach relative to playing time or positions, what lesson are we really teaching?

Parents want what’s best for their children. But far too many parents feel that they must control every aspect of what happens to their kids – and ensure its all positive – in order for their children to be happy. And while this may lead to more happiness in the short term, it can have severe, negative long-term consequences.

We all know that life is filled with ups and downs. Everyone reading this article has suffered substantial setbacks at one time or another. And for the most part, when we’re adults, there is no mommy or daddy to swoop in and save the day when we face adversity. We must pick ourselves up and forge ahead on our own. We have to cope. And most of our coping mechanisms were learned as children. Part of our growth process was figuring out that life isn’t always fair, and that sometimes things don’t go our way. And as painful as those lessons are to learn, they’re what develop character in us so that we can handle struggles in our lives.

Where better for our children to learn these lessons, than in sports?

Let’s say your son or daughter plays a sport where foot speed is an advantage, and a teammate who is faster is getting more playing time. You and your child have a few options: You could speak to the coach, try to influence him, and maybe even pressure him into playing your child more. Or, maybe your child could work on his speed or try to develop other skills that make him valuable to the team. Or, if that sport isn’t the right one for him, maybe he could use this setback as motivation to find a new activity that better suits him.

Because let’s fast-forward ten or fifteen years: Imagine now that your child really wants to become an architect but has no talent in drawing. He has a few options: He could work hard to improve his drawing skills. Or maybe he could sharpen other talents to compensate. Or maybe he might just have to give up that dream and find something else to do. But it is unlikely you’ll be able to storm into an architectural firm and demand they give your child a job he’s not qualified to do.

However, if we’ve been doing this for our children all their lives, what else would they ever expect?

Our job as parents is not to make sure our children never have any pain or disappointments – quite the contrary. Our job as parents is to prepare them as best we can for the inevitable time that they are on their own, without us to catch them when they fall. By trying to pressure our child’s coach into doling out more playing time we are weakening our children, making life miserable for the coach, and being unfair to other kids whose parents are playing by the rules. And we are teaching our children that if things don’t go well for them, it is not their fault, but the fault of someone else. Think about how successful someone will be carrying that attitude with them through life.

Below is a paragraph addressing playing time, from the letter I always send out to parents prior to each season:
Regardless of where your son shakes out in the playing time or lineup mix, it is important that your communication to him be positive. If he hears you talking about what a bad deal he's getting, or something similar, his attitude is going to suffer. And if his attitude suffers, there is nearly no chance that he'll earn more playing time or time at a different position he likes better. Conversely, if he really is deserving of more playing time and I'm just missing it, if he keeps working hard, trying his best and bringing a positive attitude to the field, I'll notice it. I can tell you that if a parent comes to me to complain about position or playing time, then forever after that, if the player does move up or play more, you'll have to wonder if it was something he earned himself, or if it was something that came as a result of your complaint. On the other hand, if everyone takes the attitude that "the cream will rise to the top," and is patient, then you'll know that everything your son gets is deserved. (The latter feels much better). Everyone will have their chances to show what they can do in the game. It is important that they are prepared for those opportunities, and make the most of them.
And what if your child really is getting a raw deal? What if you know his plight is clearly based on favoritism or politics?

First of all, unless you’ve been at every practice – not just the games, you don’t know. Children don’t see it objectively, so you can’t just take their word for it. Or maybe you can. I have a son playing Pop Warner and he began the season as the starting running back. For the past two games, he’s been replaced by the coach’s son. And don’t get me wrong, the coach’s son is good, but I haven’t seen anything in the games that he did to supplant my boy. And I was angry about it. Then I asked my son, “So what happened to make Johnny the starter over you?” And my son said, “Probably that I had a terrible week at practice and messed up my assignment on a couple plays and fumbled.” Oh. OK.

And finally, if you’re sure after really waiting for things to change, after observing practices and getting an “honest” assessment from your child, you still feel like its not going they way it should be, what should you do? Nothing.

That’s right, YOU, should do nothing. But it would be very appropriate for your child to approach the coach and tell him he feels he could be helping the team more and ask what he can do to improve his playing time or position. The coach will respect that much more, and your child’s self-esteem and communication skills will get a big boost. And, unless we plan on spending the rest of our days clearing the path of any obstacles for our children, isn’t them standing up for themselves exactly what they’re going to have to do all their lives anyway?

Brian Gotta is a former professional youth baseball coach and current volunteer Little League coach and board member. He is the President of CoachDeck and also author of four youth sports novels which can be found at www.sportsbooks4kids.com. He can be reached at brian@coachdeck.com.