Enjoying the Game for a Lifetime
The other day, a mother of a young boy who was still developing his basic soccer skills approached me and asked a simple, but complex question. “Can a child still enjoy playing the game as they grow older, even if their athletic ability isn’t as strong as others?”
My initial thought was, of course they can. I was even a little surprised by the question, until I took some time to view it from a new point of view. Shortly after, I realized just how complex this question was and that this parent was not alone. As positive role models, we want the best for those we support. It's not easy to watch those we love struggle, become discouraged, or feel frustrated. Especially when it's a battle we cannot necessarily win for our children.
As a coach, it hurts to watch a player lose confidence in themselves. Athletics are there to help children learn about teamwork, effort, respect, focus, communication, confidence (the list goes on) so they can use these skills in the game of life, not the opposite. As a coach or a parent, there is only so much one can do from the sidelines. Sometimes, we start to question ourselves and put the blame on ourselves when the players aren't having success. “Did I put them in the wrong league?” “Should I have stopped them from signing up?” “It's my fault they are sad.” In reality, we are part to blame…but not because we encouraged our child to challenge themselves. It may however, partially be due to not providing the support, encouragement, or expectations that our child needed. As the adult, we have the responsibility to let our children live their life, but at the same time help them make the right decisions for themselves.
So, can a child still enjoy playing the game as they grow older, even if their athletic ability isn't as strong as others? Yes, with the right support, encouragement, and expectations. (Keeping in mind just as important as having athletic ability is, there's more that goes into making a “good player.” Intelligence for the game is just as rare as having the skills to dribble a ball). These need to start from the parents, but also come from the coaches, players, leagues, and communities around our children.
It’s important that we provide the children with the right support to provide an environment that promotes growth. The support one child needs may be very different than that of another. Your child may just need a smile to know you are there no matter what, while another may need to hear you from the sidelines. Don't let others dictate how you support your child, ask your child how they want you to support them. By providing the right support, it will allow your child to feel safe and prepared to tackle new challenges. If they walk up to a challenge that's too great at this time in their life, help them understand the lessons learned. Failed challenges can lead to more growth in one's life than winning the championship. With support comes encouragement.
At the same time, when a child is young, verbal support may not be enough. Your child may need you to step in every now and again, to provide the right encouragement to pick up their feet and take the next step.
Furthermore, support and encouragement alone won't lead to your child enjoying sports as they grow older. The level of the game will eventually become too great. As children grow older, the game becomes harder and those with less athletic ability start to find themselves being cut or "riding the bench." Being cut from a team or receiving very little playing time are both scenarios that can lead a player to lose their love for the game. It's important that we as coaches and parents, along with our players, understand the level of play and what is expected. We need to make sure our expectations are balanced between the desire for success and the realistic abilities of each player. Don't be scared to have an honest conversation with your child about what they are getting into. Explain the expectations others will have for them and see if they are ready for it. Your child may not have the athletic ability that gets him on the playing field, but that doesn't mean he won't still love being part of a team and finding a role off the playing field that's important to him/her. If the expectations are too great, tell your child what the outcome may be. Don't let the fear of being honest with your child prevent you from having these discussions. You may actually open your child's eyes, lead them to making the decision of joining another team at a lower level that allows them to participate more during the game and continue their love for the game. There are tons of intramural leagues for older players that are an absolute blast. Sometimes, losing that extra level of competitiveness allows one to enjoy playing the game even more.
So have the “uncomfortable” conversation with your child. See what their thoughts are about the team/sport? Sometimes it’s our own expectations for our children that get in the way of them finding their true passion.