How to Tell When Competition Gets Unhealthy — Warning Signs

By Alex Perdikis

Extracurricular pursuits are supposed to be all fun and games — until they’re not anymore. That switch can flip in an instant, seemingly without warning. If you’re not looking out for the warning signs of unhealthy competition, you could wind up putting your child at risk without fully realizing it.

Fortunately, recognizing the signs of unhealthy competition is a straightforward matter. These five red flags don’t by themselves prove that your kid is playing in an unhealthy environment, but they should give you pause if and when you see them on the field.

Authority Figures Stress the Importance of Winning

Winning is important, even in the egalitarian world of youth sports. But it’s not the most important thing at this level — not even close. Any coach or league figure who says otherwise is off base, plain and simple. If your child starts to internalize these messages, think long and hard about whether you want them to continue in such an environment.

Individual Performance Is Prized Above Teamwork

Kids play sports to get stronger, faster, better coordinated. They also play to have fun and work together as a team. Individual performance on the field is a crucial component of any team’s success, but it shouldn’t be the be-all-end-all of youth sports. Environments that prize individual performance and winning tend to be the most unhealthy, as they allow a handful of star players to monopolize attention and resources.

Insults Go Unchecked

The playing field is no place for bullying. Parents need to watch like hawks for evidence of verbal taunting, as it’s sometimes difficult to tell what kids actually mean when they speak. What sounds like reasonable banter might actually be entirely unacceptable.

Rough Play Is Rewarded

Rough play is another form of unacceptable competition, even in contact leagues that reward tackling and hitting. Referees and coaches have an obligation to interrupt and correct intense physical play, even if no one gets hurt. When the opposite occurs — for instance, when coaches cheer players for making unnecessary contact or berate referees for calling fouls — parents need to take notice.

Parents and Coaches Pressure (or Berate) Referees

Referees are much maligned and sorely underappreciated. While you’re not going to agree with every decision he or she makes, the spirit of healthy competition is predicated on respect for everyone involved in the game, including those charged with enforcing its rules. Watch closely for coaches or fellow parents who make sport of referees, who often aren’t much older than the players themselves.

Addressing Unhealthy Competition

Diagnosing unhealthy competition is the easy part. Actually doing something about it is a fair bit more complicated.

Your approach to unhealthy competition is likely to vary based on what’s actually taking place, the reactions of other parents, and the responses of coaches and referees on the field. Absent clear-cut cases of bullying or imminent physical danger to your child and others, the best course of action may be to wait until the game has ended to consult with other parents, coaches, league officials, and others in positions of authority.

Appropriately, addressing unhealthy competition is likely to be a team effort. If your parent cohort reaches a consensus that your children are in fact playing in a toxic environment, you’ll need to show solidarity and present a united front to the league — or, more awkwardly, to the parents or coaches responsible for the unhealthy competitive environment.

Like the children out on the field, you may sustain a few scrapes and bruises along the way. But, as they say in politics, those same children are counting on you to do right by them. Don’t let them down.

Youth Sports: Why Aren’t the Children Playing?

By Alex Perdikis

What used to be a rite of passage when growing up – playing baseball, soccer, football, basketball or running track – is no longer a part of many children’s lives. Youth sports participation is on a serious decline. Even sports like soccer, which grew by leaps and bounds between 2008 and 2012, is experiencing a slowdown. What’s causing the lack of participation? Can anything be done to stem the tide?

What’s Missing?

Many experts, including Michael Bergeron of the National Youth Sports Health & Safety Institute, believe the missing element is fun. Bergeron says, “We have to be aware of single sport specialization, overuse, overworking kids searching for elite athletes,” which causes children to leave youth sports and never look back. Parents and coaches who focus on one sport, because of scholarship hopes or their own wishes, place tremendous pressure on youth athletes. For young athletes, that can lead to depression, burnout, chronic fatigue and unnecessary injuries.

The Cost of Youth Sports

The cost of participating in youth sports has skyrocketed. In 2012, nearly two-thirds of middle and high school students who participated in sports paid for the privilege. Costs have spiraled exponentially since then. According to a New York Times article, spending on youth sports can be greater than 10 percent of a family’s gross income. Travel, equipment and fees add up to an investment many families can no longer afford.

Are Youth Sports Safe?

Sports safety has come under intense scrutiny of late. The American Academy of Pediatrics reports that the number of concussions among teens aged 14 to 19 who play youth sports rose a staggering 200 percent in the last decade. High profile professional football players, such as Chris Borland and A.J. Tarpley, retired after playing just one year in the NFL because of concussion and brain damage concerns. As more data on the long-term risks of youth sports comes to light, the ranks of youth sports players (particularly football players) are likely to thin further.

What Can Be Done?

Parents and coaches have a tremendous opportunity to expose children to the benefits of youth sports while minimizing the admittedly real risks. Follow these tips to encourage children to play — and play safely.

  • Give children a choice. Don’t push them into a sport because you think they’ll be good at it or you hope for an athletic scholarship later on.
  • Purchase the right safety equipment. Make sure all equipment and gear works as it should and fits correctly.
  • Emphasize good sportsmanship. Even better, practice it yourself. No yelling insults at parents, coaches, your child’s teammates or the competition.
  • Be supportive, win or lose. Encourage children to express their feelings about the competition and how they did, but remind them of what they did well. Emphasize the positive.
  • Don’t assume your dream is the same as your child’s. Most likely, it’s not.

The benefits of youth sports are numerous and well documented. Children learn to keep fit, build camaraderie, work well with others, build character, deal with diversity and become resilient through youth sports, all life skills they’ll use throughout the rest of their lives. Perhaps if parents, coaches and program administrators change their focus from cutthroat competition to fun for all, youth sports numbers will stop declining.

Avoid the Nightmare: Become the Most Supportive Sports Parent You Can Be

As manager of his oldest daughter’s travel soccer team, Alex Perdikis has seen it all. He’s seen supportive parents who know how to keep losses in perspective and he’s seen the stuff of nightmares. If you’re a parent of a child who is active in sports, you know how easy it is to fall into the nightmare trap. Here are a few tips to make sure you don’t become the infamous “bad” sports parent.

Nightmares and Sports Don’t Mix

Former long-term coaches Bruce E. Brown and Rob Miller conducted an informal survey of student athlete’s worst memories from their high school and youth sports days. The most common answer was “The ride home with my parents.” Most of these parents were not the typical screamers or second-guessers. Most of them thought they were making constructive comments and suggestions. The problem is, according to Brown that right after the game or competition is exactly the wrong time to talk about improving technique. Children need that time to regroup and distance themselves. It’s also likely that the coach already gave instructional feedback. The ride home from a sporting event should not become a child’s worst memory.

Make It Fun

Sports activities have so many positive benefits. Sports is a great way to learn problem-solving skills, learn to work well with others and develop a spirit of sportsmanship. Many of these positives are obliterated if parents lose focus. Young athletes get more out of their sporting activities if they think of them as fun. They don’t need the pressure that comes from overemphasis on winning. They take their cue from you. If you treat the child differently after a win than a loss, it sends a clear message that winning is more  important than doing their best.

Children also follow your example when it comes to the coaching staff. If you criticize coaching decisions, either at the game or at home, the child loses respect for the coach. Children should also see their parents root for the entire team, not just them individually.

It’s very easy for parents to self-identify through their children. Perhaps you had a promising athletic career that was stalled because of injury and you’d like nothing better than to see your child succeed where you fell short. Of course, you want what is best for your child’s future. The problem is that your goals may not be the same as your child’s. Don’t lose sight of your child’s individual wants and talents or assume they are the same as yours.

Be a Parent

Being a parent means supporting and teaching through example. Student athletes have coaches to teach them their game, but parents play a different role. Remaining confident and upbeat during games, avoiding criticism, displaying true sportsmanship, respecting authority and treating others, even those on opposing sides, with kindness is necessary if you want to become an ideal sports parent. Words aren’t enough. You have to be a shining example of acceptable behavior and decorum to teach your child the true life lessons that sports activities provide.