Parents on the bench

A University of Washington study aims to help you help your child with school sports.
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(Seattle Parks and Recreation)

A University of Washington study aims to help you help your child with school sports.

I didn't know about my husband's split personality until after we were married. Most of the time, he acted like the nice nerdy scientist type I had come to know and love. But then one day I went with him to a Mariner's game, where he shed his studious persona and became — super crazy sports fan, hurling insults at the umpire with the best of them.

This tendency to get worked up at sporting events has only increased with having children. And now that we're emotionally involved, I have to admit I've joined him in sitting white-knuckled on the sidelines of the pee wee soccer field, biting back words of "encouragement." Apparently we, as parents, could use a bit of "Spring Training."

According to a new study conducted by the University of Washington, youth sports can be a fun learning experience or a stressful nightmare, and to achieve the former, parents and coaches need to be trained together.

"There has been a drive in the last 20 years to teach coaches how to create a healthy psychological environment for young athletes," says Frank Smoll, who, along with Ron Smith, has been studying and creating programs to improve youth sports for 25 years. "A culture has been created and there is an expectation that coaches will receive training. Unfortunately, too many moms and pops are all too willing to assume they don't have a role in youth sports. However, they should support what trained coaches are trying to do. Parents and coaches working together are a powerful combination."

Smoll and Smith studied 151 children in two different youth basketball leagues. The average age was 11.6 and included both boys and girls. In one youth league, the coaches and parents received no training, while in the other league, parents and coaches were trained together using a "mastery" approach to coaching youth sports, developed by Smoll and Smith, which emphasized personal improvement, giving maximum effort, having fun, sportsmanship, and supporting their teammates, as opposed to a "win at all costs" approach. This "mastery" climate in youth sports has already been proven effective in a previous study conducted by UW in 2007, where students who were coached by "mastery" coaches reported that they:

• Liked playing for their coach more • Rated their coaches as more knowledgeable about the sport • Thought their coach was better at teaching kids how to play basketball • Had a greater desire to play for the coach again that following year • Enjoyed their team experience more • Believed that their parents liked the coach more

And now in the 2008 study, Smoll and Smith showed that when the parents were included in the "mastery" approach as well, performance anxiety and concentration difficulties on the court decreased, while enjoyment of the sport increased.

A pre-season questionnaire in both leagues showed little difference in athlete stress levels, but by the end of the season, students in the league where their parents and coaches had been trained together reported less worry, stress, and performance anxiety. In contrast, athletes whose parents and coaches received no training at all reported that their anxiety had increased.

Says Smoll, "Fear of failure is an athlete's worst enemy, and the sport situation can easily create this type of anxiety. This combined approach helps both parents and coaches to create a mastery-oriented climate. We don't ignore the importance of winning, because it is an important objective in all sports. But we place winning in its proper perspective. As a result, young athletes exposed to the mastery cimate were able to concentrate more, and they had less worries about their performance. Their bodies also reacted more positively. They were less tense, had fewer queasy stomachs, and they didn't experience feeling tight muscles."

Parents who don't have access to this type of training don't need to worry. Smith and Smoll have previously co-authored a book to help parents navigate the world of youth sports called Sports and Your Child: a 50 Minute Guide for Parents, available from Warde Publishers. The book stresses the difference between developmental and professional models of sports, parental roles and responsibilities, combating athletic stress, sports and self-esteem, dealing with winning and losing, why children drop out of sports, how to behave at sports events, dealing with sports injuries, and getting along with your child's coach, among other things.

About the book, Smoll says, "We want to have parents involved in youth sports, but they need to understand their role. Both parents and coaches send powerful messages to a child, and those messages shouldn't be in conflict. All the good work of a skilled coach during the week can be undone in five minutes by an uninformed parent."

Guiltily realizing I was probably one of those uninformed parents, I decided to talk to my thirteen-year-old daughter and her track coach in order to gain a perspective of what was being taught in the junior high school sports program. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that the principles being taught by the track coach were right in line with the "mastery approach," and that my daughter felt like she had more self-confidence and self-esteem than before she had participated in track. Now I had the opportunity to reinforce that message at home. And the message to all parents, according to Smith and Smoll, is that with some training, parents, coaches, and youth athletes can work together to become a winning team.


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