When It's Hard to Let Kids Just Play the Game ...
Imagine you’re at a local high school watching a baseball game on a lovely spring afternoon. The sun is shining, birds are chirping, the smell of cheap hot dogs teases you from the snack cart run by the local boosters …
And then you hear it.
“Catch the stinking ball! I can’t believe you made such a stupid play!”
Oh. That guy. The one who screams at his kid like a drill sergeant wearing down a fresh recruit. Most parents shy away from him. On the field, the guy’s son hangs his head and wonders if there’s enough room to hide under second base.
Now, we’re not here to trash this guy. Yes, he’s over-involved, and yes, he’s making things harder for his kid and for himself. But we have to understand that he doesn’t see it that way. He’s trying to do the right thing. He cares about teaching his kid to work hard, to put forth his best effort, and to never give up. He wants his son to be a leader. And, yes, sometimes he just wants his son to be a star player because it makes Dad feel good.
I’ve seen this problem from every perspective. I started my career as a sportswriter covering high-school sports, and then I became a baseball coach as my kids got older. Eventually, I made another career change to clinical social work, where I specialize in family therapy. I know this problem coming and going, and unfortunately, this approach drives kids away from the game.
There are several reasons. First, it simply embarrasses the kid, especially if he’s already a teenager, when being embarrassed by parents is a normal part of growing up. When that goes to an extreme, the teen feels extra anxiety, which makes him less likely to want to play, and less able to succeed when he does hit the field.
These behaviors also make the kid a target of extra teasing. A teenager would rather walk across hot coals without his cell phone than be scolded by his parents in front of his friends. If he feels like he’s going to look stupid in front of everyone, he’s going to be less likely to want to play.
There also can be damage to the child’s relationship with his coach, who’s not immune to being embarrassed by the parent as well. That often leads to conflict between the parent and coach, possibly leading to less playing time for the child — sometimes because embarrassment causes the player to make more mistakes, and sometimes because the coach just wants to give the kid a break.
Sometimes these parents even contradict the coach, which means the player has to pick between two important authority figures. If he listens to his coach, he might catch grief at home. If he listens to his parent, he could lose playing time from the coach. This puts him in a classic double-bind (damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t). He feels anxious, confused, and like he can’t please anybody. Since he can’t make a “right” choice, he’ll often make no choice at all, like the proverbial deer in headlights.
I remember a high school freshman baseball game. Our pitching coach was in the bullpen with our pitcher as he warmed up. But soon, the pitcher’s father strolled to the bullpen and started coaching his child as well, openly contradicting whatever the coach said. Not knowing what to do, the pitcher didn’t last through the first inning.
You really can’t blame the kid for that. He already felt pressure to pitch well. He felt embarrassed by his father. He was stressed, anxious, and confused, and he felt like he couldn’t win no matter what he did. It’s no wonder he symbolically yakked all over the pitcher’s mound. Imagine if his dad felt that way at his job – he’d want to quit, too.
So what’s the solution? Here are a few things that can help:
First of all, leave the coaching to the coach. His job is hard enough when the players want to listen to him. If a parent really wants to have a say, he can volunteer to help; then his child (and the rest of the team) will see the parent as an appropriate authority figure on the field. When I coached, I loved when parents volunteered. I always found something for them to do, even if it was just hitting fungos to the outfielders or keeping the scorebook.
Secondly, focus on the positive. Repeated studies show that giving attention to behaviors that you like is more effective than giving attention to mistakes. If the player boots a ground ball, for example, remind him of what he does well when he catches the ball. I once had a player who dropped his hands during his swing when he was in a slump. If I told him not to drop his hands, he’d focus so much on them that he’d drop them even more. But if I reminded him to take his hands directly to the ball, his hands never dropped. That reminder during an important tournament game resulted in a game-winning double that had him smiling for a week.
Third, the parent should ask himself what his goal really is. If his goal is to help his child, he could try this approach to see if it gets better results. And if the parent realizes that he cares so much because it makes him feel better about himself . . . well, nobody’s perfect. He may count on his child to fill a void in his own life, but the first step toward changing that is to recognize it.
If it feels overwhelming to make these changes, the parent could see a clinical social worker or counselor to help him through it. Positive change is always possible. I see positive change happen every day in my office, and this situation is no different.
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