For children ages 6 to 18, fall youth sports seasons are in full swing.  This provides a lot of opportunities — as well as challenges — to parents who have kids involved in sports, fitness, and recreation.

As a parent with three children of my own, I understand that there are a lot of difficult decisions that need to be made related to youth sports.  In researching my book, 101 Ways To Be A Terrific Sports Parent, it became clear that sports competition is different today than it was 10, 20 or even 30 years ago, when many parents themselves were involved in youth sports.

For many moms and dads, there is a lot of emotion that gets triggered inside when they see their child participating in a competitive sport like soccer, field hockey, football, tennis, volleyball, cross country, etc.

Parents are always asking me, "How can I be a better sports parent?"

As with other aspects of parenting, there is no definite formula to apply that answers this question.  I do believe, however, that there are three basic steps that parents can follow to address most of their questions.

Step 1:  Identify your own attitudes about winning, losing, success, failure, and competition.

What feelings and thoughts are triggered when you watch your child play sports?  What meaning does your child playing sports have for you?

Self-awareness is the foundation from which good sports parenting decisions emerge.  If our goal, as it needs to be, is to keep the child's needs on the front burner, and our own needs on the back burner, then understanding your own feelings and thoughts about competition become a key step towards communicating with your child about sports in an appropriate way.

Step 2:  Identify specific sports parenting situations that are mentally challenging for you, and practice methods to address these situations. 

A lot of parents have trouble watching their children play in a competitive game situation. When I ask these parents to be more specific about this, often they will identify specific situations when they have difficulty controlling their emotions.  More specifically, for example, they have difficulty after their child makes a mistake, is taken out of the game, or has to perform under pressure at the end of the game.

When a parent can specifically identify the mentally challenging situation, it is easier to develop a plan to apply to the situation.  For example, when watching your child make a mistake in a game, plan to take a deep breath and remind yourself  to relax.  When seeing your child taken out of a game, focus on keeping positive body language and facial expressions. When watching your child perform under pressure, remind yourself to be the parent, stay composed, and communicate support for your child.

Step 3:   Develop a sports parent game plan to teach your child mental skills for competition.

Sports parenting represents a unique opportunity to talk with your child about how to handle frustration by slowing down, taking deep breaths, etc. Communicate these mental skills with your children by saying things like:

  • "This is what I say and do to let go of a mistake."
  • "This is how I've learned to take constructive criticism from a teammate or coach, and not take it so personally."
  • "This is how I've learned to play my role in order to benefit the team or something bigger than myself."

There are several influences parents can't control as it relates to the messages their children learn about what is healthy competition and what is unhealthy competition. For example, we can't control the images and messages that children learn from television and social media. However, parents still remain the most important factor in their children's attitudes about winning, losing, success, failure, and competition.  The challenge as a sports parent is to maximize what we can control, and let go of what we can't control, in order to increase the chances that we can help our children receive the great benefits that playing sports can provide in terms of learning life skills.

Dr. Joel H. Fish, director of The Center for Sport Psychology, is a nationally recognized expert in sport psychology. He has been a sport psychology consultant for the Philadelphia Flyers, 76ers, Phillies and Charge, as well as the USA Women's National Soccer Team.