Youth Sports and You

Don’t let sports leagues take over your faith or your family
By Richard Fitzgibbons, M.D.

Images of the “Little League parent” are fixed in the American mind as a kind of psychological state. There’s dad on the sidelines yelling for his kid to get a hit to soothe the lingering shame over striking out in his own youth. Or mom in the bleachers waving junior to home plate so she can hold her head high at the morning carpool.

Although there seem to be fewer sideline displays by parents these days than a generation ago, and more adults are aware of the negative aspects of reliving their past through their children, there are a number of more subtle dangers associated with youth sports that we all should be aware of. In fact, in our sports-crazed culture, where even toddlers are dragged from soccer field to karate gym, we risk making sports participation a primary value in itself, and using sports for our kids as a substitute for play time and even family time.

Let me make it clear from the start that I am not anti-sports, either as a family-practice psychiatrist or the father of two children. Youth sports can have immense positive influences for both children and parents and may foster a happier, healthier family life. Benefits for children include: weight control and physical fitness due to consistent exercise, learning team play, self-sacrifice, discipline, hard work and good role modeling from coaches.

Strong, lifelong bonds between father and son – and, increasingly, father and daughter – can be built during games of pitch-catch, shooting hoops, kicking the soccer ball or tossing the football. Sports give dads a natural opportunity to talk about virtues such as giving it your all, going the extra mile, taking one for the team and reaching for the stars.

Yet in our culture of 24-hour sports networks and million-dollar, prima-donna players, the wrong message can be sent about sports, virtues and values. In my clinical work with families, I too often find serious emotional conflicts in children as a result of a parental obsession with sports activities. These include burnout from excessive participation in grade school, a win-at-all-costs mentality accompanied by a selfish attitude, excessive competitiveness, the belief that failure in sports means failure in life, a general sadness and anger over pressures to excel on the field, poor academic performance and the belief that sports are the major source of personal values and confidence.

The emphasis on sports causes families to lose their focus and proper balance, and kids pick up the message. Youth sports are seen to take precedence over family relationships and even relationship with God. This attitude is harmful to children’s physical, psychological and spiritual welfare.

As in most things in life, balance is needed when it comes to youth sports. Since there are definite benefits to team play and physical activity, every family should make the effort to find that balance.

Here are a few tips:

  • • Work as a couple to establish healthy family priorities, discussing them with your spouse first and then your children.
  • • The husband should make time with his wife more important than youth sports or professional sports on TV.
  • • Never allow a child to play more than one game per day and don’t be afraid to skip a season if your child doesn’t seem ready for the next level of play.
  • • Make the family dinner a priority over playing team sports.
  • • Avoid leagues that have games on most Sundays, and leave the Lord’s Day open for family activities.
  • • Don’t live your dreams through your child’s sports play.
  • • Winning isn’t the only thing, it’s how you win or how you lose that counts.

Youth sports can be healthy, constructive and a strong support for the values you as a father want to instill in your child. But remember, it’s just a game.

Dr. Richard Fitzgibbons is a Catholic psychiatrist and head of the Institute for Marital Healing, located in West Conshohocken, Pa.