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How To Manage Expectations When Kids Play Sports

Nov 18, 2015

When you enroll your kids in sports, things might not play out like you expect.

My daughter enjoyed watching me play soccer and always wanted to kick the soccer ball around when we went outside. I didn’t think twice about signing her up for a local club’s U3 program (that’s right, under three).

Her little buddy was signing up too, so I thought it was going to be great. I was wrong.

My initial expectations were just too much for a three year-old's first time on a soccer field. 

Many parents struggle when kids don't take an interest in a new sport or activity. And kids can be hard on themselves when they don't perform as they expected to.

Don't worry—there's hope! There are some simple things parents and kids can do to manage expectations around sports and keep sports fun for everyone.  

Set Your Own Goals (And Don't Worry About Everyone Else)

Things that interested my daughter more than the soccer ball at practice: flowers, grass, planes going overhead, peeing in the bushes (we were potty training) and running away from me.

I almost always ended up using my “mommy voice” and giving her ultimatums.

I soon realized that asking her to pay attention and follow instructions for 45 minutes wasn’t a reasonable expectation. So we started to set our own goals.

I soon realized that asking her to pay attention and follow instructions for 45 minutes wasn’t a reasonable expectation.

She would need to do one station or drill before she could take a break and goof around.

The next week, we increased the time she spent on drills, or made up new goals as the activities came along—for example, take five shots and then you can pick those two dandelions you’ve had your eye on.

This made soccer way more more enjoyable for her and for me.

Support The Stage Kids Are At—Especially If It's Their First Time Playing A Sport

Anna Della Rocca was in a similar situation when she signed her four year-old up for tee-ball. Her daughter’s skills were less than stellar and she quickly lost interest when the action slowed in the outfield.

As an experienced coach (and the coach for her daughter’s team), all Della Rocca expected of her daughter at this stage was that she start to understand the game.

When kids are new to a sport, they may love it one day and hate it the next.

“I tried to keep it fun for [everyone] when they were in the outfield, telling them to bend their knees, get their gloves up, shake their butts,” Della Rocca explains. “But they were four and five. You can’t expect too much.”

When kids are new to a sport, they may love it one day and hate it the next—which can be frustrating for parents. “We had one little girl who was quite good and did fine in practice, but when it came it games, she didn’t want to bat. She once hit the ball and cried,” says Della Rocca. 

Kids may need some time to adjust to a new activity. It can be overwhelming when everything is new.

Support kids wherever they are. If they're learning a new sport, focus on what they do like about it. When kids are a bit older, let their interests dictate the sports they play. 


You'll Also Love: How To Support Sports—At All Ages And Stages


Help Kids Focus On The Positive 

Parental expectations aren’t the only ones that need to be kept in check.

Nicki Mathewson’s* stepson Stephen* loves to play hockey, but she and her husband have to work together when it comes to staying positive about his game.

“Stephen gets down on himself because he thinks he should play like an NHL player. When he doesn't 'perform', he gets very upset with himself,” says Mathewson. “We have to explain that practice will help him improve and that, at the age of 9, he won’t be as good as a pro hockey player.”

This season, they've tried a new strategy that seems to be working.

After each game, Mathewson or her husband will ask Stephen how he thinks he played. Then, they point out all the good things he did. They finish with what Stephen can work on at the next practice or game.

“Stephen likes to be able to tell us what he thinks he did well, which shows he's learning more about the game and positioning,” says Mathewson.

“He'll also tell us what he thinks he needs to work on, which is sometimes the same thing we [want to] mention. It's better this way, because [we're not just] telling him what to do.”

We all want our kids to excel in sports and it's easy for parents and kids to get caught up in the hype of performing and winning.

The best way to secure a successful season is to make sure everyone is focused on learning and having fun—after all, that's what sports are all about.  

*Names have been changed.


April Scott-Clarke is a freelance writer and editor living in rural Ottawa. She writes about parenting issues, health and the outdoors. She has two daughters, ages 4 and 9 months. Follow her on Twitter for infrequent updates on her new-found country lifestyle: @AScott_Clarke

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