Youth athletes are precious and impressionable. And they are kids who deserve our unconditional love and support. Photo Credit: Diane Scavuzzo
Danny Jackson on Emotional Support for Athletes
Supporting our Young Athletes On and Off the Field
Daniel (Danny) Jackson is a former Major League Soccer (MLS) star and captain of the Seattle Sounders. SN is pleased to bring readers Danny Jackson's new column with insights into the professional world of soccer. So many kids dream of go pro, few accomplish this and fewer become team captains and then go on to become youth coaches.
The world of youth sports is like a strong, deeply-rooted tree; each branch supports individual leaves, connecting them to the whole. These branches – parents, coaches and teammates – are all vital to the health of the individual players and the entire organization, creating supportive conduits for nourishment, growth and success.
First, to the parents: The most important thing a parent can do for a child, other than provide food, shelter, and unconditional love, is to offer support. And that support is just as important in sports as it is in any other endeavor. Whether your son or daughter is playing the sport you excelled at in your own childhood, or a sport with which you’re completely unfamiliar (and perhaps even uninterested in), your support is critical to your child’s success and enjoyment. So how to best provide encouragement?
For starters, it’s crucial for parents to provide the best opportunities possible, as well as the foundation and fortitude necessary to help kids meet their goals. Offering positive reinforcement and honest feedback as children get older is also imperative. That’s especially true in sports. In the United States, more than anywhere else in the world, there are numerous options, and deciding which sport to play and which team to play for can overwhelm a child. While allowing kids to make decisions for themselves to create independence has value, it’s also important for parents to provide children with clarity and direction. Not a forced direction, but rather a hand-holding, showing them different paths and providing reasons why they might choose a particular sport or team. Of course, sometimes such decisions are out of parents’ hands. Youth sports can be expensive and travel might take you too far from home. So be honest with your child and explain what’s feasible. Whatever opportunities are on the table, parents should always provide as much advice and context as possible.
There is a difference, however, between supporting a child and living vicariously through him or her. Parents must ultimately support their children’s goals, not insist on their own. I was very fortunate; my parents were incredibly supportive when I came over from England and went to school in the United States and then decided to live here, though it may not have been their first choice for me. I left home at 16 to play soccer and then moved thousands of miles away to attend the University of North Carolina at the age of 18. Like any student, especially coming from a foreign country, I was both excited and anxious. I was leaving home, moving to a new country and experiencing a completely different culture and environment. What made that move work was my parents’ support. It was never about them, they made it about me. My parents were sad, of course, and I am sure my distance accentuated those emotions. But they never showed it. They were there for me every step of the way, always encouraging, always positive. I was extremely fortunate, and I can speak for every child when I say parental support is a wonderful thing.
Children need even more support when they’re struggling in sports, and this is where coaches come in too. This is when a helping hand and comforting word are most needed. It’s easy for kids to stay dedicated and committed when they’ve tasted success. It’s easy to brush the struggles of others aside, or be completely unaware of teammates’ inner frustrations when things come naturally. But players who consistently work hard and still don’t make the team or who make mistakes in a game can struggle with motivation. Success, once achieved, can be the catalyst to help players through difficult stages. But if a child has never experienced success, staying positive becomes much more difficult. This happens often and it’s extremely important for coaches — and parents — to provide young players with backbone and support.
And now we come to teammates, the other crucial branch. Teammates are the people who can actually have the most impact on a player. We all seek validation, we all want to feel connected and part of the team. So, for young players: even if success doesn’t come easily to everyone – and some members of your group don’t play much or even make the team, make sure you validate their effort.
I love playing soccer with people who give everything they have. I have great respect for the personality and character it takes to brush yourself off and keep going when you’ve been knocked down. This attitude is in stark contrast to that of the naturally gifted player, who ambles through practice and games and never maximizes their potential. It’s the kids who are on the periphery — the kids who play only a few minutes and sit on the bench a lot, or who don’t even make the team — who have a whole different vantage point. They’ve always had to give their very best at practice and they often listen more carefully because they have to. It’s crucial for parents, coaches and even teammates to gauge and evaluate those players differently. It’s not about how many goals they’ve scored, but more importantly, how hard they’ve worked. It’s so critical to make sure those players constantly feel appreciated and worthy of being on the team. The success of any team is not merely measured by the players on the field, but by the entire squad that supports the overall effort each and every day. The older players get, the more important teammates become. They become your support mechanism, your backbone, your foundation. By then, parents should be in the background, and the players on the field become the real anchor, the individuals who help you through a tough practice or challenging game. Coaches must teach their players to support each other, so when their backs are against the wall and they’re exhausted and fatigued, their teammates will push them through.
Now, if a teammate is not working hard, not pulling his weight, then absolutely give him or her a piece of your mind. But if hard work, commitment, and effort are not the issues, then help him or her through. Your support – with a kind gesture or encouraging words – is never lost and the positive impact can be substantial and lasting. Every connecting branch in the world of youth sports has a vital role to play. And if one branch is unhealthy, the whole tree can whither. Sure, players can fight a lack of support at home, in the locker room or on the field. But can they fully enjoy themselves and succeed under these conditions? Not likely. We need our parents, our coaches and our teammates, whose support creates joy and allows individual potential to flourish.
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Daniel (Danny) Jackson is a former Major League Soccer player and was captain of the Seattle Sounders
for five seasons. Jackson, the Colorado Rapid
’s first round pick in the 2002 MLS draft, recently retired from professional soccer following a successful career in which he led the Seattle Sounders to two USL
National championships. At the University of North Carolina,
Jackson was a multi-year All-American, team MVP, and three-year team captain. His UNC
team won a National Championship in 2001, and he was named Soccer America National MVP
and National Championship MVP the same year. Danny was awarded the 2002 Patterson Medal
as the UNC Student Athlete of the year
Danny Jackson's recent coaching experience ranges from youth soccer at Eastside FC and the Sounders FC / ODP youth development program and speaks to high schools and youth clubs regarding the far reaching impacts of youth sports. Danny also is serving as the Director of New Business for Korrio.