My sons quit soccer. When they did I learned one of my greatest lessons as a parent. Their choice to quit forced me way out of my comfort zone when it comes to the youth sporting environment, and that is where my lesson happened.
They chose to take up Muy Thai. I think they did it on purpose, because it was one sport I knew nothing about. I was that prototypical 70s-80s kid who played every sport under the sun and when I wasn’t at a structured activity, I was with my friends in the vacant lot making up our own sports. When my daughter took up bowling, I at least knew enough to understand and maintain my position as “expert”.
If you have ever done the activity once, your kids think you are the expert. When you work in the realm for a living, there is no escaping that expert status for your kids. They are always under that shadow of mom or dad being the expert, and sometimes, by accident, so are the coaches.
I sampled as many sports as possible, even well into my thirties. It didn’t matter if I was good at it, as long as I enjoyed it. I never did any of the pugilist sports, though. So my sons had me at a severe disadvantage. I was nowhere near expert at Muy Thai.
This was the best experience of my sport parent life. Not knowing anything about the technical or tactical processes of the sport meant I was watching it for the first time. No prejudged beliefs or misconceptions. No bad habits. No baggage whatsoever. This was good for both my sons and their coaches.
I had to trust their coaches were teaching what was expected of them to succeed in the sport, and I had to trust my sons were doing what was expected of them by their coaches. So at training I had nothing I could yell out to either support or contradict coach, and on the car ride home or at the kitchen counter I couldn’t have those perilous conversations about what coach or other athletes did right or wrong, or even what my kids did right or wrong.
I approached it with a total beginner’s mind. I asked as many questions as I could to understand what they were going through when they were on the mat. Why did they do that move? How is it done? What would they do if this happened? When would you use that move? And so on. I was a neophyte, trying to learn alongside them.
This built respect for the coaches and their process for teaching. It also created this superfan mentality toward my kids. They were learning something I couldn’t do! How cool is that?
I also discovered I was still an expert, though. I know my children. I know good days and bad days. I know what makes them tick. I know what sets them off. This expertise was vital in helping them navigate this new learning experience.
I could expertly guide how they approached training, help them understand what values, life skills, and knowledge they wanted to glean from it. I could also help their coaches understand them so the connection between athlete and coach would be deep and strong.
When I spoke to my sons, I either approached the sport with a beginner’s mind or I helped guide their experience with an expert’s perspective. I never approached the sport as an expert and never approached them as a beginner. This made all the difference in helping them learn, grow, develop within the sport. When I spoke to the coaches, I knew nothing about the sport, so my conversations were about better serving my kids and in turn, better serving the coaches. It was a brilliant symphony of give and take, connection and growth.
I wish I could go back and use that lesson in soccer. When my kids played soccer my approach was flipped. I was the expert at the sport and acted like a beginner with my kids. I judged coaching tactics, evaluated my kids’ abilities, talked about what they should and could do. I never once acted like I knew my kids and what they really needed from the experience, because I was too busy being the subject matter expert of the wrong subject.
My lesson for you is to treat your role in youth sport as such: Expert perspective on your children, beginner mind as to the sport. Focus on being the subject matter expert on who your children are, what they need out of the experience, and how it will help them succeed beyond the game.
Approach the sport as a total beginner. No matter if you never played or you played at the highest levels of the game. Act as if you know nothing so you can ask your children all the right questions, stay focused on their experience, and guide the process not the outcomes. It should not matter if they get the skill right, or coach subs at the wrong time. It should matter that your kids are having fun, enjoying the process, and working as hard as they can to be better every day.
By rooting yourself in beginner’s mind you will begin to lose all those judgements that can creep in and spoil conversations. You will care less about outcomes, uncontrollables, and even others and worry only about seeing your children in the experience. This is what they need from us. They want us to let go and let them have this experience on their own as if we have never been there before. This is their sport path, we had ours. They do not need someone running ahead paving and painting the path so all they do is unwillingly trudge along what we decided for them. As a beginner mind we walk along behind them watching them do it all on their own.
By maintaining expert status on your children, you will be able to protect them, guide their mindset, and keep them focused on what matters most in sport. Your role will be fan, advocate, guide, and counselor. That is what they need from us. Our kids do not need an assistant coach on the car ride home or a judge and jury on the sideline of the game.
That’s your role. The rest takes care of itself if you approach your kid’s sports experience as the subject matter expert on your kid and the beginner mind on the sport. It also reduces the level of stress on you because all you need to worry about is supporting your kid and watching them with awe.