Don't be this kind of sports parent -- or this kind, either

by Jeff Smith

At first I wasn't sure I heard her right. I was sitting in the bleachers at one of my older daughter's matches, parked behind a lady whose daughter played on the other team. After her daughter served a ball into the net, her mom threw her hands in the air and yelled out, "Jane, if you keep making so many mistakes, I'm not going to buy you any lunch."

Was this woman serious?

Sadly, she was.

Her daughter continued to struggle with her hitting, passing and serving the rest of the match, further drawing her mom's ire. After the match ended, her daughter reluctantly walked over to the bleachers to grab something out of her gym bag. That's when her mom went off on her.

"What was wrong with you out there?" she asked. "You played terrible." She then listed a litany of errors her daughter had made. By the time the mom had finished berating her, Jane slowly sauntered back to her team with shoulders slumped, head down and any remaining enthusiasm drained away.

This isn't the first time I've witnessed this kind of parent-child exchange. And it won't be the last. I'm sure you've seen similar behavior. It breaks my heart to watch a young athlete treated this way by someone so important to them. It doesn't help. It leaves them demoralized, defeated and more likely to quit than commit themselves to growth and improvement.

I've also seen the opposite behavior. You probably have, too.

I'm referring to the parent who thinks their child can do no wrong. When their child does make mistakes, they either don't notice them, don't acknowledge them or blame everyone but their child. It was the coach's fault, or their teammates, or the official ("That wasn't a double contact!") or the lousy gym floor or anyone or anything else but their star athlete.

I can still remember the day that a parent came up to me after one of my team's games and lamented, "It's too bad you don't have more talent surrounding Jenny. She can't do it all." You can probably guess who Jenny's parent was. Yes, the parent who approached me.

Ironically, Jenny was a good player but probably made more mistakes in that match than anyone else on the team. Only her dad didn't notice those mistakes, or chose not to. In his eyes, she was a mix of Kerri Walsh-Jennings and Misty May-Treanor bundled in an eighth-grader's body, while her teammates were the Bad News Bears.

So, what kind of sports parent do our kids need us to be at their volleyball matches? I think our children will flourish most if we can accomplish the following four actions at their tournaments:

1. Cheer for them without embarrassing them.

Several years ago, the mother of one of the girls on my team was so hyper-focused on supporting her daughter from the sidelines that her daughter was almost overcome with self-consciousness on the court. Annie's mom yelled out her daughter's name so many times over the course of a match that even the opposing team's fans knew Annie as well as any of the girls on their team.

"Great job, Annie!"

"Good try, Annie!"

"You can do it, Annie!"

"That's OK, Annie!"

"Shake it off, Annie!"

"Just get it in, Annie!"

"Way to go, Annie!"

"Oh no, Annie!"

"Annie, Annie, Annie!"

Not surprisingly, after nearly every point, Annie would reflexively glance over at her mom for approval, encouragement, instruction or just plain out of habit. A team sport quickly devolved into a solo activity, as everything became about Annie.

It wasn't until Annie's mom noticed the effect she was having on her daughter and began toning down her sideline dialogue with her that Annie started feeling more comfortable on the court and playing looser, less self-consciously and more assertively.

Of course we should cheer for our child and not succumb to the temptation of spending the match absorbed with our smartphone or distractedly swapping stories with the other spectators. But we really show our kids our greatest support by simply being there, watching them play, looking engrossed in their match and cheering enthusiastically while refraining from using their name very often or communicating directly with them. In other words, more blending in with the crowd instead of sticking out.

2. Cheer for everyone on their team.

Here's a great test for us to take as parents. When you're at your daughter's next match, imagine if a stranger watched your every move and heard your every word. By the end of the match, would they know which player was your daughter?

If they figured it out pretty quickly, that may mean you don't cheer enough for the other girls on the team, or you spend most of your time cheering for your own child and not the team or her teammates. If they weren't sure who your daughter was, that likely means you do a terrific job of spreading your support around to everyone on the team and don't go overboard cheering for your own child.

As someone who's coached thousands of young athletes, I can say with complete confidence that most kids don't want their mom or dad's cheering to single them out. Either don't use your daughter's name when your cheer for her, or learn the names of every player on the team and make sure to use each player's name when you cheer for them, not just your daughter's name.

Volleyball is a team sport, and that extends to the bleachers. Team cheering sends a healthy message to your child and sets the right example for them, that volleyball is about the team and not one individual.

3. Let the coach do the coaching.

This can be a hard one for parents like me. I've coached volleyball and basketball for 19 years and a combined 52 seasons. I also have coached my daughters off and on for a combined 13 seasons. Rarely do I cross the line and coach them from the bleachers, but regrettably it has happened.

I still cringe when I remember the time my older daughter badly shanked a pass in serve receive at a season-ending tournament and, before I could shut my mouth and keep from saying anything, I blurted out, "JESSICA, HOLD YOUR FINISH!" in a tone of voice that would have made Bobby Knight proud -- and loud enough that I felt like I was in an old E.F. Hutton commercial (I'm showing my age), with every eye in the gym now laser-locked on me.

The result? My daughter began crying, her coach had to take her out of the game to compose herself, and my face turned fire engine red with embarrassment. That was three long years ago, and I haven't done anything like this ever since. But it reminded me anew that our kids don't need us to coach them. They need us to support them.

4. Use this six-word phrase often.

I got this from a coaching colleague. I've said it to my daughters, emailed it to them and texted it to them before and after matches. It's the most meaningful sentence you can ever speak to the young athlete in your home. It's probably the only thing we should ever say to our kids after a tournament. It'll almost always bring a smile to their face, and they won't ever tire of hearing or reading it from you.

Here it is:

"I love to watch you play."

Try saying it after your daughter's next tournament. You'll be glad you did, and so will she.

Jeff Smith is Serve City volleyball region director.