The Best Things to Say When Kids Are Competing

What’s the best way to handle ourselves at our kids’ sports events?

Brad was frustrated by his son’s baseball schedule. After spring sign-ups, the family was notified the team would be starting “spring training” right away, and those pre-season skill-building sessions would take place four nights a week until the season started.

To some dads, that may not sound excessive, except that Brad’s son was six years old and this was all for T-ball at the local park league; it wasn’t even so-called “competitive” T-ball. As he wrote,

“I didn’t sign up for this.”

In many cases, our kids’ sports have become very serious—often much more than when we were young. And sports events are where many of us think about this most often, but it’s also true for other kinds of kids’ performances and events.

In a serious, competitive atmosphere, there’s a higher likelihood of the parents and kids buying into high expectations and a “win or go home” mentality. That’s what they see and hear talked about with professional and college competitions. But with youth sports, that kind of atmosphere too often fosters all kinds of drama.

Are overbearing sports parents harmful?

If you’ve been around youth sports at all, you’ve probably seen plenty of examples of out-of-control parents on the sidelines and in the bleachers as they are watching or coaching their kids. Sometimes dealing with crazy parents are one of the biggest challenges for coaches, umpires and referees. And honestly, sometimes dads say things that make us just shake our heads. And there’s no way to say for sure if what we’re seeing is an indication of deeper issues and negative habits at home.

Maybe a better question for each of us dads is, “How can I make sure I’m being positive and encouraging for my child in those situations?”

It might surprise you to know that some research has been done about the best way to encourage our kids in these situations. We want to be positive, but we don’t want to make it all about their performance, so they might feel pressure to do well in order to earn our approval or love.

One study looked at psychological research about the best statements parents can make when watching our kids play or perform.

Before the competition, the best statements are:

“Have fun.” “Play hard” or “Do your best.” And, “I love you.”

The three things to say afterward are:

“Did you have fun?” “I’m proud of you.” And, “I love you.”

Another study asked college athletes what they most appreciate hearing from their parents. It can be summarized in five words:

“I love watching you play.”

Now, you might think this is all dreamed up by people who want to take all the healthy competition out of sports. Or you might be thinking, “My kid needs a little constructive criticism about how to get better.” Those might be valid points in some cases, although sometimes it seems as though there’s a lot of the parent’s ego wrapped up in the child’s success, like he will be embarrassed if his child forgets to tag up on a fly ball to the outfield. We have to be discerning here, and some of us may need to take a hard look at our mindset and our behavior.

Sometimes it’s better to trust the coaches and try to see the bigger picture. With so many parents going too far and saying too much, a lot of kids would be thrilled if all their parents said was simply: “I love watching you play.” It doesn’t pump up a child to the point of pride, and it doesn’t give the impression that you’re only noticing things he needs to improve.

Dad, keep these five words in mind and use them or something similar at your child’s games and events: “I love watching you play.”

What is your mindset when you’re watching your kids’ games and performances? Share your tips and ideas on our Facebook page.

Watch the replay of the Fathering Breakthrough Event

Join Dr. Ken Canfield and a handful of friends and partners as we give an update about our efforts to inspire and equip fathers all over the world.

There may be no more important work than turning the hearts of fathers to their children, and that’s what this is all about. We’re seeking to repair, rebuild and restore effective fathering for the benefit of children and families everywhere.