Are Parents Ruining Youth Sports?

Written by Kirk McJunkin
Published on September 04, 2018


Hey Guys, We are so excited to bring you an article and podcast this week talking about youth sports. This is a topic that we are asked about over and over, because it easy to mess it up if we aren’t careful. Let me start by saying this: I’m the least athletic person you have met, and it’s problematic because my husband is a sports fanatic and raising three mini-athletes.

To compound the matter, I was in the marching band. (Yes, I had a plume and we don’t need to talk about it.) It’s an understatement to say I don’t really understand sports. Because of that, there have been some hard talks in our house about the role of sports, the amount of time it takes, select teams, playing on Sundays, travel teams, and the finances behind it all. But because my husband is the only Christian in his family, and he came to know Christ through Fellowship of Christian Athletes in high school, I know personally that sports can literally change lives. And so we’ve got to do it well.

Today we are excited to bring you a Christian perspective on youth sports from Mike Singletary and Kirk McJunkin. Both of these godly men played football in the NFL and now work in the youth sports arena. Read Kirk’s article below and then listen to the podcast with Kirk and Mike Singletary. You will be blessed.


Are Parents Ruining Youth Sports?

If you’ve attended your teenager’s sports contests, or if you’ve coached youth sports, can you recall an embarrassing act by a player’s parent?

Or have you raised your voice in anger with one of your players, or your own child?

I have.

Can you see your child staring out the window on the ride home as you “coach” them on how to play better?

I can.

Can you also recall your painful experience in the car during the ride home with your parents?

Me too.

Sadly, parents may be ruining youth sports. In fact, research shows that attrition of youth sports today is due to overbearing coaches and parents robbing the fun. The parents do this by exasperating their kids with pressure to perform.

The irony is that this exasperation occurs under the premise of trying to help, which is often disguised as “trying to make you better.” For many young athletes, this “help” is their parents’ free pass to say most anything at any time. But too much parental “help” exasperates and actually hurts your relationship with your child.

Identifying exasperation

Exasperation is a “feeling of intense irritation or annoyance.”  In Colossians 3:21, we find Paul’s definition, which one commentary defines as “the habitual provoking of children by insensitive parents.” Its ensuing effect is losing heart, which can be translated as discouragement, resentment, and even anger and depression.

You know when your child is exasperated. You can see it on their face. That is, if you can see their face. When a child is exasperated with you, they tend to avoid meaningful conversation. They learn very quickly to protect themselves from exasperating people—especially those who are trying to fix them or who are constantly engineering their lives for success.

Eradicating exasperation

When you purposefully stop exasperating your child, it will make a big change in your relationship. And, as you learn to avoid exasperating actions and replace them with encouragement, you will create a safe environment for your kids to verbally open up.

To avoid exasperation, stop providing:

  1. Unsolicited advice: This is challenging, as most loving parents can’t stand to watch their child hurt or struggle. The desire to fix the problem actually drives us to be insensitive and offer a steady flow of advice that invalidates and frustrates our children. If they ask or sincerely welcome the advice, then the door is open to share. But avoid talking at them with constant advice. Talk with them.
  2. Untimely advice:Poor timing is a killer. Even if your advice is great counsel, if they’re emotionally and mentally not a place to hear it, they won’t be able to process and use it. Their emotions function like gates: if they aren’t opened internally, your counsel won’t be absorbed. Wait until they’re in a place to be open. Ask for permission to offer advice. If they say no, remind them that you love them and have an idea that could help—but you’ll wait until they’re ready to hear it.
  3. Arbitrary advice: This is any advice based on a random choice or personal whim rather than advice given with reason or through a system. This advice is a close relative of untimely advice. It’s given on our timing, not the athletes’. Preceding or following competition, parents seem to become filled with counsel and advice. This is the best time to let your child lead the conversation. I had the most success with asking them how they feel. The older they are, the more likely they’ll prefer their own way of preparing to compete. They need freedom from interruptions—like unsolicited advice. Don’t waste the rides to and from games by offering advice. Give them space to process on their own. This grows trust and opens opportunities for conversations about anything.
  4. Critical comments: Don’t criticize their coaches, teammates, or other parents. Most athletes like their coach and teammates, and they respect the referees, even if the refs weren’t great. Your criticism can create significant confusion within the athlete who wants to please both their parents and their coaches. Unless a coach is abusive or grossly negligent, don’t verbally criticize him or her. An athlete can learn a lot and have a great experience playing for a coach and with teammates they really like.
  5. Obvious advice: This is apparent advice following a mistake, e.g., “Stay down on the ball.” “You’ve got to make layups!” Any parental instruction hollered to an athlete during competition is typically invalidating, unwanted, and worthless for helping them compete. Their coach will handle the advice. Your job is to watch, encourage, and give them space to mentally and emotionally process a bad performance. Incidentally, as athletes mature, they lose the desire to be around anyone offering unsolicited advice and obvious coaching. Athletes want empathy from family and friends far more than advice.

By removing these five kinds of “help” from your vocabulary, you will have removed the most immediate impediments to exasperating your child. However, your work isn’t quite done.

The antidote for exasperation

One of my favorite axioms reads, “There are four roles in athletics: coaches, participants, referees, and spectators, and you can only occupy one.”

Coaches prepare participants for competition. Participants practice to compete. Referees officiate. Parents spectate. Parents, as spectators, have a strategic and distinct opportunity to ensure that their kids leave athletics with lessons that strengthen their faith and better prepare them for life.

Your role, as a parent, is to focuson the big picture.

Big-picture parents have two primary responsibilities: clarity and character development. Athletics provides a steady flow of confusing realities. Your son or daughter needs you to help them make sense of those realities. Use your years of experience to help them see what they cannot. Guide them to discover for themselves how to respond in a manner consistent with how they wish to be known and desire to compete.

Within a short time, your athlete will come home with stories of injustice or confusing decisions by a coach, teammate, or referee. Guide them in applications that develop character and maturity.Consider athletics as your lab environment for character development.

The hardest part

The key to empathy, avoiding exasperation, and big-picture perspective is patience.

Are you struggling with your child’s work ethic, discipline to practice, and being teachable? Consider the faith of the Prodigal’s father (Luke 15).

Let them fail.

Let their hunger to improve and avoidance of the pain of failure run its course.

Most will decide on their own to get better and “come home.” The ensuing self-discovery cultivates empowerment and personal responsibility (2 Thessalonians 3:10).

Now is your time to help them discern the help they need and become willing to commit on their own. Don’t push them to get better. Let them pull you into more lessons and playing in more competitive leagues. They will grow empowered and see you as a partner and resource for success instead of an extra, nagging coach.

When intrinsically empowered, athletes are more likely to work to help themselves in athletics and in life. Parental “help,” like steady advice and insistence on their following your plans for success, grows dependence. You should rather grow empowerment.

If parents want success more than a healthy relationship with their athletic child, the athlete will grow exasperated and codependent. On the other hand, parents who avoid exasperation, focus on the big picture, and remain patient will have something far more valuable than athletic success: a great relationship with their child.

Don’t forget to listen to our featured podcast this week with Mike Singletary and Kirk McJunkin, encouraging parents with godly wisdom on youth sports. You will be blessed! 

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Kirk McJunkin

Kirk graduated from Lake Highlands High School in Dallas before attending the University of Texas where he played football and graduated with a Bachelors Business Administration in Finance.
After college Kirk was a 10th round pick and member of the Pittsburgh Steelers until an injury forced an early retirement in his second year. Kirk then worked in the commercial construction industry until he was introduced as TCA Executive Athletic Director in September of 2015.
Kirk is married to Cathy, who is a Single Women’s Community Director at Watermark Community Church. They have four twenty-something children, two girls, two boys, a daughter-in-law and seven-week old grand-daughter, Collins.
Kirk’s hobbies are hunting, fishing, golf and his only creative outlet, photography. He loves to talk about parenting, coaching, little league athletics, and sharing his story of grace.

Read more about Kirk

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