Denny Smith
Leadership and Development Trainer

It’s not always easy being a sports parent, but here’s the kicker: It may not always be easy to be the son or daughter of a sports parent either. Being involved in competitive athletics is an emotional roller coaster, so let’s look at a couple of ideas that might make the road less bumpy.

In a previous Leaders Forum, we shared the story of a youth soccer referee who got fed up with the terrible behavior of some parents, so he caught incidents on video and spread them on social media. Although he may have been partially motivated to embarrass them, his main intent was to let them see themselves in action and do a little examination of conscience, and it began to work. As the parents observed the ridiculousness of their less-than-fourth-grade behavior, they began to change. One mother wrote to the referee to let him know that she had gone four weeks without yelling at an official.

Most parents are pretty well-behaved, but like anything in life, there is always room for improvement. Here are three ideas that can help us be as positive as we can be and make participation in sports a rewarding experience for our kids and for ourselves as adult leaders. Credit for the first idea goes to Charlie Campbell of the Minnesota State High School League. He suggested having a conversation with your son or daughter and asking them, “How would you like me to cheer for you?” Most kids aren’t going to ask you to scream at the refs or bad-mouth the opponents or criticize their teammates. They will paint a pretty clear picture of their wishes, and adhering to their requests could produce some good results.

Thirty years after the fact, I received this second insight from my son. He said that the worst part of playing for me was the ride home after practice, so let’s see what we can learn from that. The ride home after practice or a game does not have to be, nor should it be, a coaching session, and most certainly should not include your critique of their shortcomings. If you do discuss the game or practice, focus any conversation on the positive, allow him or her to share frustration for a short time if need be, but immediately help direct the energy towards letting go and moving on. When you sense that he or she doesn’t want to talk about the game or practice, it might be wise to change the subject to the price of tea in China.

A third consideration is to keep winning in perspective. In fact, we open our “Coaches and Parents Make the Difference” seminars with this thought: “If you want to be a winner, you have to learn how to lose.” Former Marquette Basketball Coach and TV commentator Al McGuire shared this insight: “The greatest emotion is winning. The second greatest emotion is losing.” When speaking to athletes, I try to convince them to do three things: play hard, have fun, and always be a class act. Perhaps Berton Braley’s Sportsman’s Prayer says it best:

In the battle that goes on through life,
I ask but a field that is fair,
A chance that is equal with all in the strife,
The courage to strive and to dare;
If I should win, let it be by the code,
With my faith and my honor held high.
And if I should lose, let me stand by the road,
And cheer as the winners go by.

Denny Smith, a former teacher and coach, and a motivational speaker and author, is committed to making our schools and communities safe and welcoming for all people. Excerpts from his latest book, “Coaches Make the Difference,” can be previewed at

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