Parenting the Future College Athlete

10 tips for navigating the precarious and uncertain road to college sports

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Dr. Marika Lindholm – As a sociologist at Northwestern University, I had the pleasure of teaching a class called “The Sociology of Sport” to hundreds of students attending a Big 10, Division 1 School. Each year, I started the course by asking former athletes who had turned away from sports why they had done so. Year after year, the top three answers were injuries, coaches, and parents. Young athletes often explained that they’d chosen to quit sports they’d once loved because parents and coaches ruined their experience. There were also a significant number of students who said that injuries forced them to quit when no amount of rehab could bring them back. These stories gave me a powerful picture of what can go wrong for young athletes who had once aimed to stay in the game and play in college.

In the quest for excellence, too many well-meaning parents and coaches set young athletes up for failure. As a scholar of sport, former college tennis player, and mom to five competitive tennis players, I’m passionately invested in making sure that parents understand their important role in protecting their athletic children from psychological and physical injury. There are only so many slots for college athletes in D1, D2, and D3 programs, but for those who are able to join college teams, the rewards are many: instant family, fitness, a support system, a post-college network, and skills that translate well to the workplace.

Whether your athlete is 6 or 16, here are 10 tips to help your child have a positive transition to college athletics:

1. Make a reasonable and thoughtful training plan.

I love tennis, and I hoped that my children would love it too. But I never expected to end up with five tennis players—two who play in college and three on their way. My main goal was to have five athletes who enjoyed sports and, if they wished, would participate in a college sport of their choosing. My plan was as follows: In elementary school, encourage them to play as many sports as possible, find out what they love, see where they excel, give their whole body and brain varied training from a variety of coaches, have them learn how to take instruction, and have a lot of fun! It was a whirlwind, but my kids tried a wide variety of sports, ranging from swimming and soccer to basketball and tennis. By middle school, my expectation was for them to narrow down to their two favorite sports. This gave them a little more time to figure out which sport was their favorite with the added benefit of developing more muscle groups and avoiding burnout. By high school, if they wanted to aim for a college sport, it was time to pick their favorite and focus on becoming the best they could be.  

2. Allow your children to take ownership of their training schedule.

My kids knew my overall strategy, and I always explained why I made decisions that sometimes ran counter to those of their coaches or peer group. When my 10-year-old daughter was asked to practice headers in soccer, much to her chagrin, I wouldn’t allow it. I’d seen the data on head injuries, and this was a no brainer (pun intended). Beyond concerns about injury, I gave my kids plenty of input. My oldest son and daughter, who both play D3 college tennis, made a conscious decision to spend more time on academics, so, unlike many of their friends, they didn’t play tournaments every weekend. Could this have meant the difference between D1 and D3? We’ll never know, but the important thing is that they took ownership of their training strategy and are very pleased with where they are. My middle daughter, who chose soccer and tennis in middle school, begged to focus just on tennis as a seventh grader. This went against the original plan, but I followed her lead, and now she’s training full-time in tennis while the other two in middle school continue the two-sport strategy. You may make the plan, but you should be willing to adjust it based on your child’s needs.

3. Cross-train smart and avoid repetitive injuries.

Ask any doctor about kids’ sport injuries, and you will hear that specialization at too early an age has created a generation of kids who suffer from debilitating repetitive injuries. Whether it’s torn rotator cuffs from serving hundreds of balls or swimming hundreds of laps every day or destroyed knees from millions of soccer kicks or too many miles on the track, too many young athletes are being felled before their time. Asking young athletes to repeat motions with muscles and bones that aren’t fully developed or protected is a recipe for disaster. Cross-training is an excellent way to make sure that their bodies don’t over-develop in some areas while remaining weak in others. If your child is pounding the pavement, they shouldn’t cross-train in a similar high-impact exercise. I have all my kids train in Pilates from an early age to make sure that stretching and flexibility are integrated into their training program, but swimming, yoga, and other forms of exercise work well too. With your kid’s pediatrician  or a professional trainer, create a plan for developing stability and strength that takes into account space within growth plates, the stress of growth spurts on muscles and tendons, and the omnipresent danger of repetitive injury. Coaches may resist, but you are your child’s advocate. If they complain, be  strong!

4. Don’t let your child play hurt.

We’ve all seen it: kids taped up and powering through injuries. We may even applaud them for their toughness and tenacity. Even at the elementary-school level, teammates, coaches, and parents push young athletes to play when they aren’t fully recovered. You don’t need a medical degree to figure out that this will catch up with a child. Whether the problem is a stress fracture or a torn meniscus, when there’s pain, there’s trouble. Because minor injuries often become major side-lining injuries, make the investment in a full recovery, or one day your sport-loving child may sit in a Sociology of Sport class explaining how sports ruined his or her body.

5. Coaches don’t always know best.

Youth programs have dedicated, well-meaning coaches who make great sacrifices to coach your kids. But that doesn’t mean that they will protect your child from long-term psychological or physical injury. Some kids thrive amid badgering, yelling, and teasing, but many don’t. Some kids will survive the unrealistic rigors of dangerous football practices or seven-day-a-week travel soccer training, but most won’t. When my kids, at 12, lost at tennis to kids who could fire off powerful serves and hit shoe-string volleys but had both wrists taped, I knew many of those phenoms would be injured or burn out within a few years. I saw it when coaching tennis 30 years ago, and I see it today. If a coach wants your child to train every day for many hours or to play when injured, or if he or she berates your child, that’s a sign you need another coach. My NU students told stories that would break any parent’s heart—tales of coaches who misused their power and destroyed young athletes’ love of the game.

6. Playing up can backfire.

It’s very exciting to see your child excel and be asked to play for teams with bigger and older kids. Some children can handle this, but there are costs. Physical and emotional differences can place the younger child at risk. Additionally, sport is all about confidence, and taking your child out of a situation that builds confidence is a gamble. A tennis pro who trained Kei Nishikori, currently ranked Number 5 in professional tennis, told me that they purposely kept Nishikori off the most advanced court at his training facility. The coaches understood that confidence was the skill he needed most, so they made sure he wasn’t overshadowed by older, stronger players. Playing up isn’t always the most direct route to success.

7. Be a cheerleader, not a coach.

Believe me, I know this is hard. When my kids play soccer or swim, it’s easy to sit back and enjoy, but when they compete in my own sport of tennis, it takes a lot of self-control for me to not act as a coach. Folks will always point to successful athletes who were coached by a dad or mom, but don’t mention the far greater number of athletes who quit a sport because a parent inserted themselves in their training. Too many parent-child relationships are strained and even severed by Dad or Mom taking on the coaching role. Don’t shout instructions from the sideline or spend the whole car ride home debriefing the game. Leave the coaching to someone else, and instead be present as a source of support and inspiration.

8. Make sure your love and affection aren’t tied to athletic success.

Winning is intoxicating, and it validates all the time, money, and miles you’ve put into your child’s sport. But children need to feel that, even when they lose, you love and value them for who they are as a whole person, not just as an athlete. Be generous and supportive, even when they might not have made their best effort or had a bad day. No one likes to lose or feel that they underperformed. Don’t be withholding or upset when they fail. That’s when they need your affection the most!

9. Stop saying, “we won.”

Whenever I asked my students if their parents used to say “we won,” I’d get a loud chuckle of recognition. You didn’t catch the ball or sprint to the finish line; your child did. It might have felt like a collective effort, but kids notice and don’t like it when you take ownership of their hard work and results. Give credit where credit is due.

10. Set realistic expectations and goals.

The odds of playing a D1 or D2 sport get tougher every year. Only the elite few—including athletes from other countries—are recruited and given scholarships. It’s very risky to bank on a free ride, even when a young athlete shows exceptional promise. Discuss the chances of injury, burn-out, or falling out of favor with a coach as potential realities. Even D3 teams can be challenging for well-trained athletes to make the cut. For example, the NESCAC conference, which includes schools such as Williams, Amherst, and Wesleyan, claim elite athletes from all over the world. The number one tennis player on Wesleyan’s D3 women’s tennis team is a talented player from Hong Kong who plays professional events during the summer and has her own Wikipedia page! Research the range of teams that your athlete can potentially play for and then have them reach beyond the coaches who are wooing them. Your child may be just one in a vast collection of recruits, so convince your athlete to keep a number of options open. In addition, be realistic about the demands they will face as a college athlete. Have them talk to potential teammates to see if the team and the coach are a good fit. They’ve worked too hard to get on a team that makes them unhappy! 

Dr. Marika Lindholm is a former University professor and Founder of ESME.com (Empowering Solo Moms Everywhere). She is also a former college athlete and mother to five competitive tennis players.

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