What Parents Need to Know When Supporting Their Children in Team Sports

Wynberg Boys' High School Sport Support

The following article by Mark Kelly, head of school at Annunciation Orthodox School (Texas) was published, 4 September 2015, on The Independent School Magazine Blog  (www.nais.org):

As the national anthem came to a conclusion, I started to get nervous. Standing in a packed gym in front of 2,000 students, teachers, and parents at Annunciation Orthodox School, I was preparing to give the address to open our school-wide annual Olympic Games. Usually I focus on a story to make some point about competing in athletics, but this time I decided to share my own story of being a student athlete and coach — a topic my students urged me to talk about.

When handed the microphone, I began:

“Good morning, everyone. While talking with a group of students the other day, I was chatting with them about their participation in team sports. They asked me about what sports I played when I was a student, and I told them that I played football, hockey, and lacrosse — football through high school, hockey into college on a club team, and lacrosse through college and after college.


“Later I was thinking about how my parents handled my participation over several years, and I have a few observations about what I appreciated about them that I would like to share with you. First, they attended my games. They couldn’t attend every one — there were four children in the family to follow — but they attended regularly, and I appreciated it when they could attend.


“Second, they never once commented on my play either during or after a game.  They never approached me to offer advice, to make suggestions, or to correct anything. They simply watched me play.”


The room became quieter, as I had caught their attention.  I continued:

“Third, they never once during or after a game made any remarks to or about a referee or official. That made sense, however, because I already knew my father’s view on officiating. He believed that officials generally did a pretty good job of running a game. Oh, sure, they make bad calls occasionally, or even have a bad game, but, in the end, it evens out. You get as many calls that go for you as go against you, and if you start worrying about that, then you are not focusing on what you should be.


“Fourth, they never once during or after a game commented to or about a coach. I had several good coaches during my playing career, and I had a couple of — shall we say — less good coaches. Through it all, however, I never heard about them. They might tell a coach that the team played well or not to worry as the kids will play better next time, but it was always positive and never negative.


“What did all of this do for me? My mind was always clear, not only during the week but also during every contest. I never had distractions of any kind originating from my parents. I never had to worry about a comment my mother made or a suggestion my father had, especially if it contradicted what a coach had said.  I was able to appreciate their attendance and focus on my play, our opponent, the person I was covering, and the person who was covering me.”

Now the gym was silent, as I continued:

“The other thing they did for me was to keep me in balance. If I had a bad game, they knew that I didn’t need to hear about it. They knew that I knew that I had had a bad game, and they knew that I knew why I played poorly. I didn’t need to be corrected or hear three times that my play was deficient. If I played well, they would congratulate me, but they kept that low-key, as they didn’t want to go too overboard on praise.


“Most important, they kept me in check when I started to get too cocky or got too full of myself. I remember two examples of that, the first occurring when I was in eighth grade. I had the good fortune that year to start for both the middle school and junior varsity lacrosse teams; furthermore, I dressed for all of the varsity lacrosse games and played in some of them. Once I learned that I would be playing in some varsity games, I started to get full of myself. I strutted around the campus like I owned the place, and my father knew this. 


“I remember well the first varsity game I played in. Competing against a college team that had just started the sport, we were several goals ahead of them at half time. The coach decided to put me into the game during the second half to play attack. As the ball came down the middle, I broke free in front and the midfielder passed it to me. I remember thinking how great this would be — I would be the first eighth-grader in the history of the school to score in a varsity game. As I caught the ball and turned to shoot, a defenseman came across the crease and absolutely annihilated me with a clean hit, knocking me into next week. My gloves flew off, my stick sailed into the air, and by the time I landed, my helmet had turned around on my head so that I was looking through the ear hole.


“Crawling on the ground with the wind knocked out of me, I tried to locate my equipment. Skulking off the field with my tail between my legs, I headed for the sideline. My father happened to be sitting in the stands behind the bench. Smiling broadly, he said simply, ‘Welcome to varsity lacrosse, Son.’ ”

Immediately, the audience burst out laughing, especially the students.

“The other example came from my mother. Now a senior and team captain, I was not playing well. Playing a team we had never beaten, we were losing at halftime. Improving during the second half, we finally caught up. Finally, I scored a lucky goal which was the game-winner. Pandemonium and celebration ensued, and I found my mother after shaking hands with the opposition. Feeling pretty cocky to be the captain of the first team to defeat this particular opponent and having scored the winning goal, I asked my mother what she thought. ‘That was a great comeback, and the team should be proud. You were no great shakes, but the team played great,’ she said.


“In both instances, my parents brought me back down to where I needed to be. I realized later what was really important to them. It was much more important to them what kind of person I was rather than what kind of athlete I was. They knew that what kind of person I was would probably spill over to my role as an athlete, and that character would be important to me for the rest of life, while my ability as an athlete would not be.


“After my playing days had ended and I had begun my career as a teacher and coach, I had to adjust to life on the other side of the bench. I had to learn how to deal with players, coaches, officials, and parents. Once while driving with my father, I commented that he had never really said anything to me about my play in any sport during my entire career. He remarked that I was correct. I asked him why, especially since he had played two of the sports I had played.  He said simply, ‘I am your father, not your coach. You had a coach.’ Reflecting on this later, I could see that he understood what I really needed. I didn’t need two coaches; what I needed was one coach and a father.


“My parents also had to adjust to my life as a coach, as being the parent of a coach is different than being that of a player.  My mother experienced this firsthand. Attending one of my football games, she was sitting by herself in the stands, as my father tended to pace the sidelines. I was the defensive coordinator of varsity football of the school I had attended, and we had a decent team. Presently, my mother was joined in the stands by a man whose son played for us. They struck up a conversation, and, as the game commenced and progressed, the man commented more and more on plays we were calling and what we should be calling. He was particularly focused on me as the defensive coordinator — how I wasn’t calling the right defenses, how I probably hadn’t even played, and how I generally didn’t know what I was doing. This continued throughout the first half, and through it all, my mother never said a word. Finally at halftime, the man said, ‘So, is your son out there?’


“ ‘Yes, yes he is,’ my mother replied.


“ ‘Which one is he?’ asked the man.


“ ‘He is the man in the red jacket you have been commenting on,’  said my mother sweetly.  His face turned ashen, and, without saying anything more, he slunk from the stands never to return.  I guess he didn’t realize that coaches have parents, too.”

I sensed a growing discomfort in the audience. I wondered: Did anyone do the same thing without realizing it?

“What my parents understood, and what they did for me, was to see the big picture. They understood the most important thing. They understood why I was out there to begin with. They understood that I absolutely loved playing, that I loved the sports I played, and that it was, simply, fun. And they also understood that the best thing they could do for me, and for themselves, was to have fun watching their son have fun.


“And so today, as we enter these 31st AOS Olympics, students, play hard, play fairly, but most of all, have fun, because that is why you are here. And, parents, just have fun watching your children having fun.”

As I concluded, the applause seemed generous and genuine. Later in the morning as I headed across campus to enjoy the festivities, I was stopped twice, first by a parent. The parent said that she and her husband had been talking about the speech, and they feared they “were doing this all wrong” with regard to their daughter. She wondered if they might make an appointment to pick my brain about all of this.

The other person to stop me was a student from my class. Jogging over to me, the young man was gleaming.  “Mr. Kelly, thanks for your speech. After it was over, my dad came over to me and asked me if he was guilty of some of the things that you were talking about. I said he was. He apologized and said we would have to do things differently, and we will talk about it later. Thanks again, Mr. Kelly.” As he skipped away, he seemed lighter somehow.