Like most parents, my husband and I want our children to reap the many benefits youth sports have to offer. As a college professor who teaches exercise science and sports-related courses and as a licensed soccer coach, I am very familiar with the realities of youth sports. Almost 50 million children play youth sports, most of who will drop out of sports between the ages of 11 and 13. Of the almost eight million high school student-athletes, only 6% will go on to compete in college.

What does this mean? Youth sports are all too often short-lived. The pressure to specialize in a single sport often overshadows the benefits of multiple sport participation and lifetime fitness. In order to promote positive and prolonged sports participation, children need to be put in a position to make the most of their athletic opportunities. There are many ways parents can support their children and encourage them to reach their potential — and build confidence along the way.

Our family recently prepared for our 8-year-old son’s swim championships. He has an orthopedic condition that requires him to temporarily hang up his soccer cleats and hockey skates and trade them for goggles and a swim cap. We are new to swimming, but not new to sports. Despite having coached soccer at every level from youth through intercollegiate, it was my recent experience as a swim mom that reminded me to use much of what I’ve learned over the years about sport parenting. My hope was to set my son up for success in a new sport, while also encouraging him to build confidence and reach his potential.

When our son began swimming, we wanted to prepare him for something new and give him the opportunity to be successful. Although it might sound insignificant, one of the first things we did was shop for the necessary equipment. It is important for children to look the part in a sport. When my son attended tryouts, I insisted he wear the jammer-style competitive swimsuit and not his regular beach swimsuit. He reluctantly put on the fitted suit. When we arrived at the pool, he knew I was right (not that he admitted it!). My son looked like he was prepared and felt ready. Feeling prepared and looking the part enables children to build confidence. Tip: Dress your child for success.

Next, we learned about the sport. We did some reading about famous swimmers, watched swim meets on television and instructional videos on YouTube, and even attended a local high school swim meet. This preview into the world of swimming helped our son know what to expect and envision what he could do as a swimmer. Watching higher levels of a sport can help children gain an understanding of the sport and encourage them to set long-term goals. Heeding my own advice, I had my son teach me the butterfly stroke while we swam together. Let’s just say, I’ll stick to soccer. Tip: Learn the sport with your child.

It is also beneficial to practice with your child at home. Not only is learning to practice good for children, but the family bonding is even better. At home, we emphasize both fun pick-up style games and skill-specific practice. Oftentimes, working on an area of weakness can be more enjoyable at home in a low-pressure situation. Extra practice can turn weaknesses into strengths. Tip: Practice sports at home with your child.

Before the first swim meet, we spent time establishing a pre-event routine. We followed the usual basic advice: eat well, sleep well, and work hard in practice, but my son still had some pre-event jitters. Based on sport psychology theory, pre-competitive stress can be reduced in two ways: (1) reduce the uncertainty and (2) reduce the importance of the event.

In order for our son to feel more comfortable and confident about the first meet, we focused on reducing the uncertainty. We learned about the logistics of the event, packed the necessary supplies, and established a game plan. Simple steps, like leaving the uniform and equipment out the night before or agreeing in advance on the pre-event snack, help a child feel prepared. Children feel more confident and relaxed when they know what to expect, how the day will go, and what their responsibilities will be. If a parent is disorganized and unsure, children pick up on that.

Hopefully, when it comes time for the first whistle of the meet or game, all your child has to do is play his best and have fun. Tip: Create a pre-game routine with your child.

Early in the season, we helped our son set some personal goals. Once we had a feel for the sport and a sense of our son’s talent level, we talked about what he — not we as parents — wanted to accomplish. I recommend that children set challenging, yet attainable, goals. For my son’s swim season, this was easy enough to do. We looked at past season times for his age group, his current times, and estimated how much improvement he might make over the course of the season. For less-objective sports, goal setting can be more complicated. Take long-term goals (making varsity or becoming a professional athlete) and break them down into several short- and mid-term goals. Perhaps create a timeline toward the long-term goal with benchmarks along the way. Also, consider process goals over outcome goals. A process goal may be to improve shot selection in a basketball game, whereas an outcome goal may be to score a certain number of points. Young athletes have more control over process goals and are more likely to see favorable results. Tip: Set realistic, yet challenging, short- and long-term goals.

During the season, we had questions about races and rules as we continued to learn the sport. We encourage our children to speak directly to coaches. There were times throughout the season when I did email the coaches or talk to them myself, but whenever possible we let our son initiate the conversation, then followed up as necessary. We prepared what my son would ask and when (after practice, not before). My son was uncomfortable and hesitant as he approached his new coaches for the first time. I was with my son, but kept a healthy distance and did not hover. As might be expected, the coaches kindly answered his questions, reassured him, and left the lines of communication open. Learning to speak to adults allows children to build confidence, manners, and independence. Tip: Teach your child to communicate effectively with coaches.

After some early success in the first few meets, my son had his first real disappointment. He won a close butterfly race only to later find out he was disqualified because his feet came apart. In swimming, as in other youth sports, it is inevitable that children will fail from time to time. It is not the failure that should characterize the child, but their response to the experience. Teaching children to overcome failure is a valuable life skill. Protecting children from the perils of winning and losing only gives them a false sense of security. Encourage children to work toward winning, take chances, and not fear losing. In our own example, my son asked his coaches if he could try the butterfly again. With minimal prompting from us, my son was willing to risk disqualifying to have another chance in the event. In the next meet, he placed in the event and set a new personal best time. More importantly, he learned to overcome a setback. Tip: Encourage your child to take chances.
As the season went on, I taught my son to reflect on his performances in the pool. We discussed what went well and what may not have gone as smoothly. Too often, parents, athletes, and even coaches analyze and reflect on what went wrong instead of what went right. Learn from mistakes, but try not to dwell on the negative. Spend more time reflecting on successful performances and try to replicate them. Figure out what works for your child and add those components to his or her routine. Tip: Help your child learn from mistakes and accomplishments.

Toward the end of the season, when it came time for the championship meet, we focused on preparing for an important event. Similar to when we established a pre-game routine, we reviewed what the championship event would be like. We looked at best times and meet results so my son knew what to expect for each race. The ability to anticipate what may happen reduces the uneasiness that often causes the stress surrounding significant sports events. With my son, we focused on the excitement of the opportunity, rather than the importance of the meet. My son tends to be on the serious side, so for him this meant getting him to lighten up and have fun. The morning of the event, he got up early and did some light exercise, followed by a homemade smoothie. My son was ready, but still rather serious. At that point, I did what I had to do — queued up the music and started a dance party over breakfast. The end result was a happy, ready-to-go swimmer! Tip: Prepare your child for competition.

The night before the swim championships, I gave my son a gift. It is a replica of the famous Notre Dame football “Play like a champion today” sign. I showed him a neat football video to accompany the gift. But I also played a video for him showing a doctor “heal like a champion today” and a scientist “research like a champion today” and so on. The message to my son was to treat each day as an opportunity to “be a champion” in all that he does. Tip: Help your child make the connection that success in sport can translate to success in other areas of life.

Even though we set our son up for success, he still had to earn it himself. My husband and I had our own athletic careers. It is our son’s turn now. It is important for children to have ownership over their athletic goals and earn their own accolades. Do I love that my son placed in all of his events at the championship? Of course I do. But what matters to me more is that he accomplished his goals and earned those medals and ribbons himself. Tip: Help your children earn their own victories.

In the coming year, our swimmer should be off his crutches and able to gradually return to his favorite sports. We hope he is well-positioned for a comeback. In the meantime, his younger brothers keep us busy with soccer, hockey, basketball, baseball, and lacrosse. On a daily basis, I am reminded to follow my own advice. My son’s “play like a champion today” sign, which now hangs in our stairwell, Notre Dame-style, reminds me to try to parent like a champion each day. Tip: Parent like a champion today!

Lynn Pantuosco-Hensch is a Doctor of Physical Education and an assistant professor in the Movement Science department at Westfield State University, where she teaches motor development, exercise science, and other sport-related courses. She is the mother of four boys and lives with her family in Longmeadow.