HOWTO be a good sports-parent

Mike Dunford, a swim meet deck official, has some great advice for parents:
A personal best is always a major victory:
It doesn't matter if they finish first, third, ninth, thirty-eigth, or dead last. If they swam the event faster than they've ever swum the event before, it's a victory. This is still true if they've never swum it before.

Cheer for your children:
Do not yell at them. Do not tell them that they're swimming poorly. Never, ever, ever ask them what the hell they thought they were doing, particularly in the first ten seconds after they get out of the water. You're paying good money to put them on a swim team that has actual coaches who can handle all of the criticism (and who know more about how to swim and how to coach than you do). You're there to encourage them, not discourage them.

Cheer for other people's children:
If you've got a pair of lungs that can rupture eardrums at fifty feet, why is it that I only hear you during a few heats? Your kid is on a team. Support the team. If you don't know anyone who is swimming in a heat, cheer for everyone. It's a hard sport, and a little support makes everyone feel better.

Be a role-model for sportsmanship:
And when I say that, I'm talking about the good kind of role-model. Most swim meets are like most cereal box contests: many will enter, few will win. Your kids are going to get a lot of practice at not winning events. Teach them to show as much grace and class when they don't win that they do when they win.

There's more, click through.

An Open Letter For the Parents of Swimmers


  1. Reading that gave me flashbacks and a desperate need to go punch a loud-mouthed parent. I don’t doubt that my experiences as an instructor and coach to 3-10 yr olds as a teen and in my early twenties is what put me off having kids of my own if only for fear of becoming one of those jerks. Instead I have gone on to become a different type of jerk.

    Sadly, I can’t see efforts like this advice actually reaching the ones who are the problem.

  2. Bravo, bravo, bravo —

    I’ve been a sports parent (swimming, baseball, soccer, and football) for years, and my god, I wish that this could be required reading for anyone whose kid is on a sports team. It almost makes me cry to see how supposedly intelligent adults can completely screw up a good thing.

    Unfortunately, as the Lizardman in #2 mentions, the ones who most need to read it are the ones who either won’t read it, or will assume it doesn’t apply to them.

    Kids’ sports isn’t about reliving your childhood through your kid, and it sure as hell isn’t about raising a professional athlete. It’s about having fun and learning to play the game, and be a part of a team.

  3. Noah, good sports kids start with good sports parents. And good coaches.

    My son’s sport is bowling. He’s in college now, but still bowls on the youth leagues. The younger kids look up to him because he’s always ready to help them out. We can’t take all the credit: He had some fantastic coaches when he was younger. Plus, there were older kids in the leagues who were happy to help out the younger ones.

    But it all certainly starts with the parents, because we spend the most time with our children – or at least we should be.

  4. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

    I used to swim on international level and you have no idea how true this list is and how many parent don’t get it. I’ve seen teen-stars being reduce to pitiful lumps because their parents told them they could do better straight after they came out of the pool. Not only it is unhelpful for the swimmer and very painfull (if you’ve just spent 10-15 hours a week in the pool …), in the long run it doesn’t help the sport if the talents in their teens decide to quit.

    that said, I think parents should not allow their kids to quit easily. I’ve thought about quitting several times (16 hours in the water isn’t always a lot of fun and neither are injuries) but a slight push from my parents kept me from doing so. for which I’m very grateful in retrospect; Parents should be close to the coach, they should never be at odds with him/her. If you really don’t agree as a parent, switch teams, but in my opinion this is something that should come form the child and the coach, never from the parent.


  5. This is a subject near and dear to my heart. I deal with sports parents on a daily basis.

    A few I’ll add that go beyond swimming:

    1) Don’t cheer the other team’s mistakes. If there’s absolutely no way the situation could be viewed in a way where your team did something positive, don’t say anything.

    2) Do not, under any circumstances, complain about playing time. I know you think it’s different this time, that the coach is really going over the line, but it’s not. You are mad because you want your kid to play more at the expense of someone else’s kid, nothing more or less, and you are no different than the hundreds of thousands of parents just like you who annoy coaches (and sports journalists) all over the country each year.

    3) The refs know the rules better than you do. They just do. They also have a better angle to see the play than you do.

    4) Do not coach your kid from the stands. No “keep your elbow up” or “shoot!” or anything else. They have coaches, and it’s hard enough for kids to concentrate without trying to parse through who to listen to at any given moment.

    5) Related to No. 3, the coaches know more about strategy than you do.

    6) Beware of what we in the business call “paycheck teams.” When a summer coach tells you “Jimmy has real college potential, his school coach just didn’t see it and that’s why he couldn’t crack the starting lineup in middle school,” alarm bells should be going off. He’s about to tell you that he’s offering Jimmy a place on an elite traveling squad that will play in front of lots of college scouts, and the team-entry fee is only $500. If you want to pay $500 for a summer on a traveling team, do it, but Jimmy isn’t getting a scholarship. He’s not even going to play varsity in high school.

    7) When you call the local newspaper to lobby for more coverage, prepare an interesting angle that they’ll want to cover. I get these calls every day, and here are a list of arguments that won’t persuade me: “They work just as hard as XXX”. “Everyone is wondering why they don’t get covered more.” “The paper two towns down ALWAYS covers this sport, and they do it better.”

    And here’s an optional No. 8:

    Encourage your kid to pick up a sport he can play for life. He’s not going to play football past high school (and if he does, he’s looking forward to a lifetime of health problems). She’s not going to be playing fast-pitch softball when she’s 35. Tennis, golf, running, these are sports that can provide a lifetime of rewards.

  6. #8, I totally agree with rule 3. I used to umpire baseball and can’t understand how spectators 30 feet away and 10 feet up in the stands think they have a better view than the ump of whether the ball was in the strike zone or not.

    As for rule 8, someone might stop playing fast-pitch softball when they get older, but they may switch to slo-pitch softball.

  7. Posting anonymously for obvious reasons –

    My kid decided he wanted to be on a baseball team when he was younger. I’m not particularly into team sports, skiing and fencing were the only sports I was interested in when I was kid. Anyway, I figured he’d win a few games , lose a few games , deal with disappointment occasionally, learn some life lessons, bla bla bla.

    They never lost a game. Not because they were good, in fact they were awful. They just had bizarre luck. Other teams would make weird mistakes, or just not show up and forfeit. Umpires would make jaw droppingly bad calls in his team’s favor. Granted that the skill in the league made these games strikingly similar to donkey basketball, but you would expect that a gaussian distribution of screwups would lead to at least one loss.

    The funny thing was there were several other parents who felt the same way as I did. We were probably the only parents who were hoping that their team would lose at least one game.

    I don’t know, maybe it was the “we suck and we don’t care” attitude that won those games. Still it wasn’t what I was expecting in the character building department.

  8. Good coaching techniques. This apply to other sports not only to swimming. If you are a good motivator when it comes to encouraging your kid it will mean that you are a good parent. It really takes love and patience when you are encouraging kids. Motivation and encouragement are never an obligation but a symbol of love and affection to kids.

    – Jason

  9. @8 Inkstain

    I think those are fine pieces of advice for things at the level of say middle school intermural sports and above, but for a lot of youth leagues, you’re wrong about several things.

    The refs often don’t know the rules that well, and the coaches, generally being whatever parent they could rope into coaching often don’t know very much about strategy at all.

    And as for playing time, it kind of depends on what the complaint is. If the complaint is “my kid is awesome, he should get to play more than the other kids”, then, yeah, that’s a BS complaint. But if it’s elementary school basketball and the complaint is “my kid isn’t getting to play as much as the other kids” then that’s a pretty valid complaint.

    Me, I was one of those kids. I played in a youth basketball league from 3rd through 5th grades. My team won the league championship the years I was in 3rd and 4th grade. Those two years, I played the minimum required amount of time, half a quarter. The next year, they upped the minimum amount of time to a full quarter. In the three years I player I scored six points. They were all off of rebounds because no one ever passed me the ball in a game. I was miserable. The coach didn’t care. He cared about winning, and that was it.

    If you want to know why we have crazy parents in youth sports, you just have to look at where the emphasis is:
    1) winning
    2) identifying talented atheletes so that they can go on to be rich, famous, whatever

    We should have a system which promotes:
    1) having fun
    2) building a habit of being active and healthy
    3) help people learn to get along with each other

    These are sometimes the stated goals of youth sports, but they clearly are not the design goals of youth sports. The current system has the following properties:
    1) limited seasons – seasons are limited in all sports, even indoor ones so that there will be a clear time period after which a winner can be declared. This is fundamentally incompatible with making althetics a habit
    2) regular teams – we have to have teams or else we won’t know who won. But having standing teams result in fixed friendships being formed and inevitably leads to some kids being excluded. It leads to having popular players and unpopular players. If the teams were mixed up every week, this wouldn’t occur and the emphasis on winning could be replaced with an emphasis on being a good sport
    3) mandatory practices – mandatory practices are used because they increase the odds of winning. They are not, however, fun. Athletes, even young ones, should practice because they want to get better, not because someone is forcing them to if they want to play. In my soccer league, we practiced two hours per week and then, on average got to play for a half hour of game time. This was not fun and did not encourage me to think of soccer as fun. This undercut the whole idea of making it a habit.
    4) fixed positions – coaches would assign you a position based on arbitrary criteria and then you’d be stuck there forever. Oh, you’re a little chubby, you’re playing fullback and because you’ve only ever played fullback, we’ll keep you at fullback forever. This also makes the game less fun because you don’t get to learn new skills or try new things and it’s only done because the goal is to win as much as possible.

    All these things together made my youth sports experience miserable. I broke my arm the summer after fifth grade. I couldn’t swim that summer, and I didn’t play soccer that fall. By basketball time, I had my cast off, but I just didn’t want to play youth basketball any more. It had never been any fun. And when soccer and swimming season rolled around again, I didn’t start up again. It wasn’t until I was in high school that I started regularly playing sports for fun, and that was volleyball, something I’d never played when I was younger. I didn’t start playing basketball or soccer recreationally until college. That’s when I learned that I actually liked them, just not all the BS which went along with trying to play them as a youth.

    Anyway, my overall point is that if you want to change parent behavior, the first step is to change the system to emphasis different goals.

  10. Daughter was a champion swimmer. The parents in our highly competitive league were remarkably uncontaminated by a-holes.

    Life lesson: In other endeavors, socially, academically, artistically, whenever my daughter feels stupid, inept or like a lame-o, I just say Wren Malone. Makes her laugh.

    That was the girl she could never beat. There’s always someone better at something.

  11. AMEN! I’m so glad I found your page and this post.

    I too am a swim official. My kids swim on a highly competitive team where we have parents who have suddenly shown up on deck with coaching credentials, wearing team apparel and suddenly are coaches. Keep in mind this is all to coach their prodigy – yes she is top 10 in the country at 10 and under – screw everyone else. These sociopaths are the Tanya Harding of swimming by mentally and emotionally abusing anyone they deem competitive with their child. They are bullies and when you call the bullies on their actions they play the role of victim. I’m torn with our team right now – they refuse to do anything about these people (and yes the child is a problem too – overly competitive, can’t keep hands to self, ungracious winner – wonder where she learned it). The team right now appears to be win at all costs.

    So after 3 years and 8 girls between the ages of 8 & 10 in tears at the hands of these psychopaths, I had enough. The first weekend Dad showed up in full regalia with his coaches card, he was over the top harassing swimmers, not just from his branch but from other branches and from other teams. Mom lurks in the background with grandma (all on deck) badmouthing kids and telling the prodigy to “go kick %$#’s ass” or dressing down the swimmer in the locker room or parking lot if she doesn’t always get a personal best. Dad also acted immaturely pushing the prodigy into the only warm up lane where other swimmers were minding their own business. They put the team at risk. So while on a break from officiating, sitting to the side, I used my blackberry and taped him in action behaving poorly. Later that week I posted the videos to Youtube with what I really think of them – the video is grainy, no one is mentioned by name and the team is not mentioned. Additionally, at the urging of the head regional official, I filed a complaint with the state swimming association citing each and every behavior over the line at this meet. This sent psycho parents over the top. As I explained to our head coaching board, they left me no choice. They repeatedly refused to handle the situation so I would. The dad/”coach” blew up, turned the tables and is now playing the victim. The team, who was directly asked and informed of my intentions of filing the complaint, did nothing at first and has now asked me to not officiate until after long course JOs, psycho parents have demanded I stay off the deck while they can be there. They have spent hours wasting the head coaches time “tattling” on me and trying to get me removed from the venue. WITHOUT THEIR CONTINUOUS BAD BEHAVIOR WE ARE NOT IN THIS POSITION.

    These people are a cancer on the team, yet keep playing the role of victim. These offenders, mind you professionally are an elementary school principal and a fire/rescue worker, have other parents afraid to speak out against them. I have spoken up after seeing children including my own and several others abused by these goobs and true to form they are aiming for retribution at every turn. No wonder people are scared. These 2 people have no conscious. They are morally and ethically bankrupt. I feel for the kids at this woman’s inner city school and the poor people in compromising positions fire/emt God are “helping”. I can hold my head high knowing I did what was right, not easy but what was right. You do not mess with kids, or anyone else who can not fully defend themselves. My behavior on deck is fair and objective and has never been questioned, they can not have the same about them. It is just gross.

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