Overzealous sports dads get a lot of bad press for shouting inappropriate things at young athletes. This is both as it should be — being a dick to children is never okay — and slightly unfair. It’s hard, after all, to come up with the right bit of encouragement for a kid. It’s hard to come up with cheers that don’t put down the opposing team or too much pressure on nervous participants. Conveying support without making that message about winning is difficult enough that many parents who intend to be helpful fail. That’s why it’s best to go into a sports situation with a plan and why 20-year veteran youth baseball coach Mike Ferreri suggests avoiding very specific (and common) baseball phrases.
“I have heard it all,” Ferreri laughs. “Many days I have cringed at some of the things that have come out of other coaches and parents mouths.”
These harsh cliches don’t help kids hit more home runs, have more fun, or learn anything. They undermine self-esteem, teamwork, and personal growth. They make games less fun. On top of that, they self-perpetuate. One parent uses a phrase. Another shouts it back. Things deteriorate from there. In order to avoid that unfortunate result, here are the cheers that no Little League parents should ever use.
“As it turns out that is what every single little league pitcher to ever take the Pitcher’s mound is trying to do,” Ferreri says. “I have never seen one try to throw a ball on purpose.” Restating what a kid did not do right is only going to create more anxiety for most kids. Yes, some children can handle pressure. That doesn’t mean they need to or that it’s beneficial. If they succeed, they deserve the credit. People pouring on more pressure do not.
“Why did you do that?”
Questions such as, “What were you thinking?” fall in the pressure category as well. Much like most professional athletes, young competitors do not commit errors on purpose. As Jack Perconte, a former professional baseball player, longtime coach, and author of the books Raising an Athlete and Creating a Season to Remember points out, asking why kids made a mistake after the game not only implies that the kid didn’t try but undermines the authority of their coach. It also makes a kid relive a mistake in front of someone they view as a source of support, which is cruel.
“How tall is your father?”
While this may seem like a relatively innocuous question to some coaches, the subtext is problematic. According to child psychiatrist Carole Lieberman, questions about development and genetics are often understood as statements of physical inadequacy.
“This is devastating to a child’s self-esteem,” says Lieberman. “I know at least one child, who loved baseball, never play the sport again.”
It’s also not super relevant. Coaches are supposed to teach the kids they have. That’s it. There’s only the athlete in front of you.
“Don’t be afraid!”
Fear is a healthy expression of self-awareness in sports that coaches should absolutely not discourage. Why? Because it’s often totally logical (no one wants to get hit by a pitch) and always understandable. Pretending otherwise is akin to asking a kid to sacrifice their body, which is an awful idea. The best way to become a great athlete is this: Don’t get hurt.
“If you are 8 years old and a 10-year-old who is 6 inches taller than you is throwing a 5-ounce leather ball towards you, you are going to be afraid,” he says. “The best thing to do is to teach all players how to safely get out of the way of a wayward pitched ball.”
“You have to work harder than everybody else!”
Nope. You don’t. The problem with telling children this is that it misses the point of youth sports altogether. Athletics are an opportunity for kids to be socially and physically active while learning what they may or may not be good at. If they figure out that they have a special talent for baseball and are motivated to work harder as a result, that can be great for some. But for children with average or even below average athletic abilities, they don’t have to do anything except have fun and try not to get hit by a line drive. If they want to take it further, they will.
“There’s no crying in baseball!”
This may seem like a harmless movie quote, but, to a kid who may not understand all of their coaches Tom Hanks references, it’s pretty invalidating and inaccurate. Anyone who’s sat through more than one game knows that there is crying in baseball, and basketball, and soccer, and probably bowling if you drop a ball. Sports aren’t just emotionally intense, there a place where you can get physically hurt very easily. The possibilities are endless.
“When a 7-year-old gets hit with a ball he or she will cry, and it’s okay to cry when you are 7 and hurt, period,” Ferreri says.
“You’re playing like a bunch of girls!”
Perconte ranks this as one of the absolute worst sayings for a number of reasons. Not only does this loaded phrase hurt players self-esteem, it adds to all the baggage about gender norms they may be already carrying around. The reality is, there are plenty of gifted young athletes who happen to be girls. Using this phrase to criticize young boys is only going to make it feel worse when they get beat by these girls in gym class.
“Didn’t anyone ever throw a ball to you?”
“Who taught you how to catch like that?” is another iteration of this that coaches should never let out of their mouths, Lieberman says. Similar to asking about their father’s stature, this question assumes that children have a stable male caretaker in their lives, which some kids do not have. Still, this question is harmful for young athletes with present fathers as well, because they have to defend their parents by shutting out feedback completely.
“The coach is putting his dad down,” explains Lieberman, “which makes the child feel like they’re betraying their dad if they now listens to the coach.”
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