A Letter To Parents of Youth Athletes
By Robin McKeever – National Para-Nordic Ski Coach
As a coach at the National level, as an Olympian and as a parent of a young elite athlete, I know what you’re going through. There are so many challenges our young athletes face in sports today, from the expensive cost to compete at a high-level to burnout at a young age.
Having grown up and been heavily involved in sport my entire life I have some suggestions for how to help your youth athlete succeed in these areas. But first, a little about myself, so you can understand where I am coming from.
Sport came into my life very early on. My father was a Phys Ed teacher back in the 60’s through to the 90’s when physical education played an important part in schools and in youth development. I do think it is a major part of what is missing in our education system today. We worry about health and fitness as adults, but if it’s not taught and or ingrained at an early age, what chance do they have? But I digress.
My Dad was a Phys Ed teacher and liked the sport of cross-country, because he wanted to get his kids into sport for life. He allowed us to try many sports, which I am grateful for, but mostly we did a lot of cross-country.
I went to World Junior Championships at the age of 16 with the Canadian program and was on the National Team from 16 until I was 30 years old. In 2002 my career was coming to an end, so with a child on the way, by fluke, I tried coaching and loved it. After my son Xavier was born, he eventually followed in my wife and my footsteps and he is now on the path to one day being on the National Cross Country ski team.
Now that you know a little more about my life in sport, let me attempt to give suggestions to a few challenges you may face raising your young athletes. For starters let’s talk about kids getting burnt out from sport. Here’s my number one piece of advice for parents of youth athletes:
Let them choose.
Let your kids choose what they want to do. Give them an option, your child needs to pick the sport they love it, not you. They have to be clear on their reasons why they do it, and if they don’t love it, that’s when you’ll see kids burning out.
I made that mistake with my son, I pushed him into one sport (alpine) because I wanted him to choose one winter sport, not three, but he wanted the other one (cross-country). If your child loves the sport they’re doing, let them do it.
The second issue comes down to the high cost of sports. When I was growing up, my father eventually made me choose between cross country, and alpine because it was too expensive to keep doing both sports. So I chose cross-country.
When it comes to your kids and cost, here’s what I recommend. Let your kids dabble in numerous sports that’s fine. You can help them focus and choose one sport, just make sure it’s their choice (see above) and not your choice what they end up participating in. But don’t expect your child to get to an elite level if they are constantly switching sports. They must give them a fair shake.
In Canada, we have these sports that are trying to keep kids involved at a young age for a long time, so they can make them elite quickly. Hockey and soccer are the two I am most familiar with because my son did both. At some point, every sport is competing for the best athletes at a young age, no matter what the sport is that they do. Make sure it’s a fit for your youth athlete and don’t be afraid to try other sports outside of the mainstream ones.
In the end, support your kids without being overbearing. Have the conversations and be open with them. Let them call you out if you’re pushing too much. I do that with my son. I tell him to let me know if it’s too much, or if I am saying too much.
Have a safe word where you know they want you to walk away (in competition) because especially in high performance sport, it can get intense and parents can get intense. It needs to be about the children, not the parents. Fortunately, my son hasn’t had to say mercy to me yet when it comes to sport. When it comes to chores, electronics or homework? Absolutely. But not (yet) in sport.
Oh and lastly, if you are a parent who is new to a sport, the best way to support your coaches (often volunteers) is by getting them a coffee. Thank them for what they do. It shows the coach you appreciate them and are supporting what they’re doing. It makes a difference.
From one parent to another,