Watch some youth sports. Enjoy the fresh air, the sounds of parents yelling at referees and the sight of children sullenly walking back to the family car. Participation in sports should be a wonderful part of growing up, a means for self-discovery, confidence-building and friend-making. All the clichés about what we take away from sport have become clichés for good reason, but we need to remember that those lessons and that joy don’t inherently become part of a child’s experience. We need to reflect on how kids develop and what they need, and then act to foster those good processes.

Soccer player Christie Pearce Rampone and neuropsychologist Kristine Keane noticed some issues in youth sports that they could address. Partnering up made sense. Pearce Rampone comes from the player/coach side; she’s won two World Cups and three Olympic gold medals. Keane has been working with athletes for 20 years. The two connected through hospital work, professional soccer team Sky Blue and through youth soccer, where Pearce Rampone coaches Keane’s daughter. Drawing on personal experience and extensive research, the two wrote Be All In: Raising Kids for Success in Sports and Life to help families have healthier participation in youth sports.

In a recent interview, Pearce Rampone explained that the pair wrote the book over a couple years, drawing from the combination of being sports parents and speaking about concussions and the “anxiety- and pressure-ridden environment we’re putting our kids in.”

The resulting book fills a nice gap in the literature, fitting in with the current trend of giving sports back to the kids, but not by opting out of competition. Somewhere between participation trophies and screaming coaches lies a path – actually, a multitude of paths – to help young athletes enjoy their activities alongside healthy emotional, physical and mental development. The authors of Be All In recognize that parents, in thinking through child development and their own particular kids, can find ways to compete and draw valuable lessons while developing an identity outside of sports.

Youth sports have changed over the last few decades. Pearce Rampone noted that there “was a lot of free play” and that you could play multiple sports without being judged (she, surprisingly, went to college on a basketball, not soccer, scholarship).

“We’re transitioning into an academy-based, business style of sports, where people want to play for an elite team, which comes with a lot of costs, and a lot of emotion from the parents,” she said. “They feel like they’re part of the business piece of having the kids grow to that success.”

Keane pointed out the that we’re seeing increases on the business side of youth sports (the term “youth-sports industrial complex” has been around for some time now, but it still sounds strange).

“We’ve seen this uptick in training facilities,” she said. “They’re businesses that need to have customers year-round, so you see also see the uptick of parents doing additional training. There are trainers for kids year-round.”

Social media only heightens the problem driving unnecessary comparison as well as fears of missing out.

“Parents [are] wondering if they’re doing enough,” Keane continued. “This is a new culture of helicopter parenting and lawnmower parenting. We’re very involved in our kids’ lives in a way we weren’t previously. Because of that, because of the involvement, we have really structured our kids’ lives – from playdates to training and practices – and it’s a loss of free play. That’s what Christie and I uncovered through our research – that’s the trend.”

With a culture in place in which parents began planning their kids’ Division I scholarships as soon as they can kick a ball and sometimes spend more money on elite sports than a scholarship is worth, it makes sense to step back and try to understand what we’re doing for (or to) our kids. For many of us, sport offers tremendous benefits, but those perks don’t necessarily come with the uniform, we have to sort it out. Be All In looks at how parents can think through the best approaches for their kids and find and develop communities that support that.

Speaking of social media, Pearce Rampone points out that families shouldn’t compare their athletes to anyone else.

“Everybody’s process is very different,” she said. “Everybody’s team and coaches’ end goals could be different. Make sure [the approach] pairs up with … what’s best for your goals and interests. Your child will sense … if they’re not good enough for your ego.”

Pearce Rampone and Keane help families understand the importance of defining both the player’s goal and the family’s goal. Communicating these ideas clearly and finding the right team fit become important aspects of a good experience in youth sports.

“One team’s values might be centered around having fun, skills development, equal playing time. Another team might be focused on competition, winning the championship,” Keane said. “All of those things are fine and you may not need to seek a balance, but are we all on the same page?”

With individual plans in mind, parents can follow their kid’s lead as they grow through training for fun, to learn, to compete and, only last, to win. Parents have to know how to follow that lead, though, and some of the book’s best work involves recognizing and following your child’s nonverbal communication (which can be as much as 93% of all communication).

“The athlete will dictate to you by their body language, by how much commitment they show, how they are during game setting, outside the huddle, inside the huddle,” Pearce Rampone said. “Are they talking about the game? Are they excited about the next practice?”

Parents can respond to this communication both year-to-year and day-to-day. The authors dedicate an entire chapter to the car ride home. After a game, win or lose, kids can remain worked up, in fight-or-flight mode. Some athletes will want to immediately talk, but many will want time to settle, to “heal from the field” and to process first. Parents – often more worked up than their children, – should learn to read their kids and give the necessary space, sometimes 24 hours, before diving into the game.

With athletes, parents and teams all on the same page, we can develop the healthy environment necessary for the benefits of sport to come to the fore. Kids can learn confidence and self-efficacy (“your belief in your ability to affect situations, achieve goals and overcome challenges”), they can learn teamwork and communication skills, they can learn about failure. In short, they can flourish.

“Make it clear to your children that we see everything as a learning opportunity and that the outcome that matters is personal growth, not a scoreboard,” the authors write.

Having this sort of intentionality doesn’t come easily, but the book builds off its key ideas to find many ways that parents can partner more effectively with young athletes.

“Dr. Keane and I put so many guidelines and suggestions, but there is no one-size-fits-all method,” Pearce Rampone said, hoping that parents can “put one or two things into action to make that experience better for their child and the parent. The ultimate goal is to start feeling comfortable in those uncomfortable moments, those times when you see your child not succeed or make a mistake, and knowing that’s okay, because one moment will not define your child.”

In fact, children are not defined just by sports, and there’s a danger for kids who begin to develop an identity based on sports.

“What you learn from sports is truly amazing, from the dealing with adversity to communication,” said Pearce Rampone. “Yes, it’s awesome to be here and be all in. But also have a social life off of the field!”

The ideas that Pearce Rampone and Keane talk about both in the book and in conversation don’t just apply to children. The pair’s commitment to continually learning and growing becomes apparent when they discuss the subject of NWSL pro soccer players recently deciding to play in England.

“I think it’s a good thing, because they’re expanding their knowledge by going overseas and learning,” Pearce Rampone said. “I credit them for going outside their comfort zones.”

She praises the work the NWSL has done both in developing a very competitive league and in successfully running this summer’s Challenge Cup, but – as should be no surprise – she sees movement and discomfort as opportunity.

That sense of discovery can guide athletes and parents of athletes, as long as we stay open to learning and maintain good communication.

Keane pointed out that “our brain isn’t fully developed until [age] 26.” As kids develop in different ways, they’ll have different needs and acquire different knowledge and skills. She reflected how her daughter’s first experience with soccer didn’t work out.

“She’d call a timeout every five minutes for a water break and disrupt the game,” she laughed.

But that was an indicator not to be counted out, but to take a time out.

“A lot of parents will put their five-year-old in a program,” she says, but when it doesn’t work out, “they think, ‘Oh forget it. This one isn’t going to be sporty.’”

But parents who ignore their children’s communication (both verbal and nonverbal) or try to create the experiences they themselves want, are likely to miss out on the chance for kids and families to grow together. In constant comparison and fear of missing out, they’ll turn a rewarding experience into a frustrating one.

Instead, the authors of Be All In have a different culture in mind. “The be all in approach is about being fully present in everything you do, on and off the field, in all spheres of your life.”

That approach can spread outward. Both Pearce Rampone and Keane understand the importance of their work, not only for the good of individual families, but also for the good of the youth sports culture.

“If we can really look at it from a cultural standpoint, from our community,” Keane said, “start with our team, we can make a bigger impact on all of it.”

With new tools and ideas – along with a solid commitment to communication – Pearce Rampone and Keane find an approach that should benefit players, families and communities as a whole.

“The best part of writing this book,” said Pearce Rampone, “is telling parents you can have a balance of competing, but understanding what sports can give back.”

  • Low Cut Connie: Private Lives

    Weiner’s comfort standing on instruments and running through crowds once overshadowed the …
  • Reverend John Wilkins: Trouble

    Released in a challenging context, Wilkins’ final album feels eminently valuable right now…
  • METZ: Atlas Vending

    The trio flexes a little, offering more complicated song structures and a palette that var…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Check Also

Low Cut Connie: Private Lives

Weiner’s comfort standing on instruments and running through crowds once overshadowed the …