By Gwen Baker

Joining A Sports League:Five questions every parent should ask

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A growing number of parents are doing their homework these days when it comes to choosing sports programs for their children – and with good reason. The word is out that making the wrong choice can be the difference between a memorable, fun-filled season for a child and one that deflates their confidence and smothers their self-esteem. So, before you plunk down cash for that colorful uniform and put your summer vacation plans on hold for those can’t-be-missed playoff games, experts warn that it has become increasingly important that parents take the time to inspect the program as carefully as they would a daycare center before signing their child up to play. “Parents need to know that it’s their right to ask questions about the philosophy of the coach and the philosophy of the league,” says Dr. Joel Fish, author of 101 Ways To Be A Terrific Sports Parent and director of the Center for Sports Psychology in Philadelphia. “The trend is that parents are asking how competitive the league is, how participation decisions are made, and what is the level of skill development that is emphasized. Then they match their child to the league that fits their values.” Children who are pushed into programs that are too competitive, or forced to play for coaches more concerned with won-loss records than skill development, can suffer serious long-term consequences. The damage can affect more than their emotional well-being; it can hamper their physical health, too. “It can have a rather dramatic effect on a child, and not just how they perceive themselves,” says Dr. Paul Meller, an associate professor of psychology at Hofstra University, who also has a practice in Commack, N.Y. “It can also create situations where the child might not want to participate in other activities and will try to avoid physical activity, and that has real health consequences.” So before you pile your child into the minivan and head to your local field this spring and summer, the following are five questions that every parent should have answered before the first practice gets under way, to help ensure a fun-filled season:

1) Are mandatory background checks performed on coaches? The grim reality is that child predators move to the locations with the easiest targets, and sadly that often turns out to be a youth sports program. Many programs continue to blindly greet, with open arms, anyone who expresses an interest in coaching. That means that they don’t require filling out an application, going through an interview, or handing over references. Any program that doesn’t have a background check system in place is courting disaster, and is one that parents should steer clear of. 2) Does a league policy exist that mandates equal playing time for every child, regardless of skill level? The dreaded bench is pretty uncomfortable – especially to a child’s psyche. If a youngster is stuck on the bench, they’re not going to be learning or having any fun. “Leagues vary tremendously and the types of teams vary tremendously,” Dr. Meller says. “So parents need to ask about playing time, and once they are involved, they need to be aware if the league is pretty consistent with follow-through on policy.” 3) Will all the children get to play different positions? Coaches sometimes fall into the trap of stereotyping kids, often without even realizing it. An overweight child is thought of as a catcher while the team’s most athletically gifted player winds up fielding grounders at shortstop, or is given the bulk of the pitching responsibilities. To fully experience the sport, children need the opportunity to play a variety of positions. Forcing them into one position at an early age infringes on their growth, cuts down on their learning, and oftentimes spoils their entire experience. “Some coaches have built a reputation for winning and less for developing skills,” Dr. Meller says. “If you know other parents who have older children who have gone through the league, checking out the coaches beforehand makes an awful lot of sense.”

4) Are the coaches certified through a national program? Parents would never allow their child to attend a school that has untrained teachers. So it shouldn’t be any different when it comes to enrolling children in sports programs with untrained coaches, where the emotional and physical consequences can be equally severe. Furthermore, it is important to touch base with the coach before the kids take the field. “Once a child is assigned to a coach it’s important for parents to contact that coach before the first practice and find out what they’re all about,” Dr. Meller says. “The parent might very well learn that the league or team is not a good fit.”

5) How much emphasis is placed on winning? There’s no denying that winning is important; that everyone likes to win; and that youngsters should be encouraged to strive to win whenever they step on the field, court or rink. But when winning emerges as the only goal, and it overshadows the essence of doing your best, exhibiting good sportsmanship and playing within the rules, that’s when the seeds of trouble have been planted. A win-at-all-cost philosophy can quickly drain the fun out of a child’s season and stifle their interest in the sport. “If you have a negative experience with a coach relating to overly emphasizing winning and not developing sportsmanship, teamwork and physical activity, parents should report these coaches to the league director,” Dr. Meller urges.

Finally, ask the coach what you can do to help out this season. Remember, the volunteer coach of your child’s team is sacrificing their time and energy to coach. It’s an enormous responsibility, and if parents can alleviate some of the workload by arranging carpools, setting up post-game treats or assisting with team fundraisers, then the chances for a smooth-running season will be greatly enhanced for everyone involved.