Fine Line Between Encouraging and Crazy with Young Children's Sports

6 years ago

I can’t sleep.  It is two in the morning and I am awake, replaying an earlier conversation with my daughter’s gymnastics coach and trying desperately to just “Let it Go” so that I can go to sleep.  It is not working.  I get up to write an email.  I start to write my thoughts on paper. 

Today, Rosie’s coach told me that Rosie just wasn’t bringing focus and determination to practice and she would have to be demoted to the lower team. 

She is six.  Kindergarten. Six.    The age of “My Little Ponies”, learning to read, and playing with her friends. 

“Really?”, I asked, completely dumb-founded.  “She has been so motivated to do her best and she got her back-walkover on Saturday?”

Young Gymnast via Flickr by todbaker

“She doesn’t have the drive and focus that we want to see.  I have to move other girls up and she will have to move down.  You have chosen a competitive sport and she is just not proving that she is up to the task.”, said the coach.

Before you click away thinking that I am some over-anxious mother pushing her child to do competitive sports---let me explain.

 I may be over-anxious in some aspects of parenting but, never in sports. 

I have one rule—my kids need to participate in some sport at all times.  I don’t expect them to be Olympians, awarded college scholarships, or even the local soccer team star.  I only want them to participate, have fun, and understand the benefits that sports and exercise bring to their body and mind.  If they have talent, great!  If not, having fun is the key.  As long as they are having fun, I feel that we are in the right place. 

Rosie is having fun.  She loves gymnastics. She loves competing in the meets, getting trophies, and is proud of her accomplishments.  We try to encourage that. 

Since last summer, she has been on a competitive gymnastics team at our YMCA.  Nothing fancy, just the local YMCA.    This was our foray into the world of competition.  A scary world filled with worried and over-anxious parents, poor communication, and purely subjective classifications.  I tried to stay away. 

While the other mothers would sit in the parent room during practice- motioning for their children to point their toes; chatting about harsh judges and increasing skill levels- I would retreat to the gym for my own workout.  I would watch part of practice but would take care to never be critical.  I would intentionally stay out of conversations about the program, the girls and their future.  This was all for fun and exercise. 

However, things began to change.  I noticed some kids getting more attention.  Some kids practicing harder skills while others stayed on the easy skills.  Some kids being promoted to the higher levels and others not.  Not to sound bitter, but one of those kids was mine. 

I thought, “Maybe she isn’t getting attention because I am not sitting here making sure that she gets attention?”  I began to stay for the practices.

Always the encouraging mom, I started to send her to private lessons once a week.  It is what Rosie wanted.  She wanted to stay with her friends.  She wanted the challenge. 

Things got better.  The coaches noticed her focus.  Her scores improved immensely. 

Until yesterday. 

Normally, I would just “Let it Go”.  Realize that Rosie doesn’t even pay attention to the details of the team dynamics--she is just happy to play with her friends, jump around on the equipment, and compete for trophies.

Yesterday, I realized something has changed.  I have become one of “those” moms.  I find myself trying to add hours of private lessons, looking into hiring a private coach for Rosie, and making her practice at home.  It makes me feel kind of sick. 

I think, “Maybe we should just quit gymnastics?”  It has pulled out anger in me and I don’t like it.  Rosie, however, still loves it.  She is getting strong, having fun, and learning.  Isn’t that all I ask for?   

I find myself wondering, is this how it happens?  Is this how moms cross the fine line from encouraging sports mom to hyper-competitive sports bullies?

Gymnastics is hard.  It is so subjective.  Scores are based on how well routines are performed but little things register in the sub-conscious of the judges—how big the child smiles, the color of their leotard, the type of coffee they had that morning—which can affect the scores.  It is only natural.  We are humans-we make first impressions.  We get moody. 

Even more problems arise when these same subjective measurements get made by coaches.  The kids that can get the coaches eye improve faster, are given more challenging opportunities, and tend to stay in the limelight.  Those that don’t get the coaches attention—don’t progress as quickly—even if they are perfectly capable. We all want everyone to love our kids the way we do and when they don’t it hurts.  I think it hurts us parents  more than the kids.

My good friend recently wrote to me about her experience with competitive gymnastics.  She was nationally ranked throughout high school, was the star of our high school gymnastics team, and an amazing athlete.  She said that she was on a diet at age 8, at Weight Watchers at age 14, forced to do homework in the car, and to push through injuries.  Her experience with the whole thing has made her shy away from the world of gymnastics for her own children. 

Another mom encouraged her eight year old daughter to quit because she wasn’t pulling in the scores that would bring her college scholarships. 

Talk about pressure.

So, what is a parent to do? 

Based on advice from my old friend there are a few things we can do to help make the experience easier on our children and our whole families. 

1) ADVOCATE for your child:  If you don’t like something, you need to step up and say something.  No one else is going to go to bat for your child.  You must!  This goes for school too.  Don’t be afraid to tell the coaches/teachers what you want to see and need to see.  You may piss them off.  Don’t worry about that.  You are standing up for your child.  It is one of your most important jobs as a parent. 

2) BALANCE:  Sometimes a practice/meet schedule can be too demanding for a little one.  If they occasionally want to blow off a meet for a birthday party—let them.  If they want to do it all the time, you may need to re-think your sport.  Don’t cancel family vacations because the gym wants the kids to practice.  Be sure to plan for down time, homework time and family time.  Life is not all about gymnastics.   

3) COSTs:  Gymnastics is expensive.  Leotards, practice, private lessons, meet fees, travel costs, camps, fundraisers—the costs keep adding up.  When your child starts at a young age—these costs can grow quickly and pretty soon you have invested thousands of dollars in the sport.  Let that go.  Don’t think about the money that you have spent when your child wants to quit.  If they really want to try something new, let them. 

4) DOCTORs:  Listen to them.  Don’t let coaches tell your child they can work through an injury.  This can lead to further injury and aches and pains down the road.  You don’t want to do that to your baby.

5) ENJOY:  Gymnastics happens quick.  Most kids peak at age 15 or 16.  It is not a sport that can be done forever.  Let your child enjoy the skills they develop and enjoy their accomplishments.  You want them to look back at the sport with fondness rather than regret. 

I hope this advice makes you remember to focus on the experience and the fun.  I have to read through it again and again anytime I feel myself forgetting the real reason we are letting Rosie do gymnastics.    


Karla writes the blog Forty which documents her families adventures through food, travel and other fun stuff.  She is always working on some new project and loves to encourage healthy lifestyles for kids and adults alike.

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