ESPNW: Let Your Kid Take The Lead

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Sports parents, let your kid take the lead this year

By Dan Shanoff | Jan 4, 2017
Special to
Last year’s sports-parenting resolution was a happy one: Have more fun.

This year, I want to take it a step further: Back off.

A year ago, I was following my kid’s lead. He was having fun playing basketball and — make no mistake — I was having fun that he was having fun playing basketball.

I shuttled him to countless practices, games and optional workouts; rooted from the bleachers emphatically (but always positively!); and watched him get better as a player. Then, this past summer, he fell out of love with playing the sport. It was clearly no longer nearly as much fun to him.


I wish I could attribute it to something noxious (but at least understandable), like burnout. But he still loves to follow the NBA. This fall, he started a friendly NBA fantasy league with his 5th-grade buddies. He spent all Christmas Day watching games raptly on TV.

He just … I don’t know. I’m still struggling to figure it out. I decided to ask him directly, but as a 2016-minted tween, he couldn’t articulate anything, and I didn’t want to push it.

Here’s a pop theory: Over the summer, he got an up-close look at some of the really good players in his age group, and I think it deflated him. As parents, we know our kids aren’t likely going to make the pros, or even college, or maybe not even the local high school varsity. But it dawns on me the riptide of that epiphany could be overwhelming for a 10-year-old. And, of course, as always, maybe I am just projecting — maybe it’s just overwhelming for a 40-something parent to see his kid have that experience.

Emphasizing to him that it wasn’t about competing against (or for) the travel-team powerhouse around the Beltway, I tried to explain that it was about just working hard and trying to be the best he could be. Earlier this fall, the following statement actually came out of my mouth: “If you want to be an NBA GM, you still have to learn how to play the game.”

I’ll be honest: That was a low point of 2016 for me, for a lot of reasons — his sudden disinterest in a shared parent-kid enthusiasm, mixed with the experience I still thought was so valuable for him to have, mixed with the brief appearance of the same kind of whoa-man-you’ve-lost-the-plot exchange I shake my head at when I see it from other parents.

My redemption was the way I have handled it since — and it will be a guiding principle for me in 2017:

Just back off.

As I have written about before, youth sports are about the kid’s experience, not the parent’s. And as the kids get older, they figure out what excites them. Thankfully, my son hasn’t lacked for new, self-directed inputs, some related to sports — like an enthusiasm for running track — and some not, like consuming weird Science Channel TV shows and

He doesn’t need me to direct his sports experience — he needs me to back his play, in whatever form that might take.

So he didn’t want to try out for the regional hoops super-team. Or, the past few months, he hasn’t wanted to grab a ball and shoot hoops on our driveway basket with me. (Yeah, that one stings a little.) He still wants to flip on League Pass and asks to watch together. Based on this past year, if that’s the basketball experience he wants to have, I’ll take it.

Maybe he’ll recapture that enthusiasm to play someday; maybe he won’t. I’m good either way, because in 2017, I resolve to back off.

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