SUNDAY, July 8, 2007 (HealthDay News) -- Sports can be essential to a child's development, and many parents rightfully encourage their kids to participate in baseball, basketball, soccer and other youth league activities.
But it can be hard to walk that fine line between sweet support and sour self-involvement, especially when your heart is breaking for the daughter who just missed a pop-fly or the son who lost a game to a bad call from a referee.
Still, parents must rise above their emotions -- and their vicarious expectations -- if their children are going to get the biggest benefit from playing sports, experts say.
Unhealthy parental attitudes can have a devastating impact on what should be an enjoyable and educational experience, they add.
"Parents can be more tense than the kids, because they aren't able to control anything on the field, and that's their child out there," said sports psychologist Daniel Gould, director of the Michigan State University Institute for the Study of Youth Sports. "The most important thing is to remember why you wanted them to participate."
A recent study by Gould and his colleagues found that coaches believe parents can play an important role in a child's athletic development, providing logistical, financial and emotional support.
But, the coaches felt as many as 36 percent of the parents they deal with have a negative influence on their child's development. They can overemphasize winning, criticize too frequently and harshly, and fail to control their emotions during a game.
With obesity rates skyrocketing, it's vital to try and develop a child's interest in physical activity, said Gould, who's also a professor of kinesiology.
"This day and age, their kids might not be automatically interested in sports," Gould said, noting that video games, television and computers exert a tremendous gravity.
To help spark that interest in sports, Gould recommends that parents start by playing with young children in a physical way -- dancing with them, wrestling, walking. Things as simple as putting up a basketball hoop or swinging at a whiffle ball in the backyard can help a child learn the delights of physical exertion.
"Parents who are active are more likely to have kids who are active," Gould said.
When the child reaches the age where he or she can participate in organized sports, encourage them to try different types of activity, he said. Let them find what they most like to do.
Once a child is involved in a sport, a parent should resist the urge to fill the job of their child's personal assistant coach, said John Heil, a sports psychologist with Psychological Health Roanoke in Roanoke, Va., and chairman of sports medicine and science for U.S. Fencing.
"It can become very confusing, and it can create some tension when a parent's advice differs from the coach," Heil said.
Parents -- even those with experience in the sport -- should realize that most coaches have specialized training and know the team better as a whole. "Sometimes parents may not know as much as they think they do," he said.
Parents can have a positive impact by encouraging sportsmanship, Gould said -- for example, voicing disapproval if the child throws a racket during a tennis match or makes a rude comment.
They also can praise their child's efforts and encourage respect for the other players.
Promoting a competitive spirit is also important but tricky. Too much emphasis on winning, and the child might end up taking away the wrong lessons from a sport or lose interest altogether, Heil said.
"I think the important thing is wanting to win and playing hard, and making that the goal," he said. "Winning is more fun than losing, so you want to try to win. You also want to have some other performance criteria, though."
For example, parents should help a child focus on what they did well in a game, whether he or she made good choices and used their training effectively.
"If you're a baseball player, did you get down on the ground ball?" Heil said. "If you're a soccer player, did you maintain your position on-field? I try to treat winning and losing the same by asking questions about the experience."
And, after the game, resist the urge to critique, Gould said.
"I've heard many kids say, 'The game wasn't so bad, but the hour-long lecture on the ride home was brutal,' " he said.
The best way to avoid that pitfall, Heil said, is to listen rather than lecture.
"I focus on open-ended questions. 'How do you feel things went today?' 'Did you enjoy it?' And let the child talk," Heil said. "I like to be quiet driving a vanload of kids home from a game and just listen to them. You can learn a lot from that."
Finally, because it can be hard to keep from immersing yourself in a sport played by your child, a parent should consider asking their spouse to act as their own personal watchdog, Gould said.
"Before each season, I ask my wife to watch me," he said. "If she sees me getting a little too into it, she warns me."
To learn more, visit the Citizenship Through Sports Alliance.