CHEERING YOUR KIDS ON. The real home team: sports can nurture good family relationships

TO the parents of 20 million children who play sports in America, Pat McInally says: Get informed, get involved, be interested. ``The underinvolved parent is the biggest problem in youth sports. Participation is increasing every year. We're losing traditional families, and parents are demanding more out of the system - yet their involvement is less.''

Mr. McInally, a Harvard graduate and former All-Pro football player for the Cincinnati Bengals, is the author of ``Moms&Dads Kids&Sports'' (review at right) and also writes a syndicated newspaper column on kids and sports called ``Pat Answers for Kids.''

``Parents should take advantage of the opportunity to spend `quality' time with their kids,'' McInally says. They can use it as an avenue for ``sharing and spending time together, talking about issues that matter, listening. [Sports] is one of the best vehicles to establish a relationship for a lifetime.''

Indeed, any parent whose child plays sports will tell you relationship skills get a workout on many levels. Whether it's with teammates, competition, or coaches, kids learn to work with others. Coping with success and failure alone is a lifelong lesson. Thus, parental involvement is key.

In McInally's eyes, a big problem in youth sports today is the extreme emphasis on winning. We've all heard the phrase ``It's not whether you win or lose, it's how you play the game,'' but some lose track of its importance.

``People are so intent on performance and winning that competing and trying your best isn't good enough anymore. There's not the joy that used to be. ... Many are drawn to the college scholarship and professional contract.

``What's changed sports in society is the money. It's become so competitive at young ages, so specialized,'' he says, commenting on a trend he's seeing in the '80s.

Parents need to support the youngsters, give them that opportunity, and allow the athlete to develop physically and mentally. Among other things, this means being at competitions, helping your child practice on his or her own, and keeping your cool.

One thing that has got to stop in youth sports is poor conduct in the stands, McInally states firmly.

``Parents are there because they love their kids. Parenting is emotional, and sports is emotional, yet I've seen parents cheer when a star kid gets injured on the other team. There's no place for that in sports.''

You should be there to support all of them. ``There needs to be more community sharing - values are very important ... giving for the good of all the children.''

In his book, McInally writes: ``Comments such as `He always chokes when there's extra pressure,' `He can't dribble, so why do they give him the ball,' and `He should be on the bench' are all unnecessary, harmful, and simply shouldn't be part of youth sports.''

If your child has a dream of greatness, you need to be there to support and protect him. ``The last thing they need is another doubter.'' If they want to reach high, you have to help them, he stresses.

McInally is a strong believer in what he calls the ``liberal arts thought'' in youth sports. Although some coaches feel that specialization in one sport is critical for success on the highest levels of competition, McInally contends that young athletes should be exposed to as many sports as possible. The different physical and mental skills promote coordination and a solid foundation of athleticism. Later, they can make their own decisions about specializing.

``Don't allow them to fall prey to pushy, self-serving coaches or to a system that will try to pigeonhole them at too early an age,'' he writes.

And if little Susie doesn't want to play `team sports,' that's fine. For some kids, sports such as as golf, gymnastics, track, and swimming can be great.

But the important thing, McInally says, is that children need to be exposed to physical activity just as the sports-crazed athlete should be exposed to the arts and education.

And in reality, education should come first. ``The no-pass, no-play rule is not going to go away,'' says McInally, referring to the rule in Texas by which children must have passing grades to participate in sports.

Kids are going to have to study. And ``it's the responsibility of the parents, teachers, and principals to say, `You get to play if you do well in school.' It shouldn't be an escape, it should be a reward. Even pro players still have to reenter society as citizens. There're only so many broadcasting and coaching positions out there,'' he says.

Dedication ``off the field'' also comes in other forms. McInally cites the fact that some athletes have ended their careers by drinking or abusing drugs. He says parents must emphasize to their children that they have to ``take good care of their bodies and their minds. If they don't, eventually their physical ability, mental concentration, and zest for life and performance will be destroyed.''

Heroes are hard to find these days as money, cheating, recruiting scandals, poor grades, and drugs have injured the romance in sports and made it hard for kids to have role models.

``Sports can inspire greatness, personal accomplishment, sharing, sacrifice, and discipline. It's up to you to make sure you explain the difference between superstardom on the field and success as a person.

``Make sure your kids understand that being a responsible citizen is more important than making the Hall of Fame,'' McInally writes.

The next book will be on mothers - ``our greatest wasted resource,'' says McInally. He holds that while some mothers feel inadequate when it comes to coaching their child, it doesn't have to be that way at all. They can read books, attend clinics, and work with coaches.

What if Mom is too busy? ``If at all possible, mothers should make time. Kids need extra practices away from their team,'' McInally says. Look at the influence mothers have had on athletes. ``When you see the pros on TV, what do they say? `Hi mom!'''

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