Advice for the parents of little girl athletes everywhere. (Not nearly as funny as Tina Fey.)

I am not a mother.  Let me state that up front.  I don’t change diapers or wipe snot from noses which can’t create enough force to blow themselves.  I don’t have the pleasure of sleepless nights thanks to anything other than an overly hot duvet, nor do I get the reward of little arms wrapped around my neck each morning which shout a quiet “i love you” before the owner is too awake to know that she’ll despise me in a few years.   I am, however, an Aunt to two spectacular little girls.  One, I’m getting to know quite well these days, and she knocks my socks off pretty much every time I see her.  One’s just a mini-munchkin who I’ve only seen twice, but judging by her moms, she promises to have enough spirit and German engineering to set the world on fire some day.

Why am I talking about these girls?  Simply put, I think I can make a better list.  See, lately, I’ve read some pretty interesting “lists” of advice for mothers, and daughters.  There’s Tina Fey’s hysterical prayer for her daughter.   There’s the “50 Rules for Dads and Daughters” , and then there’s Sheryl Sundberg (CFO of Facebook)’s commencement speech at Barnard College last year, where she dishes out bits of advice for young women graduates (if you haven’t read it, do.)  They’re all occasionally inspiring, touching, and left me hoping that my accomodation of these lists would involve a bell curve.

But seeing as how I’m neither a highly paid comedienne, nor running the Finance function of the most successful internet company (ever), I figured I’d have little to share which might add to this ListMania.  But then I remembered (especially according to an excellent Saturday Night Live skit this weekend), in today’s day and age, I can say ANYTHING!  And it will be AWESOME  (I kid).

No, seriously.  I honestly just felt that there must be some general guidance out there for the parents of little girls who might, one day, become athletes.  There’s lots of them out there, and as a former Little Girl Who Played Sports, and adult Coach of Little Girls Who Loved Playing Sports, and as a current Advocate for Adult Big Girls Who Love Playing Sports, I thought I’d have something to add.

So here, in the spirit of the Plus Runner, is my best advice for your daughters, distilled into a few pithy comments that hopefully make you smile.  Happy Monday.

1.  Get your daughter to try every sport you can, even the ones that will make her dirty, sweaty, and scare you to death.  Every time she does, she’ll find out a bit more about who she is, and what she loves – even if it scares the heck out of you.   Also, learn early that there’s no faster cleanup than covering her in a Hefty bag while entering your car and hosing her down with the garden hose on exit.

2. Encourage her to play solo sports, and as part of a team.   Solo sports teach her that she can, in fact, be terrible and still find something rewarding in it.  They also teach her the power of her own steam and the strength of her own body.  Team sports teach her the joy of helping her friends win, crushing the opposition, and the feeling of letting a team down.  Don’t underestimate any of these things, and their role it will have in helping her join the workforce in 20 years.

3. She’s not going to be good at every sport.  Well, mostly.  Get over it.  And let her figure it out.  If she cares enough to want to be on the “A” team, she’ll practice more.  She may or may not get better, and make that team.  In either case, she’ll probably still be playing something, (a win) – and chances are she’ll probably enjoy it more than doing her homework.  And yes, she’ll learn that sometimes, other people are actually better at something than you are.  Again, a valuable lesson in today’s age.  (Oh, and when she gets cut from that team you think she should be on, DO NOT appeal the ruling.  This is not the Supreme Court of My Daughter is Awesomeland.)

4. Learn how to complement her play.  This is not to be confused with spewing BS at every available juncture.  Giving true, favorable praise will do more for her confidence than fabricated platitudes.  Learn the game she plays well enough to do this for her, and remember that for every one criticism she hears, she’ll need to hear four positive comments to counter the hit to her self esteem. Don’t let this prevent her coach from coaching her – but let the coach do the dirty work if you can.  If her coach seems unlikely to ever learn the balance, introduce them to Mr. Jackson’s program, above.  It’s pretty cool, and it works.

5. Play her favorite sport with her, even if you’re terrible.  Also, you are allowed to get dirty, and sweat.   Seeing her parents play helps reinforce the fact that you value it.  Growing up, I remember playing soccer with my father, and even golf (!) with my mother.  Neither one of them loved those sports, but they did it to spend time with me.  Your kids know you’re no Pele or Anika, and that’s okay – it’s the effort that counts.

6. CAN’T is a four letter word.  Never tell her she can’t play a sport – always, always let her try.  Even if you think she can’t hack the physical demands, or doesn’t have the coordination, let her learn the lesson on her own.  So she’s not good: put her on a lower-skilled team and let her learn.  Not fit enough?  Coaches expect this, particularly in recreational leagues today.  Let her play into shape – in the right league.  If you’re not sure how to handle it, talk to a coach, but do everything you can to encourage her to keep playing.  The longer she stays a part of organized sports, the higher her self esteem, less likely she is to engage in risky sexual behavior, and less likely to be brought down by depression and anxiety.  

7. Let her play with boys.  She’ll never forget the feeling the first time she scores a goal against a boy, fields his line drive down the third base line, or powers a forehand past him, and she’ll realize that her talent – and her drive to win and succeed – is absolutely comparable – a feeling you certainly want her to remember when life gets slightly more complicated a few years down the road.

8. Teach her that emotion has a place in sports, and sports has a place in emotion.  Let her cry when she loses and scream when she wins.  And when she throws on her shoes for a run, or turns to a hitting wall or a punching bag when she’s mad, let her go, so she learns that this healthy way of dealing with things (as opposed to The Alcohol, The Food, and The Drugs)  will always be there for her, whatever the win or loss.   Regardless of this, also make her shake hands with the opposing team, every time, no matter how angry, sad, or frustrated she is with a loss.  It is, after all, just a game.

9. Teach her that sport has no use-by date.  Find one sport you can play – whatever it may be – and play it for you.  Show her that lifelong athletics are rewarding – that sweat’s not for kids and professionals, but moms who work hard, and make dinner, and drive carpool, and still make time for tennis or soccer or running.  Show her that lifetime fitness is joyful and fun.

10.  Support girls and women in sports.  She may never have the option or the interest to go professional in Lacrosse, or Fencing, but there are college teams with Olympians and pop up pro leagues all over the world.  By supporting them, you show her that you value their athletic talent as much as men – and in today’s day and age, when we women all expect equal pay for equal work, it’s good to put our money where our expectations are.  For more information, check out the NCAA, the Women’s Sports Foundation, or the US Olympic Committee for a few ideas.

I guess in closing, the only question I have is this: how many of us can say we meet these expectations every day?  Do we all need to be graded on a bell curve? Probably.  But it sure is nice to have a target, isn’t it?

See you on the path!

7 thoughts on “Advice for the parents of little girl athletes everywhere. (Not nearly as funny as Tina Fey.)

  1. Well said, Sally; Just makes me feel a little bad about not being around enough to support & encourage my nieces more actively. Fortunately, they all seem to have some pretty good parents & extended family that are up to the task. I’ll just have to focus on doing better in the future.

    • Ah, Susie, you know how it is – we do as much as we can in Auntville! And those awesome parents (my nieces both have them as well) know the key is doing what you can when the opportunity’s there – no sense lamenting what we physically aren’t there to do! Hope you’re well in Indy and that you’re having fun!
      Sal

  2. Hi Sally!
    I am a new reader from Italy, I just discovered your blog yesterday and I love it; I read it all in two days!
    You really inspire me, I can honestly say that it was you and your blog that made me get up from the couch and go on a walk this morning for the first time in what feels like ages! And the best part is that I actually enjoyed it…the scenery was great and knowing that I was doing something good for myself was even better
    So thank you for sharing your experiences on here!

    Martina

    • Wow, Martina – talk about inspiring – it’s notes like these that make life pretty cool some days!
      Thanks for reading! And I’m so glad you were out this morning. Isn’t that always the way with a return to something active? We forget how awesome it is for us, every time! I look forward to writing some more good things that you might enjoy soon – in the interim, keep us posted on your activity! And I LOVE that you’re representing Italy!!!!!

      Happy Monday!
      Sallie

  3. Thanks for making me feel like a failure.
    just kidding, kind of…. as we start another meet season it is so hard to remember that advice.
    I am also struck by how different life is for my gal athletes in their sport vs. more traditional team sports. IE we never shake hands after a meet. hmmm. i wonder why? I guess we cheer at the awards assembly, but after an hour cheering for the other teams gets a little old ;0
    and it is interesting that emotion is often banned from the gym. …
    more food for thought.

    Plus, what is the “Mr. Jackson’s program” reference? I missed it above.

    We will miss seeing you in Chicago next week.
    Thanks for inspiring me to do better.

    Cheerio!
    Megan

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