Raising Winners: A Parent’s Guide to Helping Kids Succeed On and Off the Playing Field

By Glenn Gingerich, EDITOR

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Even at 5am local time in Southern California, Shari Young Kuchenbecker sounds relaxed, refreshed and eager to talk about her new book.

Her upbeat tone is all the more amazing considering she’s spent most of the last 48 hours on airplanes returning to Los Angeles from a vacation in Italy – her first trip abroad, she tells me, in 40 years.

I can feel the brio through the phone line and it never wavers during the course of our hour-long conversation about, ‘Raising Winners: A Parent’s Guide to Helping Kids Succeed On and Off the Playing Field.’

The title immediately caught my attention - for all the wrong reasons.

I confessed that I was somewhat put off by the phrase which strongly implies an overemphasis on the winning of actual games. Here we go again, I thought, another overwrought sports parent obsessed with the final score at the expense of all else.

My fears were put to rest in her opening notes.

‘Raising Winners’ is about child-rearing using sports as the framework for personal development, growth and, one of Kuchenbecker’s favorite clinical terms, “self-efficacy.”

Get used to that one; she tosses it around like a frisbee at the church picnic.

Gymboss Timers

Using personal anecdotes, snippets of textbook psychology and the latest research, Kuchenbecker makes her case for having parents take a deep breath and a big step back when it comes to kids’ sports.

In her words, it’s enough for parents to simply believe in and support their children – who can and will figure out the rest for themselves. The incessant meddling and interference has to stop.

“It’s all about putting the person first,” Kuchenbecker says, without a trace of jet lag.

“I want parents to understand what real winners are. They’re winners because they love the process and stay with it. Real winners are kids whose parents believe in them.”

Sounds simple.

But in practical terms it requires a leap of faith on behalf of the adults who feel obliged to micromanage young lives and impose their own choices on the child’s behalf. Nowhere do parents do this more aggressively or emotionally than in sports.

It’s the dad who vicariously plays out his own dashed hockey dreams through a son or daughter.

It’s the misguided rec league coach who keeps a bust of Lombardi on his bookshelf and attempts to instruct through fear, shouting and intimidation.

It’s the sports parent who runs amok on the sidelines, contradicting the coach and harassing the referee, both of whom in many cases, are well-meaning volunteers.

Watchdog groups say the results of this behaviour are devastating:

· U.S. News & World Report says seven out of 10 American children quit organized sports before their 13th birthday.

· Almost half of youth athletes polled by the Minnesota Amateur Sports Commission said they had been verbally abused by adults or insulted.

· The National Alliance for Youth Sports based in West Palm Beach says the level of violent conduct among coaches and spectators in organized youth sports has become epidemic.

Kuchenbecker’s book is an appeal to adults to see sport for what it is – a tremendous vehicle for children to learn about themselves, make independent decisions and develop confidence and self-esteem.

In her view, the mistakes made on the playing field are simply harmless rehearsals for the truly important decisions kids are forced to make later in life.

And she insists, kids can and will make the right choices via the self-knowledge gained through sport and just the right amount of guidance from their significant adults.

It’s only when grown-ups intervene with their emphasis on the final score and winning games that the learning process is derailed and sport becomes a chore that too many children decide isn’t worth the aggravation.

“Why are we emphasizing winning so much?,” she asks, her voice rising with passion.

“Our job as adults in our culture is to develop them as people. It’s just like practicing a tennis stroke; if the form is right the ball will go to the right place. If the form of the personality is in the right place, the child will go in the right direction. It means positive support and a kind word.”

Kuchenbecker urges parents to do less talking and more listening. When their children do open up about their feelings, resist the urge to be judgmental or over-react.

“They need a sounding board. Be available to help them extract those lessons as a balance to all the messages they’re getting. That’s the real art of parenting; watch and listen. You’ll make fewer mistakes. And if you do make a mistake it’s not the end of the world.”

Kuchenbecker says she has learned her lessons as a self-described ‘sports mom’ and professor in child psychology, most recently at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. Her husband is a former Stanford basketball player. All three of her children are dedicated athletes.

Her observations and insights are directly informed by her personal experiences and early impressions gained from watching one of the greatest coaches in history as a UCLA undergrad.

John Wooden, the so-called ‘Wizard of Westwood’ guided a men’s college basketball dynasty, winning 10 NCAA championships in a 12-year span starting in 1964.

Wooden was the antithesis of the stomping, screaming sideline monster epitomized by coaching legends Vince Lombardi and Mike Ditka.

Wooden’s calm, patrician manner kept the Bruin machine on an even keel – never too high, never too low – and brought out the best in such basketball legends as Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), Keith Wilkes and Bill Walton.

In other words, he empowered his athletes to achieve on their own terms – just as a parent can empower a child.

Kuchenbecker sees the same qualities in Phil Jackson who just guided the LA Lakers to an NBA Championship in his first season after winning six league titles in Chicago.

“Phil Jackson is brilliant at this, connecting the athlete with himself. He was the perfect role model for Shaquille O’Neal. He said to Shaq, ‘I know you’re a lousy foul shooter but I’m going to support you anyway. I’m not going to scream and shout and remind you that you’re lousy. I’m going to encourage you and remind you that you’re an amazing athlete.’”

Contrast Jackson’s style with that of Indiana’s volcanic Bobby Knight, another North American coaching icon and role model for thousands.

His infamous tantrums have included vicious verbal assaults on players, fans and officials, chair-throwing and a choking episode involving one former player that almost cost him his job this year as Hoosiers’ head coach.

Knight escaped with a public scolding and probation -- until he ran afoul of school authorities for the last time and was summarily dismissed in September.

Kuchenbecker sees Knight as the product of a bygone era whose style has become obsolete.

“Bobby Knight is a product of how he was raised and coached,” she says.

His role models were tough on him. Society is changing and so is coaching. Thirty years ago spanking the child as a form of discipline was considered acceptable in the home and in popular culture. Research has told us it is not effective and no longer acceptable and everyone knows it. Same position with coaching.

“I think it was wonderful what the University of Indiana did with Bobby Knight. They spelled out that his actions were unacceptable and would not be tolerated. Finally there was a line drawn where there hadn’t been one before. It was wonderful.”

I get the feeling that Kuchenbecker is just getting warmed up, but alas, she has to run.

The author is on the road again this morning – headed to her youngest daughter’s college volleyball tournament at UC Davis.

Let’s hope the poor kid can keep up.

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