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12U: 4 youth sports parent traps

06/23/2017, 3:00pm MDT
By Michael Rand

Let’s face it. Being the parent isn’t always (ever?) easy. Those parental duties only tend to get more complicated when it comes to your kids playing sports.

If you ever wondered, “Am I doing the right thing?” you’re almost certainly not alone. To offer some guidance, we talked to John O'Sullivan, founder of, for some tips for parents. These are geared specifically to parents of 12U hockey players, but they are also good general guidelines for many ages.

Here are four “traps” parents might find themselves falling into or temptations they might have, with suggestions for better solutions:

1. Early specialization

While parents might think they need to focus their kids on hockey and nothing else in order to keep up with their peer group, the research says just the opposite. So if you’re tempted to put your 12U player in skates year-round, don’t be.

“I think USA Hockey has some pretty specific guidelines on what recommendations are,” said O'Sullivan, a longtime youth, college and professional soccer coach. “Follow the advice of the experts. They weren’t just snatched out of thin air. We didn’t just wake up one morning and make them up.”

Those guidelines can be found here:

Playing multiple sports – USA Hockey recommends playing at least three at 12U – will help avoid repetitive stress injuries and burnout, which is common sense, but there are also athletic benefits.

“There’s the transferability of skills,” said O'Sullivan. “Some of the things a hockey player sees during a season of soccer, for instance, helps them during the hockey season.”

Need more convincing? Olympians played multiple sports growing up.

2. Moving up an age group ahead of schedule

Here’s another occasion where parents might worry that they’re falling behind if they’re not falling in line with everyone else.

“Sometimes parents look at what other kids are doing and think ‘that other kid is playing up so my kid needs to play up,’” O'Sullivan said. “But we need to weigh benefits and disadvantages on a trial-by-trial basis. Just because one kid is doing it doesn’t mean it’s best for my kid.”

O'Sullivan notes that USA Hockey’s American Development Model has specific age groupings that tend to align with the physical and mental development of the average youth hockey player.

“If your child is developmentally older than her peers, that’s one box to check when exploring playing up. If they’re tactically superior, that’s a box to check. If maturity-wise they’re ahead, go ahead and explore it,” O'Sullivan says. “But if you don’t hit those boxes and the only reason is that Billy is doing it, that’s not a good reason. That’s only going to hurt your kid.”

3. Yelling too much – and in the wrong way – at games

O'Sullivan, who has worked with countless athletes over the years, has a great message when it comes to parents who yell at games and what kids think of that.

“I always say this: Ask your kids what they want. I’ve yet to meet in the tens of thousands of athletes I work with anyone who said, ‘It’s really helpful when I can tell it’s my dad yelling,’” O'Sullivan said. “So ask your kids what helps and what doesn’t help on the sidelines of the games.”

The honest answer you will usually get if you have that conversation:

“What would you like your parents to say? Nothing. That’s what they say,” O'Sullivan said. “Let me play, let the coach coach and let the ref ref. Why not ask your kids what they want and then give that to them, in this case.”

4. Overstepping boundaries with advice

How do you show your kids that you care without going overboard? How do you give them supportive feedback about performance or simply talk about a game without seeming overbearing? These are perhaps some of the trickiest questions of all.

“The research shows that when we look at the parents of many elite athletes, their parents were supportive but not pushy,” O'Sullivan said. “They let their child own this journey and recognize that enjoyment and being a kid have to be a part of it. They recognize that playing multiple sports and making time for friends and important family events are part of it. So they support the child on the journey but they’re not the one driving it.”

Plenty of hockey parents grew up around the game and have good advice to give to their kids. Often, the delivery of those messages is all about timing.

“The most important thing you can do is realize their state of mind at the time of giving feedback. If they lost by a lot or won a lot, they feel a certain way. Criticism might only make them angry,” O'Sullivan said. “Maybe make an agreement. When’s a good time to talk about stuff? The next morning, after we eat, after the emotion is gone? Talk about what went well, and what can we improve upon. Rarely is the ride home from the game the time to do it.”

As a parent, if you can follow these guidelines, it will dramatically improve the chances that your child will have a positive athletic experience and reach their full potential.

“If your kid is not owning the experience because you’re driving it, they’ll walk away. They have to enjoy it,” O'Sullivan added. “And motivation can’t come from, ‘I’ll pay a dollar for each goal.’ It has to come from within. If they go out to the driveway or ice by themselves, those are good signs your kids are going to be as good as they can be.”

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