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Advice on developing young athletes from the managers of the Yankees and Cardinals

Opening day is approaching for Major League teams, and all over the country Little League, high school and college players are starting their seasons. We had a chance to talk with two of America’s best-known and most thoughtful coaches: New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi and St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny. Both spent years sitting in the dugouts as players, later as managers – and decades on the bleachers as dads. We asked them for their thoughts on being a sports parent today.

When Matheny wrote his now-famous letter to the parents of the Little League players he coached, he said parents are the biggest problem in youth sports. While he promised to challenge the boys on the field, he asked the parents to help by being a silent, constant source of support. The Matheny Manifesto (not his chosen title) made its way onto the internet, went viral and became the basis for a book, just out in paperback.

Matheny suggested the way forward for parents was to go backward – in his words, “to go old school.” Parents shouldn’t emulate their peers who scream from the sidelines or complain to the coach about playing time. Instead, they should look to their own parents, who rolled up in time for the first pitch, showed their approval with quiet applause, and, when the game ended, offered pizza and ice cream rather than play-by-play analysis.

Girardi shares a similar philosophy. He says today’s parents need to take a step back, give children the space to find their own passions and then allow them to be the drivers of those dreams.

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Here are their ideas for how parents can best encourage and support their young athletes, in their own words. Interviews have been edited and condensed.

On the field

Matheny: In baseball, kids are trying to do one of the hardest things in sports: hit a moving pitch, throw a strike or make a play in the field. So when parents are up there screaming at the top of their lungs, even the positive stuff like “You can do it,” it creates more pressure when the kid doesn’t do it. He already feels he’s let his team down, and now he’s let you down as well. I would challenge parents to ask their kids what they want you to do when watching their game. Do they want you out there yelling? Hopefully, kids will have the freedom to be honest. I have yet to see a kid who likes to be yelled at.

I can’t imagine how long I would have stayed in the game, and I don’t think there is any chance I would have played at the level I did, if my parents had acted like that. The reality is that for the kids who get to the next level in sports and beyond, their parents don’t do that. Plus, you give yourself a better chance to have a healthy relationship with your kid if you’re not acting like an idiot every time they walk out onto a sports field.

Girardi: When I go to my son’s games, it drives me crazy when I see kids looking up into the stands for their parents’ approval or coaching while the game is going on. Once the game starts, I tell my kids: “I can’t help you. That’s your coach’s job. If you’re only looking or listening to me, your focus is not on competing.”

Sports is instinctual, and if you’re thinking and thinking, everything goes by you. It has to become natural. So the instruction takes place in practice where you can slow things down. Once your son or daughter goes into a game, let them go out, compete and have fun.

Winning or losing

Matheny: My wife, who was a Division 1 athlete, is consistent with our kids whether they have a great game or not. They know what they are going to get. With the Cardinals, those guys need me to be consistent in order for them to have a chance to play consistently. They need me not to avoid them when they are 0-12 and then try to be their best friend after they are 4 for 4. They see right through that, and you lose them in a heartbeat. I think it’s even more important with our kids that we try not to let any of the game or any sport define who they are.

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Girardi: If kids are always looking to their parents for approval, they’re not competing and they’re not having fun – they’re working on pleasing their parents instead. I don’t want my kids to please me. I want them to please themselves. Sitting in the stands and after the game, my job as a parent is to let my kids know that I believe in them no matter how they perform.

Kids deal with pressure in different ways. When I was a player, the way I dealt with pressure was to really prepare. As a coach, I see other guys that deal with pressure by laughing and playing cards. They can smile more on the field than I could. Did it make them right or wrong? No. Derek Jeter could smile on a field, laugh on a field – and he’s one of the greatest players of all time. I couldn’t do that. But that was his personality, and everyone knows how much he cared.

Practicing at home

Girardi: Kids are visual learners. If your son or daughter is having trouble with, say, a swing, have them watch a game on TV. Most kids find it easier to emulate that than to try to understand what you say and apply it. When I go out and throw with my son, I’ve found that the less I say, the better he hits. Sometimes our kids are so worried about pleasing us and doing what we say that they become more frustrated. When he’s fielding ground balls, I tell him to put his head set on, find a good song and develop a rhythm. Go to the music. That’s the world they live in today. As parents, we sometimes need to get inside their world.

Matheny: The best thing parents can do is to play catch with their kids, particularly at the younger ages when they need repetition to improve. But it can’t turn into a lesson all the time. Just play catch or watch a game and talk about it and build that passion that passes down for generations. Some of the greatest memories I have as a kid are playing catch with my dad. Now all five of my kids are competitive athletes, and the best memories I continue to have are having fun playing whiffle ball in the back yard or watching a game and talking about some of the sport’s nuances.

Wanting to quit

Matheny: I have one son playing pro ball right now, but during high school he told me he was done playing baseball. It was winter and he decided that he wanted to just focus on hockey, and he took ownership of his decision. That was hard for my wife and me to hear, but we let him stop.

A couple of months later, he found he really missed baseball and jumped back in, and now he is playing professionally. With our other three kids who are playing collegiate sports, they each took time away from their sport, too. It was hard for us because we didn’t know if they would come back. It was when they made up their own minds to return that it all started to click and the real improvement started happening.

Helping them succeed

Girardi: When it comes to sports or anything that kids pursue, I believe it has to be the child’s dream, not the parent’s. You’ll never be good at anything for a long period of time if it’s not your own dream. Your son or daughter has to be the one who says, ‘Let’s go shoot baskets, Dad,’ not the other way around. If you’re making your kid go to practice, he or she is going to wind up disliking the sport, and it’s not going to be enjoyable for either of you.

Instead, help your kids find their passion and then give them every opportunity you can afford to help them pursue it. Your child might never reach their ultimate goal, but if they pursue their passion, they’ll never second-guess themselves later in life. That’s the essence of our job as parents – to believe in our kids and to let them know it.

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Heffernan writes about parenting during the teen and college years at Grown & Flown and is the author of three business books. You can find her on Facebook or the sidelines of a soccer game.

Wallace is a freelance writer and the mother of three sporty children. You can follow her on Twitter @wallacejennieb.

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