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Parents of kids in sports: Ease up, Jim Sundberg counsels

ARLINGTON, Texas (BP)–Although he spent 16 years in the major leagues and won a 1985 World Series title with the Kansas City Royals, Jim Sundberg felt more pressure as a spectator at his children’s games.

Scanning the headlines, he knows many parents feel the same way. And when they don’t learn how to control their emotions at youth sports events, the results can be tragic. Among examples this year:

A judge, for example, sentenced a San Fernando, Calif., man to 45 days in jail this year for attacking a Little League manager for taking his boy out of a game early. And a Texas legislator has proposed giving coaches and game officials the same legal protection as public servants, with a maximum of one year in jail and a $4,000 fine for any assault.

“That’s what happens when there’s outbursts,” Sundberg said of the sports-connected violence that has erupted in recent years. “Somebody’s emotionally connected or enmeshed with their child’s play.

“Parents need to begin the process of letting go, letting the child have his own experiences. Don’t become attached so heavily to those that you’re emotionally connected with all the time.”

That’s what he had to do. Despite a long playing and broadcasting career, as a parent Sundberg had to learn new ways of handling his emotions.

When he got angry over a referee’s call, he walked around to cool down. If a loudmouthed parent upset him, he talked it over with his wife or moved to a different seat where he couldn’t see that person.

He also turned to prayer.

“At any moment, you can approach God and ask for help,” Sundberg said. “I would say, ‘Lord, I’m starting to well up here. This person next to me is agitating me and I’m beginning to get angry because of the way they’re responding. Help me relieve this.'”

He recommends others take such steps to deal with their emotions and actions as their kids participate in Little League, soccer and other sports.

Parents must recognize this is their child’s experience, he said, not something they can grab on to relive their own childhood, or make up for something they missed.

The former All Star catcher has become an authority on the subject through the company he formed several years ago, Sports Training Systems.

Set up to publish instructional materials for coaches and players, his work brought him in constant contact with youth sports leagues. The biggest problem he saw in this environment was parents.

To address the situation, Sundberg and his wife, Janet, a behavioral specialist, wrote “How to Win at Sports Parenting.” Though it isn’t on any best-seller list, he said the volume nevertheless has generated response since its release last year.

Some youth league directors have given it to “troublemakers” and never faced another awkward situation with that parent, said Sundberg, a member of Lake Arlington Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas.

He believes because of their busy schedules and increased stress, there is a generation of parents who need encouragement on how to respond to their children and at games.

“There seem to be a lot of them who aren’t aware of what their role is,” Sundberg reflected. “Part of writing the book was to give parents the framework by which they could understand their role.”

Besides unchecked emotions, other factors create pressures that lead to violent outbursts at children’s games, he said.

One is society, which has become extremely competitive. When a win-at-all costs mentality invades youth sports, it strips the experience of what it was meant to be, Sundberg said.

For children under 13, he said sports should be a time of experimenting, discovery and enjoying learning to play the game.

Sundberg sees the lures of popularity and big money as another factor behind raging tempers in children’s sports. While not all parents think their son or daughter can become a highly paid athlete, many crave the notoriety that comes from having a child who is a high school star.

However, for those who realize their child doesn’t have pro potential, Sundberg said there are many more who are convinced their 10-year-old has a chance of going all the way.

Riches await those who succeed. When he started in the major leagues in 1974, the minimum salary was $15,000 and the median salary around $40,000. Today a pro baseball player makes a minimum of $200,000 and the median income is about $1.5 million, he said.

“That becomes a real tantalizing thing for some parents who want their little Johnny to be a sports hero,” he said. “I just stop and caution parents that the likelihood of that happening is so slim that it’s better to pursue it to enjoy it and have fun.”

If a parent happens to have a gifted child, his advice is to sit back and enjoy it. While working on his book, he polled the 15 members of the U.S. Olympics softball team. Twelve said neither of their parents had any expertise in their sport.

Parents should keep that in mind instead of thinking they have to emulate the fathers guiding golfer Tiger Woods or tennis stars Serena and Venus Williams, he said.

Instead of putting pressure on a talented child, Sundberg suggests communicating with him or her. Ask if there is something they can do to encourage their youngster, he said.

But never turn the sport into an idol, said the father of three, the youngest of whom is a high school senior and volleyball player.

“We’ve had a great time with our children in sports,” he said. “None went on to play professionally. We had some great weekends of family time together and cherished that, without having to play at a higher level.”
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: JIM SUNDBERG — CUBS and JIM SUNDBERG — ROYALS.

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  • Ken Walker