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Renowned sport psychologist Dr. Joel Fish talks about sports parenting

Dr. Joel Fish

Nationally-renowned sport psychologist Dr. Joel Fish is a Lower Merion High School graduate and a recent inductee into the Philadelphia Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. As director of The Center For Sport Psychology in Philadelphia for the past 25 years, he has worked with athletes of all ages and skill levels, from youth sports through the Olympic and professional ranks. Dr. Fish wrote a book “101 Ways To Be a Terrific Sports Parent” 10 years ago, and over the past decade has written articles on various sports psychology issues for the Main Line Times, Main Line Suburban Life, and Main Line Media News. In this brief interview with Main Line Media News sports editor Bruce Adams, Dr. Fish (a father of three) reflects on various sports parenting issues.

Main Line Media News: Many parents ask you, “When should I introduce my child to an organized sport?” What do you tell them?

Dr. Joel Fish: Since every child is different, I would say there are three steps to consider. Step 1 is to be aware of your own attitudes toward your child competing – in other words, “what’s the meaning of this for me?” Step 2 is to ask yourself: “What are my child’s personality, talents, needs?” Step 3 would be to consider if your child is emotionally ready for the benefits of organized sport – rewarding participation and skill development.

Main Line Media News: How much encouragement should parents give their pre-teen children when they’re trying out a sport?

Dr. Joel Fish: Between the ages of 5 and 12, a child is figuring out, “How adequate am I, how competent am I? They’re building their self-esteem. Positive reinforcement from the parents is important – focusing on the good things, talking about their goals to improve. Up to age 12, I don’t think coaches getting in the kids’ faces builds character or toughness.

Main Line Media News: Let’s talk about coaches for a minute. How can a parent determine whether their child’s coach is a good one (or not)?

Dr. Joel Fish: Nobody knows a child’s personality better than his or her parents; it’s important to consider whether it’s a good match with the coach’s personality. How well does the coach communicate, how is the coach when things are going well, and how is the coach when things are not going well? Parents should talk to the coach about his or her philosophy on things like playing time and team discipline. It’s like talking to the child’s teacher – just like you don’t pound the teacher’s desk and demand that your child be given an A, you don’t demand that your child be given lots of playing time.

Main Line Media News: Specialization is a recent trend in youth sports. When do you think is a good age for a youngster to focus on one sport?

Dr. Joel Fish: Most sport psychologists will say that, through eighth grade, a youth should be exposed to a variety of different sports – it allows you to develop different kinds of coordination, and allows your child to interact with more types of people. You should also ask yourself: “Emotionally, is my child ready for the pressures of specialization?”

Main Line Media News: You mentioned that more kids than ever are participating in organized sport – 40 million from age 5-18 – but, conversely, more kids are dropping out from organized sports than ever before (more girls than boys) because there’s too much pressure and not enough fun. Let’s talk for a minute about burnout.

Dr. Joel Fish: A lot of parents think they will be sending their child the wrong message if they quit a sport, but in this instance I really don’t like that word “quit.” I say the youth either chooses to keep playing or not to keep playing. A lot of times, you can tell if a child is ready to stop playing if there’s a sudden personality change – for instance, if a child is outgoing and suddenly becomes withdrawn;, or if their eating and sleeping habits change; or does a child keep saying they’re injured when medical people can’t find anything wrong with them.

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