Raising kids playing sports: Three tips to keep them in love with game – USA TODAY

Sometime in the lead-up to playing in the NCAA tournament this week, North Carolina’s women’s lacrosse team will gather in a circle at the start of practice. Head coach Jenny Levy will ask her players to take a deep breath and close their eyes.
“If you had a long day, great,” Levy might say. “If you had a short day, great. But now it’s time for us to be on the lacrosse field. Let’s focus on what we need to do. Let’s get better today.”
It’s moment for Olivia Pikiell, a sophomore midfielder on the team, to reflect on how much she enjoys playing for one of the nation’s top programs.
“We work really hard, but we have fun, too,” Pikiell tells USA TODAY Sports. “And practice is a time where we make mistakes, and Jenny knows that and we fix those mistakes. And we go through drills and we run hard and play, but it’s also like a lighthearted tone. I love the way Jenny runs practice because it’s a great balance of both.”
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Learning to relax and enjoy what we are doing is a feeling athletes, and parents, can forget about, or even lose.
But the Pikiell (PYE-kull) family was always good about remembering. Their top tips to keep kids loving the game?
A game of H-O-R-S-E was something that brought the Pikiell kids together amid their busy schedules.
“It was a thing that kept us close,” says Brooke, Olivia’s older sister.
Brooke went on to play four years as a guard on Northwestern’s women’s basketball team with a similar love of the games she played.
It was a love that Hall of Fame men’s basketball coach Jim Calhoun saw in Olivia’s father, Steve, long ago as a player and then as an assistant coach at Connecticut. And it’s a love that has continued to gather Brooke, Olivia, their brothers, John Patrick and Kevin, and their mother, Kate, at Steve’s college basketball games as he climbed the coaching ladder.
“If I could say one thing to parents: take a deep breath and just enjoy that your kid isn’t playing video games and he’s not running around doing something,” says Steve Pikiell, Rutgers’ head basketball coach since 2016. “I probably see too much and I’m like, ‘They’re 8 years old, 9 years old.’ Just let ’em play the soccer game and let ’em go get an ice cream. None of these kids are going to the Olympics, right?”
The experiences of Olivia and Brooke Pikiell offer examples of how you can reach Division I athletics. But even more helpful to most of us, they show how you can maintain that love of sports throughout your career, however far it takes you.
Have a question or need advice on how to best support your young athlete? Ask Coach Steve!
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Steve Pikiell, 55, grew up in Bristol, Connecticut, as the seventh of nine children. All of his brothers and sisters played sports through high school, and some played in college. His father was a teacher who coached multiple sports teams, and Steve had eight cousins who lived next door, so there were many resources for him to learn and play. But little of it was formal.
“Just getting us a ride was important,” he says. “Usually a neighbor or somebody else, so I mean my dad probably saw me play a lot of basketball, but all of the other sports I played, I don’t know if he saw too many of those other games. And my mom would try to make it to games, too, but, depending on nine kids … So a very different time now.”
Basketball became a part of Steve’s everyday life, and all of his kids have played it, starting with Brooke, 23, his oldest, and continuing through Kevin, 17.
Steve always found time to break away from his busy college coaching schedule, first as an assistant coach at several schools and later as head men’s coach at Stony Brook starting in 2005, to watch his kids’ games.
Brooke and Olivia say their parents weren’t especially vocal at their games. If Steve yelled, it was for one of his daughters to run harder or play with more effort, not anything specific about basketball. He and Kate always cheered. They mostly just sat by themselves and watched.
When Brooke was playing AAU basketball, Steve would guest coach, but he didn’t get regularly involved.
“I tried to always have fun when I was coaching my daughter and make it fun for the athletes, especially at young ages and make them want to come back the next time,” he says. “Growing up, there was no AAU. I just played in the park, I played at my house, I played at the boy’s club, all the local stuff. I didn’t do any of that stuff and I was able to play at a high level.”
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Steve became disenchanted when he and his wife started having to split up and take each child to a different travel tournament.
“We kind of got sucked into it,” he says. “It just became part of what we did. I’d say to my wife, ‘Do we really need to go all the way to Maryland from Long Island to watch our kid play soccer against another Long Island team?’ Couldn’t we just meet somewhere in Long Island and then we could all be home, then go to the beach, maybe?”
Pikiell remembers how they took Brooke to a 10-year-old away tournament in Washington, and she took about four shots all weekend. When they became more experienced parents, he and Kate learned to adjust and reduce their kids’ hectic travel schedules.
“I said, ‘Honey, if I worked her out in the driveway, we would have got 400 shots, she would have had a hell of a workout, we would’ve saved all that money,” he says. “Maybe we could have spent a little more time together as a family.”
AAU basketball can be an important feeder for college programs starting around the high school level. When she was aspiring to play in college, Brooke remembers going to tournaments, though, where not a single college was represented. It depended on the tournament and her team’s opponent.
“Sometimes a ton of coaches watching lined up but only to watch the other team play and we usually knew we would be in trouble haha,” Brooke says via text. “Everyone makes it sound like the whole point of AAU is exposure and to travel to all these places and be seen by coaches and a lot of the time that just doesn’t happen if you aren’t one of the huge, flashy super-well known AAU programs.”
If you are in sports for fun, make them about fun. If you join a travel team, make sure you first know how many tournaments you will be going to and how much it will cost you. And if you want to play beyond high school, make sure you play in enough tournaments where college coaches are watching.
Like Brooke, Olivia played basketball and soccer. When his daughter’s soccer talent was apparent at the youth level, Steve remembers feeling pressure from coaches for her to specialize. Between indoor and outdoor play, he says she could have played soccer 350 days a year from an early age.
If their pace had continued, they both think she simply would have quit.
“I definitely think I would have been burned out,” Olivia says. “I don’t think I would’ve been able to play it in college just because I had played it for so long.”
In eighth grade, Olivia stopped playing club soccer and focused on playing travel lacrosse, which mainly took place in the summertime. But she played lacrosse, basketball and soccer in high school, more for fun than anything.
“It was kind of less pressure,” says Olivia, who’s other three siblings specialized in basketball. “Each sport’s season was different. I always got to switch sports and be with a different team and new coach. I loved it and I think that’s one of the reasons why I never really got burnt out.”
Olivia, like Brooke, also talks or texts with her dad every day. And he continues a steady stream of encouragement.
“My parents were always just so helpful and, at the end of the day, just wanted us to be happy,” Olivia says. “I was never pressured to, like, ‘You have to play in college.’ It was always my decision.
“We could always talk to them about anything. So I honestly think that’s why we’re so athletically successful.”
Olivia got interested in lacrosse as a young girl when their Long Island neighbor, Jenny Lorenzen, a youth coach, signed her up for a clinic.
One of the many reasons Steve loves watching Olivia’s lacrosse games is he can sit and watch as a parent, not a basketball coach.
“I don’t get asked all the time what I would do and I just sit there and enjoy watching her play a different sport,” he says. “I like it being outdoors. In basketball, I’m watching those games and sometimes I want to call a timeout or I want to substitute my kid out.”
Sometimes, it’s been especially hard to watch those basketball games, where Steve has seen moms and dads yelling at referees. When Brooke played AAU ball, she witnessed parents coming onto the court and getting in refs’ faces, drawing ejections. After middle-school-aged games, she saw parents try to fight with other parents in the parking lot.
“If you have a comment to say, if you have a background or grew up with sports, then I think you could be able to say it in a positive way. But then I feel like there is a decent amount of people out there who don’t really know much about sports and they end up being, like, the loudest ones,” she says. “And it’s just, kind of super negative and it’s distraction.”
Steve says he consider potential players’ parents when he recruits them. But it’s not just the parents.
“I’ve heard from coaches who stopped recruiting someone because of how they talked to their parent or someone around them after the game,” Brooke says.
Once the game is over, the car ride home is crucial. It’s tempting to immediately tell your son or daughter what they didn’t do right. Instead, try just listening and let them talk to you first.
“Don’t worry about it,” Steve has told his kids over the year. “Tomorrow’s another day. Let’s move on.”
NEXT WEEK: The Pikiells tell you what coaches are looking for to play at the high school and college levels, regardless of your sport
Steve Borelli, aka Coach Steve, has been an editor and writer with USA TODAY since 1999. He spent 10 years coaching his two sons’ youth teams. He and his wife, Colleen, are now loving life as sports parents for a high schooler and middle schooler.


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