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Soccer star puts emphasis on positive coaching for children

Yelling, criticism, just lead to burnout, three-time Olympian says

Pam LeBlanc
pleblanc@statesman.com

Attention, overbearing sports parents: Joy Fawcett wants you to chill out.

I'm sharing a drink with the retired soccer superstar and three-time Olympian at Dominican Joe coffee shop off South Congress Avenue.

She's sipping orange juice; I've got hot tea. No surprise there — besides serving as a board member and advocate for the Positive Coaching Alliance, Fawcett promotes Cuties, those easy-to-peel California mandarin oranges.

Fawcett, 42, is in town for a local youth soccer tournament, where she's reminding parents that screaming at your kid from the stands doesn't do anybody any good. (Was there any doubt?) Not only is it distracting, it can put too much pressure on someone who's not ready for it, says the former World Cup champion.

"Soccer's a game, and it's fun, and kids should just love it," she says. "We want the kids to be able to stay in the game a lifetime ... They shouldn't be treated as professionals at such a young age."

She should know. Not only is she considered the best defender in the history of women's soccer, she had three children during her 17 years on the U.S. women's national soccer team. From the beginning she's been the ultimate soccer mom to her daughters Katey, 15; Carli, 12; and Madi, 8.

When she had her first child, she told her coach she wanted to bring her baby with her everywhere.

"That was one of the conditions," she says. "I never questioned whether I should play and have kids. I love watching my kids grow up and being a part of their lives."

When her youngest was 8 weeks old, she started bringing her to practice. When the team traveled, she brought her daughter on the plane. But she always brought someone to help her care for the child.

At first, she paid for a nanny and an extra room. Eventually, U.S. Soccer began subsidizing child care for players who had kids.

Fawcett's girls came to all her games. They even traveled to the Olympics — with their father, so they didn't disrupt her teammates' focus.

"The biggest thing that helped was time management," says Fawcett, who played every minute in the team's 1996, 2000 and 2004 Olympic soccer games.

Today her oldest and youngest daughters play soccer; the middle one prefers 4-H club, cooking and chickens.

Fawcett says the sporting environment has changed dramatically since she first started playing. "The level of expectation has ramped up. We put pressure on kids to perform so they can get scholarships. That's great, but there's not that many scholarships out there."

Her own biggest problem as a child was self-confidence, she says.

"I was always a perfectionist," she says.

The Positive Coaching Alliance, a nonprofit group started by the Stanford University Athletics Department in 1998, helps parents focus on teaching moments in the sport instead of just winning. The alliance conducts workshops for parents and coaches, and has books and tools to help them engage with their sports-playing children in a positive way.

"It helps parents refocus their priority from the scoreboard to the child's effort," Fawcett says.

Some basics? No nasty yelling from the stands or pulling players aside to tell them what they did wrong.

"If the parents are not yelling, then the kid can focus on what the coach is saying," Fawcett says. "Kids know what they've done wrong; they don't want to hear it again."

And dragging a child from one team to the next, looking for one where they get the most attention and playing time? That's stressful. "The poor kid is always worrying about tryouts," she says.

It also defeats one of the greatest benefits of playing on a team. "For girls especially, it's all about the connections you make with others on the team," she says.

The Positive Coaching Alliance's "Second-Goal" Parenting program focuses instead on life lessons. That's an area where Mom and Dad need more pointers than students.

"The kids are very realistic," says the three-time All-American at University of California-Berkeley. "It's the parents who are not in tune."

pleblanc@statesman.com; 445-3994