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Author-coach: When you introduce kids to sports, keep it simple

Ross Flowers won his first race when he was a skinny little kid who had to hold up his shorts with one hand for the last 25 yards. It was a lesson not just in winning, but in being adaptable and coping with adversity.

Today, Flowers is a sport psychologist, a father of three young boys and a youth-league coach who gets lots of questions from parents about children and athletics. He has written a book on the subject, “Introducing Your Child to Sports: An Expert’s Answers to Parents’ Questions about Raising a Healthy, Balanced, Happy Athlete.”

Parents have lots of questions. They want to know what to do if their child lacks confidence, how to pick a sport, when and how to critique a child’s performance, whether to push or stand back, and Flowers offers answers based on research and his own experiences as an athlete, coach, parent and psychologist.

His mom gave me a copy of the book, which was fitting, because family is so central to its messages and to the author’s own development.

Flowers, 43, grew up in Seattle and was a multisport athlete at Garfield High School, and a track and field star at UCLA. He has a sports-consulting business in Chula Vista, Calif., Giles Consulting Group, working with everyone from young children to professional athletes who want to improve their performance, including a number of Olympic champions.

They often come wanting him to help them win, and he does that by placing the emphasis on personal development. We spoke about that when he was in Seattle recently.

“I ask every athlete I work with, tell me three to five strengths. They usually respond with a list of athletic skills, but he tells them he wants to know about them as people, including the fundamental values that ground them. Are you persistent? A good communicator? What motivates you? Building on personal strengths and values is important to improving every aspect of life including athletic performance,” he said.

Flowers suggests parents assessing a team or coach start by finding out whether their values line up with the family’s morals and values. Is the coach all about winning, or does he want the kids to enjoy themselves? He suggests asking the kinds of questions you’d ask if you were picking a school for your child about qualifications and goals.

Most of his advice would apply at any age, but some is especially important for children. For young children, a focus on fitness and the fundamentals of a particular sport should get more weight than learning complicated strategies.

He urges parents to let children try different sports and follow their passions, not their parents’ passion. Sure, talk with children about their performance, but don’t grill them on the ride home. Listen and be attentive to their reactions when you speak so you’ll know when to back off. That doesn’t extend to letting them quit the first time they complain.

Sticking to a commitment is one of the lessons of sports. If your child moans, find out what’s really going on and help deal with it. Know the difference between a little hurt and an injury that demands attention.

Flowers said his parents and grandparents were active in sports (and public service). His maternal grandfather ran track in college, and on summer visits Flowers and his older brother would run around their grandparents’ ranch. His father, Robert Flowers, chairman of AAA Washington, played basketball for the University of Washington Huskies and coached youth sports, and his mother, retired KIRO-TV reporter Micki Flowers, volunteered with her sons’ teams. They were always involved, he said, but never pushed their sons in sports, or just enough to make sure they lived up to their own commitments.

“I definitely felt more pressure to be a well-rounded student-athlete,” he said.

Only a tiny fraction of athletes become professionals, he said, but everyone can benefit from participating in a sport. Kids improve their physical skills and fitness, grow socially through team sports, learn discipline and more. It’s not just about winning.

“It’s disappointing to see parents who are in their kids’ faces demanding better performance,” Flowers said. Some kids are being driven to such a degree “that what I see as a professional are kids who, by the time they get to high school, are either burned out or they’re injured.” Some are so focused on a single sport that “not only do they not get to try other sports, but they have no time to really experience life.”

At the professional level there are constant reminders of what happens when the only value is winning. He mentioned the use of performance enhancing drugs, and the New England Patriots’ “Deflategate.”

“We celebrate the sport and the athlete,” Flowers said, “but unfortunately we’re sacrificing the individual … their life skills development, their integrity and the integrity of the sport.”

His book (amazon,com and his website, gilesllc.com) can help athletes, parents and coaches approach sports in a healthier, more positive way.