Overcoming the Challenge of Letting Our Kids Go

All birds have to leave the nest or they will die. Our kids have to find their own lives too. They are going to leave. It's not a matter of if they will leave. It's a matter of when AND how well prepared will they be when they do. 
Letting our kids go is a challenge not only for parents but for coaches too. We know and like these kids. For all of us, parents and coaches alike, they represent our hope for a bright future and by the time they leave, we might consider them our friends. We've shared history together and there will come a time, very soon, when they start a history that doesn't include us.
Like any skill, letting our kids go is a process that starts earlier than most people think and it takes practice for most of us to get better at.

The ever-changing challenge of Letting Our Kids Go

Did you notice that I said it takes practice to get better at letting go? I didn't say it takes practice to master. At the time I recorded this, I leave room for the possibility that the skill of letting go can be mastered, but I don't know of anyone who has mastered it. 
Letting go isn't a binary thing. There are degrees of letting go. Letting our kids go off to school for the first time might be one example. Letting them cross the street by themselves might be another. I pulled my car over and cried the first time I dropped my oldest child off at a daycare center. Not only was I letter her go in the care of another person, but I was letting go of the notion that the stay-at-home parenting style I saw my mother doing would be a possibility in our family. My kids would never know that. We were inviting surrogate parents in to watch over them during the day so my wife and I could work.
I personally believe we are forever learning to let go, and the challenges aren't necessarily harder as our kids get older, but they are definitely different. As a parent, once you think you've overcome one form of letting go, a whole new way to let go presents itself. I suppose we'll be learning how to let go until the moment we die. Even then, we'll be facing the prospect of letting ourselves and our loved ones go in a whole different way. 

Detachment Parenting - The Start of Letting Our Kids Go

In the context of youth sports and parenting (or coaching) our way through the youth sports "window" between 3 yrs old and 18-years-old, letting our kids go has a specific meaning. As parents, we must learn to detach from our kids so they can have a shot at making their own mistakes (nature's best teacher) and living their own lives. Kids who are sheltered from adversity or never allowed to make mistakes will enter the world weak and unable to effectively deal with risk or adversity. This is one of the big reasons we created the youth sports platform in the first place - to give kids a safe platform where they can be challenged, makes mistakes, and overcome adversity. 
Building a foundation with our kids is important. This is referred to as Attachment Parenting by Dr. Carl E Pickhardt Ph.D. Learning how to let go and empower kids to live their own lives is called Detachment Parenting.
If the child psychologist, Carl E Pickhardt, is to be believed, the detachment parenting phase begins when kids turn nine years old. He says we start letting our kids go this early! Of course, we're not tossing them the car keys when they turn 9, but we can let them go play a game and make their own decisions! We can encourage our kids to get involved in some of the decisions that affect them in life, then supporting their decisions to the extent possible - assuming, of course, that safety is under control. 
Letting our kids go is something we need to practice. It will not come naturally. From the time our kids were born until they were 8 years old, we pretty much do everything for them. We even pick out their clothes. Once they turn 9 though, it might be time they can start picking out their own clothes. Even if they look ridiculous to our more mature sensibilities, giving kids the ability to choose is one way we can begin to empower them and help them become better decision makers later. 
I'm not suggesting we let them walk to school wearing garbage bags, but asking our kid "do you think those shorts will keep you warm enough outside in 35-degree weather?" can be more empowering than telling them "you will not wear that in 35-degree weather." The question forces them to think and consider. The statement forced them to shut down their thought process and follow instruction. It can be argued there is a time and a place for both. All I'm saying is: we have about nine years to work on this. Starting simple might be a good idea. 
Every time there is a soccer game, unless you're coaching, it might be a good opportunity to practice letting go. Let your son or daughter play his or her own game with minimum input from you. Cheer them on, by all means, but also cheer on their teammates and show that the whole team is important. Give a shout out to an opponent from time to time when they do something cool too. Sportsmanship by example is always welcome on a sports field!

Coaches and Letting Go

Coaches get attached too. They carry on when parents are already working on Detachment. From personal experience, I can report that coaches end up caring for the kids they're responsible for - as if they are surrogate kids of their own. Coaches want kids to be successful on and off the pitch. It's hard when they inevitably move on. 
There is an extra element for coaches though, that maybe we need to talk about. Maybe a couple of elements. 

  • If a coach is not continually improving themselves - by this, I mean continually educating themselves between seasons - kids are going to surpass them. Kids brains are wired for growth and they pick up on stuff really quickly at these ages. They're meant to learn at high speed, and they most certainly will. I know for a fact that if I was not adding a new license, a new course, or new books to my between season routine, I would quickly be irrelevant to my team. Coaching is not about putting together soccer practices and organizing games. It requires us to understand deeply the issues that our players are facing, how they are thinking about life (we need to know this in order to communicate effectively with them), where they are physically, socially, emotionally, and mentally  - and perhaps more importantly, where they will be physically, socially, emotionally, and mentally in another season or two. As a coach, we're teaching to where the ball is going, not just to where the ball is. (To bend and soccerize a well known Wayne Gretzky quote). 
  • Sometimes, a player needs a different environment from what the coach can provide. We're all very different in our approaches. I work well with High School-aged players who appreciate a team-focused, tactical, and possession-based style of play. An independent player who wants to cowboy his or her way down the field, dribble through every defending opponent without any help, and put the ball in the net no matter what the cost to the rest of the team is not going to do well on my team. He or she is going to end up playing striker and scoring, but will also be frustrated because the rest of the team is going to be moving the ball around the field instead of simply giving it to him or her. I may love having an aggressive - and shall I say it - selfish ball hog putting balls in the net over and over again, but it's not what I teach. That player needs strong technical development and a team that lives to pass him or her the ball. 

In either case, there may come time for a coach to let a player - or a group of players - go. Having the wisdom to see that moment can be tricky. 
It's also true that kids will eventually get busy with life and move on. This is a hard reality and it's one that I personally wrestled with last week. It inspired this show. 
My players LOVE soccer. My bench is always full. I often have a waiting list of players trying to get onto my team. I know they love the game and they really enjoy the team itself. 
Last week, we faced the toughest opponent of the season. This other team is known to be aggressive. They're bigger. They're older. To give you an idea of what we're dealing with, when we played them, they drew two yellow cards and a red card. The player who drew the red card refused to leave the field. He pulled off his shirt. He yelled a the ref that he would see him in the parking lot after the game. It was not pretty. 
I knew that my team wanted to be united when facing this opponent. I ended up 7 players down. 6 of them were at a youth in government leadership field trip in Annapolis, MD. One was out with a knee injury. We played ironman (meaning limited or no subs), lost the game, and moved on. 
I wasn't really upset about the outcome of the game. We still had a good showing, put more balls in their net than any team had all season, and we came away with a bucket full of life learning lessons. It was good. 
That week, I decided to work on team building. I spent hours putting together a good team building session. At the end of this session, our team would be closer. They would know each other better. They'd be ready to enjoy the rest of the season playing with one another. 5 players showed up to practice. I was seriously disappointed. 
I couldn't run the practice I wanted to. I ended up winging it and working on things the team wanted to work on that day. The next day, 5 players showed up to practice. We ended with 7 players (two came late). I was feeling helpless and as if the opportunity to unite our team had passed. 
The reality is: my players have testing for Advanced Placement exams. They had to work to make money for college next year. They had a band concert... in short, they were getting busy with life!
I realized, as I sat looking dejected at my computer while designing a new practice session, that my players would be gone soon. Life is getting in the way. It's creeping in and slowly taking away this fun little bubble we created for ourselves. Our team seniors would soon be graduating. Our season will end. The fun and camaraderie we've worked so hard to cultivate and nurture will soon be turning into memories. I was sad. 

Letting Our Kids Go is Inevitable

A former coach reminded me that kids get busy and move on. My mind told me that this day would come. The rest of me has not come completely to terms with it yet. As with every great team I've been part of in this life, the team I'm coaching today holds a special place in my heart. I know I'm going to have to let them go. It's just a matter of time. 
We played two games this weekend. One on Sunday and one on Saturday. So, I practiced letting go. 
I'm usually a relatively quiet coach on the sidelines. I don't believe in Joystick coaching and I've always done my best to empower my players to think for themselves when they're on the field. 
In both games this weekend, I pulled myself back even more. These are High School aged kids. They can and should be thinking for themselves. They should be solving problems by now and pulling one another together when they get separated. They should be taking on leadership roles that will hopefully dwarf coach's influence. 
I asked them questions:
You guys on the bench... what are you seeing out there on the field in the way the other team is moving? Do you see any left-footed players? What are your thoughts on the goalkeeper for the other team? What can we do to improve our odds of scoring? 
At half time: "Defense, what are you seeing..." Mid Field, what are you seeing..." "Forwards, what are you seeing?" What do you guys want to do to take advantage of what you're seeing on the field right now in the midfield, in their defense, or in their attack? 
My team came up with their own second-half strategy both days this weekend. I could see in their eyes that they were engaged. I could see them thinking through options, sharing ideas, and during the game, I watched as they executed the plan they came up with on their own. 
I was deeply satisfied watching them play these last two games. I was thinking that the methods they've learned on the field here will work for them in so many other life situations. I imagined that maybe they would think back one day on the way I've empowered them and, in turn, empower their own teams to do great things. 
The fact that we won both games this weekend wasn't about the scoreboard. It was about punctuating the methods they employed to solve their own problems with a positive emotional response. They remember these last two games as a positive, and they remember that the coach asked them to solve their problems - and they did. Letting go in that context is a little exciting for me now. I can't wait to see how they will solve life problems in the future. You can bet I'll be looking for signs of the time we shared on the soccer pitch learning how to deal with the stuff that really matters. 


  • Pickhardt, Carl. “A Detachment Theory of Parenting Adolescents.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/surviving-your-childs-adolescence/201312/detachment-theory-parenting-adolescents.
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The Soccer Sidelines

Soccer Dad, Coach, and Club President who is devoted to developing kids and their families. With a diverse background in leadership in other settings, David is focused on empowering parents, players, and coaches to focus on the stuff that really matters in youth sports.