For the record, my husband and I staged the picture above with our nephew a few years ago, as a joke.

But for some, youth sports are no laughing matter.

As a veteran sports mom and a coach’s wife, I’ve witnessed some extreme ballpark behavior: coaches throwing pens, clipboards and hats. Tearful mothers screaming at the coach and at each other. Red-faced dads yelling, “Why don’t you man-up?” at pint-sized players.

Of course, some are a bit more subtle:
“Johnny can’t hit the side of the barn,” whispers a grandpa.
“Mary isn’t smart enough to be a pitcher,” a mom texts.
“Can’t we get a decent ump?” (okay, I’m guilty of this one)

I want to be a better fan than I’ve been in the past. I hope you do, too. Here are a few ideas:

10 ways to be your child’s greatest fan, without being a jerk:

1. Keep baseball in perspective. Sometimes parents take Little League—and children’s sports in general—way too seriously. I know I have. It’s easy to get so focused on the competition, the Boston butt fundraisers and the play-offs, that you lose sight of the sole reason you’re there: to be your child’s greatest fan.

Since most Little League players have only been alive for a decade—or less, it’s best to keep their games in perspective. The kids are not there to entertain adults, or to impress them. They are there to learn, to be a part of a team and mostly, to have fun.

2. Praise character more than skill. Of course, you’re going to cheer when your child hits a double or slides into home plate (who wouldn’t?). But be sure to cheer for more than that. Praise his or her character. Applaud hard work, courage and being coachable. Compliment good effort, good teamwork and being polite to the opposing team. Remember, developing an awesome curve ball or a perfect bunt is only beneficial for a season, but developing a good character is beneficial for life.

Here’s a great character verse to share with your child: “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young. Set an example for the believers in what you say and in how you live…” 1 Tim: 4:12 

3. Never punish a child for making an error in the game. Once I saw a dad push his son up against the car and cuss him out—for not making a play. I’ve known kids to be grounded simply because they grounded out. This is so very sad (especially for athletically challenged kids). When a parent punishes, belittles or scolds a child for making a physical error, it can do a lot of emotional damage. Make sure your children know they’re far more precious to you than their sports performance.

4. Be positive, especially after a loss. In the painful moments after a loss, be your child’s greatest fan by being positive. Point out something that he or she did right. Give hugs and pats on the back. Remind them there will be other moments to shine and other games to win. Author Jon Gordon says: “A positive culture produces wins over time.” I believe that’s true. Handling loss positively can make a big difference in your child’s success in baseball and most importantly, in life.

5. Be your child’s greatest fan, but not a sideline coach. Even if you have extensive experience playing major league baseball, don’t try to coach if you’re not the coach. Remember fans should yell for the team, not at them. Don’t give hitting advice from the stands or scold an outfielder for playing in the dirt—that’s the coaches job. Simply watch the game. Applaud the effort. Share the moment with your child.

6. Be constructive on the car ride home. In a recent survey, hundreds of college athletes were asked: “What is your worst memory of youth sports?” An overwhelming number said: “The ride home with my parents after games.” When the same college athletes were asked what their parents said that made them feel great, their overwhelming response was: “I love to watch you play.”

Use the ride home constructively: confirm all the things your child did right. Simply say, “I love to watch you play,” and nothing more.

7. Don’t compare. Comparing your child to other children can be incredibly hurtful. Instead of comparing, be your child’s greatest fan by focusing on his or her best qualities. Explain what you need to without using other kids as examples. Remember children learn in different ways, at different speeds, and achieve different levels of success. Fostering a comparison mindset leads to divisions within the team and animosity among parents.

8. Be grateful. Some kids aren’t healthy enough to play a sport. Other kids simply lack the opportunity. If your child can play, be grateful. Be thankful for the local baseball program and for all the volunteers who make it possible. Be appreciative of the other teams. Be sure to thank the umpires and the coaches at the end of the season (very few people do). The more grateful you are, the more grateful your child will be.

The Bible says: “Always give thanks to God the Father for everything [this includes baseball]…” Eph. 5:20 

9. Keep baseball fun. Children are first attracted to sports just for the fun of playing. Do whatever you can to make it an enjoyable experience, like hosting a team cookout or treating players at the concession stand. Be your child’s greatest fan by celebrating huge wins and even small victories. Laugh at all the crazy things that happen during the season. The more children enjoy a sport, the more they want to play it.

10. Love your child unconditionally. It’s essential for your child to know that your love does not depend on good performance. That home runs and strikeouts don’t affect how you feel. Make it clear that your love has nothing to do with the game and everything to do with your child. Love is foundational to your child’s success, both on the field and off of it. Be your child’s greatest fan by loving unconditionally.

Here’s a good description of love I adapted for sports from 1 Cor. 13:4-8:

Love is patient and kind. It does not envy other players or go around bragging. Love is respectful and easy-going. It is both inspiring and contagious. Love is an encouraging word. It is a big thumbs up. Love is a smile and a pat on the back, regardless of the score. It always hopes the best for everyone. Love never, ever fails.

If your child (or grandchild) is playing ball this year, remember the ultimate goal: to develop better athletes and better people. So make the season as positive and fun as you can.

Spring is finally here, let’s play ball!