Children who participate in sports programs have the opportunity to maximize their potential physically, mentally, emotionally and socially. But it doesn't just happen. Although good coaching and league administration are important, nothing can replace knowledgeable, interested and supportive parents. So how can moms and dads help their children make the most of their athletic endeavors? First, know the rules of the game.

"The more parents know about the sport their child is playing, the calmer and more at ease they will be," says Brooke de Lenche, author of "Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports." "Parents may not realize that some of the rules for that given sport have been modified due to age and developmental level. So as they sit on the sidelines, they may wonder why a call was or wasn't made."

Parents should also be aware of the developmental milestones for the activity, so they can ascertain if their child is physically and mentally ready to take on the sport.

Developmental milestones are paramount for Anthony Aglio. When his daughter, Maci, started playing soccer at age 6, he had two goals in mind: to keep her focused on the game and to help her learn which direction to move the ball. At age 8, she is now working on a new set of goals.

"Maci is learning to use her left foot and to dribble the ball without looking at it," says Aglio. "We're also working on trying to get the ball from her opponent rather than waiting for it to come to her."

Therein lies another dimension of sports parenting, to help your child set goals for himself. But according to Stan Waite, basketball and soccer coach for YMCA Youth Sports Programs, those goals need to be realistic. "The more goals your children set and reach for themselves, the more successful they will be and the more fun they will have," he says.

Experts agree the coach may be a good source for providing drill pointers. But for Michele Rafetto, collaborating with her kids' coaches has even greater value.

"I want to know who's coaching my kids, and make sure they are in a safe environment and are being instructed in an appropriate way - that the coaches aren't too tough on them and that they are giving lots of positive reinforcement," says the mother of four.

One of the best ways to do this is to volunteer. Ask if the team needs an assistant coach or administrator, offer to spearhead a fundraising event or sign up to bring snacks for the kids after the game.

"A great way for parents to be involved is to offer to be the team journalist," says de Lenche. "Bring your camera and start taking pictures of the kids at practices and games. Then create an online photo album for the entire team. This can encourage communication and unity among team members, their families and coaches."

Communication is a key role in sports parenting, especially when it comes to talking with your children about life lessons such as winning well, dealing with defeat, cooperation, perseverance and the like.

"Maci and I often talk about cooperation and how players have to work together to protect the goal and how it's important to pass the ball to other players, particularly if they are near the goal," says Aglio. "We also talk about how we need to be patient with everyone because we all make mistakes."

But Maci's biggest lesson has been one of perseverance. "Sometimes I have to remind her that things aren't going to come so easily and she has to practice," Aglio continues. "I tell her, 'You aren't going to be able to dribble the ball right away, you have to practice.' Perseverence is something we really talk about, especially on the way home."

"One of the most important things I've learned is to listen to my kids' frustrations and excitements," says Rafetto. "Sometimes they don't want you to solve their problem, they just want you to listen."

Raffeto also believes talk must be accompanied by action. "My husband and I try to be good role models for our kids and live out what we say to them," she continues. "We work out on a regular basis and try to eat healthy and encourage our kids to do the same. When we're in the stands, we keep a positive attitude and cheer everyone on, even the other team if they have made a good play."

"Being your child's cheerleader is the biggest role of a sports parent," says Waite. "Try to make it to as many games and practices as you can, offer encouragement and support and look for little ways to let them know you are their greatest fan."

"We always make Saturday game days special and do something afterward that Maci enjoys - a trip to McDonalds, a movie or swimming," Aglio concludes. "We just want her to know we're proud of her and are behind her the whole way."


Denise Yearian is the former editor of two parenting magazines and the mother of three children.