Christie Pearce Rampone on What It Takes to Be a Good Sports Parent

Soccer legend Christie Pearce Rampone, winner of three Olympic gold medals and member of two World Cup championships, is just like us. The 45-year-old is the mother of two girls — Rylie, who turns 15 next month, and Reece, 10. She has been there. Hell, she’s there now parenting through COVID-19. It’s why she understood that our interview was waylaid thanks to this reporter’s sleepy daughter and his inability to tell time.

Rampone also knows what it’s like to be a sports parent. Out now, Be All In: Raising Kids for Success in Sports and Life, written with  sports neuropsychologist Dr. Kristine Keane, is a straightforward, non-condescending guidebook for parents to get kids the best sports experience without obliterating their childhood. If my daughter enters the world of organized sports, I’ll return to this book for guidance. 

In a lively, thoughtful 30-minute conversation, Rampone, who retired from professional soccer in 2017, delivered a master class on being a good sports parent—and the joy of being one. She also spoke to Fatherly about parenting away from the pitch, the effects of COVID-19 on youth sports, and why even she struggles with those TikTok challenges. 

I’m the father of a three-year-old. She’s not in a league, she’s just hitting a soccer ball or playing basketball with me. What can I do  to become a good sports parent, let’s say, in the next three to four years?

I would just be aware of the climate in sports and seeing maybe what your daughter’s interests may lie and making sure it’s the right timing for her and not you. You may have that conversation when she’s young, but just knowing that she’s going to do something and make it her decision. That’s what I’ve taught both of my girls. It’s like, “I don’t care what you do, but you’re doing something, you know, you have to be active and try to live a healthy lifestyle.”

How do I know the time is right for her? 

Through our research, we found that communication is 93% body language, nonverbal. So if you can just observe her and watch her as she grows and maybe what she leans toward as interests. Is she picking up a ball, playing with it? Is she competitive within games? Is she more of an introvert? Does she want to be the center of attention? Does she not? 

My kids are very different. My oldest always had a ball. Like whenever we went to a store, the first thing she went to was something sports-related without even pushing [that] on her. And my second daughter always went for the doll. She was more nurturing and wanted to play and do imagery and always had that communication with her and the doll. I could always tell there was one more competitive than the other and it kind of played out that way. 

Was it hard to realize that one child was not going in the direction that you ultimately headed in?

No. I would say it was kind of refreshing to know that she was being who she wanted to be. She’s been in soccer, basketball, swam, gymnastics, and she’s kind of still finding her path. I make it very clear to them: They don’t have to play soccer. I do want them doing something. But it’s kind of fun as a parent to be able to separate yourself and pull back and just go and watch them and enjoy and see the different levels of competition. They still both love sports, but just at a different level. Their relationship with sports is very different.

Sports parents have a reputation of being too involved or being maybe too passionate. The chances of their kid playing in the World Cup are so slim. Why do they get so carried away?

I think the emotion has just been caught up with parents, whether it be trophies or scholarships or egos. There’s a combination I think of that and a little bit of living through their child and maybe they didn’t have the experience with sports that they wanted. So it’s definitely the place that they’re putting a ton of pressure on their kids to be successful at such a young age. I think they’re missing the true reason for sports. I reflect back on my youth and that there was no pressure. I played multiple sports. I went from basketball to field hockey to soccer. It was fun.  And there was no individual training. You just went out and you just played it for the love of it. And I think we’re missing that part.

Parents are getting so invested that they’re really not allowing their children to guide their own path. You know, as a coach at the youth level, I feel like the kids aren’t even taking responsibility for packing their own bag. Or if they’re late, it’s always like, “My mom and my dad…” It’s always a parent reaching out versus the athlete reaching out. So I think we’re kind of misguiding our children on how to learn, to listen almost on their own, and what their identity is outside of sports and letting them navigate that path themselves: fail and succeed and feel all the good energy you can get from sports.

How should parents communicate with each other to be good sports parents? 

Again, it’s awareness of just not going to the game and just focusing on your own child. Understanding and realizing it’s about relationships in sports. It’s about making the kids around you better and hopefully encouraging your child to do that as well as working on that with other parents on the sidelines and being all in together. These kids are putting so much time into the training and the development, and then going to compete that everybody should be in it together. 

And being more aware that as a parent, you are truly the first role model your kids look up to. They’re going to be looking at you, whether you like it or not, at how you act and how your body language is and your emotion. 

What kind of parent are you? 

I’m the one that just puts my chair down and just observes and watches and just takes all in. Like, I don’t say anything at games. I just allow my kids to entertain me and be able to watch through a different lens. I’m coming from it as an athlete and a coach. So when I get to be able to put my chair down, I’m there to enjoy it and allow them to express themselves. I’m there to cheer them on and their teammates. But I think a lot of people do look over to me and really want to know why I’m not so emotional, why I’m not getting so bent out of shape. They’ll communicate with me to get reassurance. It’s about them. You don’t understand the game plan of the coach. You don’t understand what’s going on, the ref. You have to trust the process. That’s the key to it, because if you don’t trust the process, those uncertainties come and those emotions come and then you start getting more emotional about the wrong things. 

After decades playing soccer, what’s it like to sit back and watch your kids play? 

It’s very enjoyable, to be honest. There’s no pressure, no stress. And, you know, my kids have been watching me play from when they were born. So it’s just refreshing to sit back and just watch them smile and laugh, and then also see the worry and stress and them trying to figure it out and problem-solve themselves. I’ve been there. I know what it takes to get to the highest level. I’m going to guide them the best way I can and push them when I have to and let them be a child. But I want them to have a good balance so that they do have an affinity after sports. Because sports were everything to me. Now, self-reflecting, it was a hard struggle from the transition of being retired into the next part of my life. It was like, “Who am I? OK, what’s my purpose now?”

What is your purpose now? 

Honestly, with self-reflecting and realizing how many years I put into playing, coaching, being involved in sports as a female, it’s just to give back. It’s to help educate parents and let them know there is no one true path to success. It all looks very different, so don’t get caught up too much in the fear of the unknown and the FOMO. Just be there for your kids.  

With the pandemic, are your daughters playing sports now? 

Well, it definitely is different right now. Reece, my younger one, is not playing sports right now. She’s doing some training and a small group session, but there’s been no competition. I do believe for kids, mentally, they need to be playing and being around their teammates, but I don’t necessarily think they should be competing right now in this pandemic. 

There’s so much you can get out of sports and being with your teammates and going through the right guidelines, but learning the technique of the game, the skill-sets of the game…We’ve been doing a lot of Zoom calls and breaking down the game for them to have a whole different outlook on it. So it’s been fun for the kids, but you still have to stay connected. I think that’s the most important thing: there are ways to stay connected other than just playing games. And I think it can change the mindset of American sports. It’s not always about winning. All we want to do is compete — and we think our kids are having fun–but there’s a whole other side of the game that can be learned: the whole skill-set and the technical side. That’s what I’ve been encouraging and changing my children’s perspective on sport a little bit right now: Let’s work on technique, work on our fitness, kind of have fun with it, and then we’re ready when it opens up.

It’s the perfect time to just get with your friends, not get critiqued, not be judged, figure out who you are. That personality shines through. 

That plays into the big theme of the book: The key to being a good sports parent is the ability to be flexible, to accept criticism. How do you do that? 

Absolutely. You just have to adapt and adjust. It’s like anything in life. I think we tend to sometimes be too structured. It’s kind of like organized chaos. There are going to be interruptions in your life. And it’s the same thing in sports, whether it’s lack of playing time or injury. These are the life lessons you can learn through that. And it kind of correlates with what’s going on. We’re in an interruption right now. Standards have changed. We don’t know really what’s ahead of us. What is sports going to look like in the next year? Control what you can control. Understand this is a tough time and you can figure out ways to adapt and adjust and kind of change the viewpoint and the lens of sports by just going out and playing with your small group of friends. You don’t need to open it up into these big groups until it’s allowed. I think when this all opens up, I think you’re going to find kids and parents just appreciating sports more and realizing how much it means to their individual families and identifying the relationship they have with sports. 

How did your soccer career make you a good parent?

It was a-ha moment, to be honest. When I became a parent, realizing all the sacrifices and commitments and the relationships you build with your teammates and the accountability piece: the discipline of being able to train when no one’s watching; the constant routine and good habits you build through sports. I was like, I would love my kids to follow in those footsteps. Watching both my girls learn from great role models kind of put it all together. It starts from such a young age with discipline and respect and understanding emotions. They’re both very independent girls and I credit that to how they were raised in a sports environment.

The life of a professional athlete is very different than most parents’. How did you make that normal for your daughters? 

We did the same thing on the road that I would do at home. I mean, obviously, it’s a little different, because you’re in a hotel room and traveling 260 days out of the year. As soon as I got to the hotel I was only with my kids, I wasn’t napping. They would play with children from China, Japan,  to make sure they were interacting. Even though they couldn’t speak the same language, they were still communicating through body language and smiling. So it was definitely a different experience, but I think just seeing different cultures was an amazing experience for them. I would do it all over again if someone asked me. They were just easily adaptable and understood a life of ups and downs.

The routine has definitely changed from being able to sit down and have a family meal. Now it’s about them and not mom. Right. So it’s been a good transition. However, the girls would still love me to play. They still talk about how they miss the girls, the traveling. They were so passionate, and they really enjoyed that lifestyle. 

Are you hitting the soccer ball around with your kids?

Yeah, I coach them, but absolutely. Whenever they want to go out and kick the soccer ball around or shoot hoops or whatever it may be—do a TikTok, you know—I’m all in. I make sure that I separate work from family. That’s the good balance, and I think they understand that. I’m probably not the best with my phone because I make sure that I put it away. I need to do a better job of connecting with people, but I want to make sure that they know mom’s not on her phone. When she’s here, she’s present. 

Wait, you’ve been on TikTok? 

I’ve been, yes. My kids’. I’ve been in a few of theirs and they’re trying to get me more involved in it. They’re just fun moments with the kids. It’s challenging. [Laughs} The TikTok dances are not easy.

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