Tips for being a Winning Sports Parent

by Stephen Walker, PhD, CC-AASP, USOC Registry of Sport Psychologists

He was doing his best to keep from breaking down, but the tears filled his eyes, the emotions were raw and he was lost. “Whatever I do it’s never good enough”… was what he uttered, but the pain in his body was palpable.  His name was Kyle – Wolfie to his teammates.  He just turned 12.  He was a gifted goalie – rated number one in the state, and he was playing competitive hockey for a AAA team engaged in a travel schedule as busy as the local Division I team.  For him, the pressure was over-the-top.  Not just because the competition was intense, which it was, but he was afraid to let his hero down.

In tonight’s game, he’d let in a good goal on a 2-on-1 breakaway when the save rebounded in the wrong direction.  His team won, and they celebrated, but he’d lost the shut-out and he was sure to hear about it.  The pressure to please his father had even hurt his game because he found himself losing focus on the ice by glancing in his dad’s direction…hoping for a smile or a “thumbs up”…or anything other than the frown he saw much of the time.  But then, the glare was nothing compared to getting reamed.  One time he almost threw up when his dad had screamed in his face like a drill sergeant he’d seen in the movies.  Boy!  He hated that.

Hockey is as intense a game as there is.  Hockey ‘moms’ and ‘dads’ are known to be passionate.  But this behavior is so over-the-top, it’s also risky.

Putting Things in Perspective

Kyle was referred to me by his goalie coach.  He had witnessed some of his dad’s critical behavior, and, he had noticed that Kyle was losing some of his snap… seemed distracted and wasn’t playing up to his potential.

As it turns out, Kyle’s Dad came from a family where much of the pressure to perform rested on his shoulders.  He played linebacker on his Varsity Football team and readily confessed to me an experience that gave me hope for this father-son duo.  The story goes like this:

In an important game he’d played against a league rival, he had registered 13 unassisted tackles, 2 more assists, defended a pass in coverage, knocked down a pass on a blitz, caused an opponent to fumble and generally wreaked havoc on the opposing team’s offense.  At the end of the game he remembered his dad fixating on one play….one where he had taken the fake on a reverse play and lost contain.  It resulted in an 8 yard gain for their rivals.  Geez, a game like that and the only thing his dad could talk about after the game was him blowing that play.

Parental behavior like this is emotionally abusive and it easily runs from generation to generation.  Too many parents from the mold of this scenario consider me one of those ‘touchy feely’ types.  They fail to recognize the impact of their behavior on their children – and – they tend to discount feedback from “others” who might weigh-in on “their” situation.  That often includes coaches, teachers, other parents who witness the abuse….worse still….even when that other person is their spouse.  Parents like this listen to no one, and as such, they often undermine their athletes’ coaches.

Priority One: Becoming Aware – Recognizing Where Passion Stops and Abuse Begins

Truth be told, this kind of situation exists more often than any of us would like to admit.  And those passionate about their sport have not only seen it, but likely been a guilty party themselves once or twice.  The gut check required to get this pattern under control is not for sissies.  And that’s why so many continue to perpetuate the tribulations of abuse.

People who have difficulty with boundaries are at greatest risk.  It’s probably been a factor elsewhere in their life, but when it involves a child learning, and growing and becoming – there is more at risk.  Rather than helping the child athlete discover for themselves what coaches are trained to teach them, these parents tend to take over.  They might not even communicate their thoughts with the coach – but they don’t hesitate to put forward their opinions at home.  What’s worse is that parents like this often don’t have enough insight to recognize their own limitations.  In extreme cases, they treat their child athlete like a possession where they alone control their child’s experiences.

If I were to tell parents like this their kids will likely drop out of sport in rebellion, or find really dysfunctional ways to get by – they’d deny it.  But the fact is: When the fear of reprisal, discouragement and disappointment expressed by one or both parents – outweigh the joy of ‘team’ cohesion, sense of accomplishment and personal pride in seeing your game improve – the formula gets so far out of balance that there isn’t enough to play for. By the time an athlete stops having fun and starts to think that what they do “is never good enough” – they’re in trouble.  It is incumbent on every coach, trainer, manager, league administrator and parent to be attuned to situations like this and do their best to prevent it. Why?  Because they can…and…if they don’t try – they become part of the problem.

The Styles of Parenting Continuum

Imagine six parents, each with a different parenting style, sitting in the dentist’s waiting room with their six children. The kids are running wild, acting out, and getting into trouble. Here’s what the parents might say and do:

  • The abusive parent says, “Get your ugly butt over here you stupid little creep!” (smacks, screams, tears).
  • The conditional parent says, “I can’t believe you would behave like this, you’re embarrassing me, we’re leaving. I told you we were going to go get ice cream later but I changed my mind. You won’t be having ice cream for three weeks!”
  • The assertive parent says, “Sarah, this behavior is out of line. Sit down right next to me. Now please. And now might be a good time to start that homework you brought.”
  • The supportive parent says, “Tommy, what’s up? You can’t behave like that, honey. Please sit down now. Are you bored?  I brought your book and some stuff to play with.”
  • The indulgent parent says, “Ah, let them run, they’re just kids having a good time.”
  • The neglectful parent says, well, nothing. The neglectful parent doesn’t notice his kid; he’s too busy reading People Magazine.

Child Development – How Point-of-View and Experience Contribute

Child development goes through a variety of stages.  Parents will remember the ‘terrible twos’ and other phases their children all went through – and – they will even recognize that cognitive development undergoes a tremendous shift in adolescence.  However, they’re not as good at remembering “how their own point-of-view shifted” as they went through these stages, largely because of so many other “experiences” they had at many different ages, times and circumstance.  The evolving innovation of qualitative research is now beginning to contribute extensively in the developmental and sport psychology literature.

Of course, each person’s genetic makeup plays a huge role in establishing the basic template from which the rest of their development takes place.  Its not just medical history that’s at work here – personality traits evolve from the make up of both biological parents. However, within that template there are thousands of experiences – and – shifts in behavioral emphasis that ultimately form a child’s personality.

Exactly How Does Parenting Factor in?

1)  Kids Learn by Watching their Parents:

Parents will readily acknowledge that modeling plays a role in how their kids turn out.  However, they rarely see it from their child’s perspective.  Kids experience their parents as being generally critical or nurturing…sometimes functional – and – sometimes dysfunctional – in regard to what their child remembers.  How that ultimately influences the child’s developing personality looks something like this:

Critical Parent

Functional –    “Good effort Kyle, but you need to stay with it a little longer to be successful.”  “Stretch a bit more – here – and you’ll reach your goal.”

Dysfunctional –  “No, no, no forget it! You’ll never get it that way.”  “What the heck is wrong with you, can’t you do anything right?”

The functional side of the critical parent recognizes effort, and, specifies the direction and level of work required for success – hence setting standards.  The dysfunctional side is demeaning and attacks the core of the child – intimating that the child is defective and likely never to measure up.

Nurturing Parent

Functional –     “Wow! You took a big hit, that cut is likely to need attention…lets get it looked at so you can get out there and play again. – Alright, you’re good to go. Have fun.”

Dysfunctional – “Oh no you don’t – this is dangerous…I’m not letting you get yourself hurt.”

The functional side of the nurturing parent acknowledges that life can be tough, and you need to recover even as you train…but when you’ve done so… it’s important to get back to your work so you can learn from it.  The dysfunctional side is over-protective and tends to supersede a child’s choice and opportunities to challenge him or herself.

Of course, the greatest challenge in parenting is KNOWING WHAT to do and WHEN to DO IT.  The Parenting Continuum above is comprised of a large number of experiences that ultimately shape the child’s behavior.  This parenting can be consciously focused and deliberately crafted – or not.  A great many parents, even to their own dismay, do exactly what their parents did even though they SWORE they’d NEVER do so.  Modeling is the key.  Our kids observe everything that we do, and their patterns are learned through repetition.

2)  Kids Learn through Their Own Interactions with the World:

It is also true that children learn from their point-of-view interactive experiences with the world at large and not exclusively from our parents’ tutelage.  There are three primary aspects of how the child experiences the environment that can have significant impact on how they develop.  As you might expect, there is a functional and dysfunctional side to each of these developmental centers of personality:

Playful Child

Functional-      “Oh boy, this is really fun!  I get to play until I have to do my homework.”

Dysfunctional- “How much fun can you have?  If a little bit is great, then a whole lot more must be that much better.”

The playful child can and usually does develop appreciation for opportunities, light-hearted encounters and positive experiences…when there is balance in understanding the proper time and place for play.  However, when one’s developing playful child evolves without a sense of limits ….self-indulgent behavior often follows.  In the extreme these kids acquire the inability to set limits and boundaries – and oftentimes they are quite susceptible to addictive disease.

Adaptive Child

Functional –     “This looks like it could be fun. I wonder who the leader is? Maybe the coach will show me how and I’ll find a way to join in.?”

Dysfunctional – “Uh-oh.  This looks scary.  I’d better hang next to the teacher/coach and do whatever they say.  Hopefully they will look after me and keep me safe.”

The adaptive child is really good at fitting in and can master social graces, learn patience and establish really useful mentorships with those who offer them skills and training.  On the other hand, the adaptive child can become a doormat afraid to go their own way or think for themselves, dependent on other people to excess.

Rebellious Child

Functional –     “They want us all to stand in line, but the leaders get to go first…so I’m going to lead.”

Dysfunctional – “So what if I get in trouble, to heck with them – I’m gonna do what I want to do.”

The rebellious child can functionally establish the proper rudiments of independent thinking – or – if dysfunction, become oppositional and, in the extreme, sociopathic.

Thankfully, personalities continue to develop throughout adolescence.  Children tend to integrate thousands of experiences within these parameters over several years.  Significant emotional events, traumas, injuries, betrayals, successes, and both fun and not-so-fun situations contribute to the lessons learned and patterns of response to life’s ups and downs.

The Emerging Adult – “Learning the Best Practices in Life”

3)  Kids Learn through Experimentation:

During the adolescent years, each child’s brain experiences a surge in development. The powers of logic, understanding, recognition of exceptions to the rule, subtleties that can determine the fine line between success and failure – are all established.  The process of integration makes big strides in the teen years.

This process of maturation affects every part of the person physically, emotionally, socially and morally.  The adult part of the personality is the one we hope every child develops through maturity, with the positive experiences and knowledgeable tutelage of great parents, coaches, teachers, team captains and leaders of all kinds.  Ultimately, one can learn to mitigate all manner of experiences in life – and balance the influences from our parents (good or bad)  as well as the lessons experienced through interacting with the universe in a positive way – or not.

If the adult part of our personality develops properly our children will grow to be both capable and lovable – competent people, great partners & teammates and good citizens.  If it doesn’t…our children may mature with an unbalanced personality. Perhaps the dysfunctional side of the critical parent will manifest – driven by anger and unrealistic expectations for what a 12 year old should be able to do.  Hence, we meet Kyle’s dad. Helicopter moms, doormat personalities, good time Charlie’s and all manner of dysfunctional people become that way for myriad of influences both genetic and experiential.  Hence, learning becomes paramount and as the gatekeepers to our children’s early life experiences – parents set the bar.

Skill building is huge and specific training regimens are key to facilitating success.  During these early adolescent years athletes learn to train.  They learn the benefit of hard work and they begin to experiment with every aspect of their work ethic.  Some will go all-out-all-of-the-time.  Some will “fake it” because it looks alright on the outside, but on the inside they feel like they are getting away with being lazy.

It is the internal recognition of effort and execution that registers the true value of training – whether in academics or learning a slap shot.  Malcolm Gladwell illustrates in hundreds of ways how those who succeed and master an endeavor will train upwards of 10,000 hours to achieve that success.  Young adolescents are at the stage where they are learning to train – older adolescents are learning to win.

As parents, coaches and mentors of athletes at every age – how we approach our athletes makes a big difference.  For when we act “in the best interests” of our athletes – we will do the right thing more often than not.  Below are some guidelines designed to help parents do a better job…giving their child athletes a better opportunity for success at every level.

Top 10 List of Things Parents Can Do to Raise a Healthy Happy Athlete

1.)    FIRST & FOREMOST – DO NO HARM!  It can be a pretty helpless feeling when you are watching your kid in the trenches, especially if you’ve got a lot of playing experience yourself.  However, criticism – expressions of anger – negativity – including unsolicited coaching tips are likely to be counterproductive – and can undermine your athletes’ coach.  Yelling, taunting, and intimidation of any kind is expressly discouraged.  Parents who do so are being abusive and engaging in behavior likely to be harmful to their child athlete.

2.)    DISCHARGE YOUR EMOTIONS IN A POSITIVE WAY.  No one expects you to observe without being fully engaged…but what you do with those emotions is important and requires care.  Just as your child athlete has assignments and a defined role on the field they are expected to practice – you have an assignment and defined role as a spectator, and as supportive parent.  PRACTICE BEING A SUPPORTIVE SPECTATOR. I’m a proponent of engaged parents getting in involved productively – keep notes of key events in the game, find an official way to help…keep stats for the team, etc. If you’ve got something productive to do during a contest – your thinking will be channeled in a positive direction.

3.)    WRITE A GAME SUMMARY after the contest.  Keep it positive.  Remember, these athletes are developing skills at EVERY level.  Key events, clock usage, reviews of stats, productive assessment of the competition, productive assessment of your team’s strengths and weaknesses can help. These are to be provided to the COACH.  Remember to make them as objective as possible.  These are observations of what happened. (If you make an interpretation – put the notes in parentheses and label them as your personal point of view.)  You can show this to the coach and ask them if this type of summary is helpful.  If it is, you now have a job supportive to the coach AND the team.  If your son or daughter wants to see the summary – it should be neutral enough for every player on the team to benefit from.  If your child WANTS you to write a summary of THEIR play – ASK them what they would want you to include in it.  Then it will truly be a resource FOR them.

4.)    IN PARENTING an athlete CONSIDER THEIR ABILITY LEVEL & WILLINGNESS TO LEARN.  If your athlete is not sure how to do something – ask the coach if they have a drill, video, or recommended mentor your athlete can work with on developing the skills in question.  If your athlete has ability but isn’t willing to put in the training time to master a skill – you can not do it for them.  You can support them by playing with them…offering practice opportunities…look for position coaches who specialize in those skills…show highlights of pros YOUR athlete admires who put in the time and got the results.

Rule of thumb:  If your athlete wants to learn but doesn’t know how – they need direction. If your athlete is able but not willing (lazy, poor practice habits, inattentive) – they need support.  Think FUNdamentals: If they aren’t having FUN they won’t want to learn.  If you are on their case about it, they may become even LESS motivated (remember the rebellious child and adolescence.)  Others are likely to be able to encourage and restore the FUN in mastering those skills – AND – Once that momentum is established in your athlete’s training regimen – you can rest a bit because your child’s motivation has been tapped.  Intrinsic motivation is huge – and – it is the birthplace of our love of sport.

5.)    BE POSITIVE FOLLOWING COMPETITIONS.  Emphasize the effort. Emphasize the fun.  If your athlete is upset, it is likely best to WAIT awhile before talking about at contest.  When the timing is right you can empathize and compassionately acknowledge how it’s sometimes hard to put in a great effort and not get the desired outcome…but always positively recognize the EFFORT and any other positives you can offer up.  A great game is a great game even if your team comes up short.  We tend to learn more when challenged to the max.

6.)    LONG AFTER a contest (hours) you can ASK YOUR ATHLETE if they would like some FEEDBACK.  IF they DO – ASK THEM WHEN. Make an appointment.  They will have had time to process it some, and, so will you.  This will take much of the emotion out of the exchange….so the focus can remain on lessons learned, skills applied, and highlights to feel good about. BE POSITIVE – Very important.

7.)    PICK NO MORE THAN 1-2 POINTS TO REVIEW.  ALWAYS START WITH POSITIVE OBSERVATIONS (both general and specific.)  Ask your athlete how they experienced the contest in the trenches.  What did they notice?  What were they focused on doing?  Did they have a specific emphasis or skill they were working on?  What was the game plan?  These kinds of questions allow you to collaborate with your athlete and understand THEIR EXPERIENCE of the contest.  If they get defensive at all – drop it immediately – because you will lose and your child will lose the gains you’ve made in establishing a collaborative exchange.  If they are confused about something, make a note to tell the coach…or better yet…if your athlete is developing the kind of confidence and personal motivation to be successful – let them experiment with you on HOW to ask the coach for extra help.

8.)    LOOK AROUND FOR WAYS TO SUPPORT YOUR ATHLETE.  If you are reading this you have already done so.  If they need help with conditioning – strength training – or speed and agility – give them the opportunity to train with an expert.  If they are unfocused or experience anxiety and you can see that it interferes with play offer them a consultation with a sport psychologist. Consider a nutritionist, take them to a clinic or talk, let them see what adult athletes do to better prepare themselves for competition. Look for readings that will help your athlete learn and grow.  These things will help you both – and – reinforce the collaboration you are developing.

9.)    TREAT INJURIES WITH COMPASSION AND TAKE THEM SERIOUSLY. When dealing with an injury of any kind – be earnest about it.  Examine the part of the body your athlete is complaining about. Look for swelling, make sure the joint is articulating properly, clean cuts and abrasions, and, do first aid if there is no trainer available.  Find a trainer if you need one.  No matter how old the athlete this piece is important. Even if you think your child is exaggerating – this might be an important learning opportunity for them – or – they may be expressing a symptom of over training and under recovery.  Be thoughtful.  Ask questions.  Yes, we all want to learn mental toughness, but NOT when an injury needs to be checked out.  The important part is focusing on the recovery, being positive and encouraging proper self-care.  Balance is key and remembering the functional side of the nurturing parent can help.  The goal is to properly evaluate the problem, provide the best practices in recovery, and get back to the fun part – playing.

10.) PLAY WITH THEM WHENEVER YOU CAN.  Remember to play – not necessarily to compete – but because it is FUN for them and you.  FUNdamentals are mastered through this kind of practice.  Not only will it help your family bond, but your athlete will appreciate your attitude – learn to love fitness – and enjoy the fact that you are proud and interested in helping them develop their skills and talents as far as they can go.

I hope that this article has been helpful and provided some good insights into athlete parenting.  Look to Advance My Athlete  for further applications of the best principles of applied sport psychology for you and your child.

References and Resources:

1)                  Fraser-Thomas, J., Cote, J., Deakin, J. (2008) Examining Adolescent Sport Dropout and Prolonged Engagement from a Developmental Perspective, Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 20:3 pgs 318-324, Routledge Press.

2)                  Davis, N., Meyer, B.B., (2008) When Sibling Becomes Competitor: A Qualitative Investigation of Same-Sex Sibling Competition in Elite Sport, Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 20:2 pgs 220-236, Routledge Press.

3)                  Berne, E., (1992), Games People Play, Ballantine-Random House Books, NY.

4)                  To take a survey on parenting styles to see where you might land on the continuum click here: http://pediatrics.about.com/cs/quizzes/l/bl_prnt_style.htm

5)                  Gladwell, M., (2008), Outliers, The Story of Success, Little Brown & Co., New York, NY.

6)                  Mecklenburg, K., (2009), Heart of a Student Athlete, All Pro Advice for Competitors and Their Families, Booksurge Press, Denver, Co.

7)                  Vealey, R.S., (2005), Coaching for  the Inner Edge, Fitness Information Technology – Division International Center for Performance Excellence, Morgantown, WV.

8)                  Ripken, C., Wolff, R., (2006), Parenting Young Athletes the Ripken Way, Ensuring the Best Experience for Your Kids in Any Sport, Gotham Books, New York, NY.

9)                  Smith, R.E., (1989), The Parent’s Complete Guide to Youth Sports, AAPHERD Publications, Waldorf, MD.

10)              Perconte, J.S., (2007) Raising an Athlete, How to Instill Confidence, Build Skills, and Inspire a Love for Sport, PositiveParentinginSports.com.

11)              Links:

American Sport Education Program

Institute for the Study of Youth Sports

Podium Sports Journal

7 thoughts on “Tips for being a Winning Sports Parent

  • February 22, 2010 at 10:45 am
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    Wow! that was a fabulous article and quite informative…..Perhaps it will give me a hand with my grandchildren?
    thank you!

    Reply
  • February 24, 2010 at 4:22 pm
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    Excellent article. I’m sending it to my two sons who have boys. I received a BS degree in Child Development at CSU. Your article hits the nail on the head. Well done.

    Reply
  • March 23, 2010 at 7:03 pm
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    Noah,

    Great article. Adam sent me your link to the NCAA tournament and scrolled through your past topics. This one fascinates me as I struggle to get and keep Holden interested in any sport. I will refer back to it as he gets a little older and more able to participate in organized sports. Love the free professional advice.

    Reply
  • May 18, 2010 at 2:10 am
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    Hello. remarkable job. I did not expect this. This is a remarkable story. Thanks!

    Reply
  • June 14, 2010 at 5:22 pm
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    I loved the article and am trying to be a positive influence in my childs life, overall, including athletics. He is only 8 years old and, I think is a potentially talented athlete. His favorite sport is the one he is playing at the moment. We live in a small community and he is always coached by parents with children on the team. Each time he makes an all star team, the coaching parent, places emphasis on their childs excellence and ensures them a starting position at their base of choice. It is difficult to have a discussion with the coaches as they feel personally insulted. Our goal is to teach character while protecting our son from the “great parent coach.” Unfortunately, until middle school and high school, my child will play for these coaches and be on the team with their children. Thoughts about situations such as this.

    Reply
    • June 16, 2010 at 12:53 pm
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      Hi Glenda – thanks for the vine. Your situation is more common than you might think. With youth sports participation going through the roof, so are kid’s injuries and a lot of other…not-so-good by products. I can think of two things that might help you in this situation. 1) I would get involved in the steering committee for the youth sports organization your child is participating in – and – push to create some coaching education training for those dads volunteering to the program. Almost all of them mean well, but that is not substitute for a good coaching education program for them – focusing on team building, skills assessment, setting a positive mental attitude, teaching drills. team management and maximizing the fun factor. 2) Make sure that your child’s organization has behavioral guidelines in place for all parents, coaches and athletes that emphasize fairness, fun and fan behavior. These won’t get your kid to an all-star coach – but they may improve the overall coaching league wide and provide better assurances everyone is having a good time. Good luck and thanks for visiting – Dr Stephen Walker, editor.

      Reply

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