Sports Parenting: 3 valuable lessons picked up from 10 years of work
By Sara Robinson, MA
My oldest son is only 4 and I am already thinking about what it will be like if he ends up being an athlete.
But not for him – for me.
As a Mental Skills Coach, I know the positive potential that sport has: involvement helps to build confidence, character, determination and more. Having worked with young athletes for over a decade, I also know that there are challenges athletes will face, including frustration, lack of confidence and stress.
I’ve spent the last 10 years working with athletes, most of whom are 18 or under, and I’ve come to a big realization: parents can be a huge source of stress for athletes. I don’t share this today to make parents feel bad, because in all honesty most parents are coming from a great place. The parents of the kids I work with typically have no intention of stressing their kids out, and often they are completely unaware of how they are affecting their kids.
As a parent, I see how this can easily happen: you want to support your kids, you want the best for them and you want to see them succeed. This can influence how we talk to our kids, what we ask them about practice, how we congratulate them at the end of their games, and more. And if we’re not careful, we can create the stress that we probably want to shelter them from. Even though I am aware of these points, I’m sure I will end up breaking some of my own suggestions for sport parents.
I write these reminders to parents based on what I’ve heard from kids over and over. I also write these reminders so that if one day my kids play sports I’ll be able to look back on this and practice what I preach:
1) Your kids do want you on their team. Just not their sport team. Kids become stressed when parents become consumed with their sport experience. I hear quite a bit that kids want their parents involved, but more-so to ask about how things are going and support them when needed; they don’t want you to get so wrapped up in all of the nitty-gritty of sport. They want you on their family team. Ask your kids what kind of support they want from you and start the conversation early about wanting feedback from them if they feel you’re getting overly involved.
2) Kids already have enough pressure; try not to add more. Chances are, your child feels some sense of pressure from their coach. Even when coaches are fantastic, part of their role is helping kids to do well (a.k.a. win). There is often an inherent sense of pressure that happens when winning and losing are involved. Some athletes handle this pressure better than others. On top of coach pressure, your athlete probably puts some pressure on herself too. She wants to do well; she wants to make you (and her coach and team) proud; she wants to execute the skills she’s been working so hard on. So guess what? There’s already enough pressure without you adding more. Again, we don’t always realize we’re adding pressure. Parents may think they’re just showing an interest or supporting, but kids can interpret this differently. Try to stay aware of your child’s reactions (verbal and non-verbal) when you start talking sport. If they appear to get stressed or act upset or shut down, you may be adding pressure without realizing it.
3) If your child talks about quitting, listen. At some point an athlete’s career will end. Many kids end up leaving sport around adolescence. If your child talks about quitting sport, I have a couple of suggestions:
Take a breath
Resist the urge to tell them no or even jump into asking "why?"
Reframe the conversation to talk about making a decision to stay or to leave sport (rather than quitting).
Ask what is causing them to want to leave
Discuss if there is anything that can be done to resolve these issues (let them come up with the ideas, if possible, but add in suggestions as appropriate.
With this approach, you may help them resolve the issues they’re experiencing. You may not, but at least this way your athlete may be more open to staying. This is especially helpful if this conversation is happening in the early teen or teenage years. Why? Because at that age, kids are pushing back against their parents.
So, if you tell them they can’t quit, or show signs of resistance, they’re likely to push back harder. Instead, if you show openness to the idea and want to help them figure it out, they may be more likely to resolve the situation in a way that doesn’t involve leaving entirely. And even if they do decide to stop playing, hopefully you have worked together as a team to come to the decision rather than having an epic blow-up that takes time to repair.
Parents do so many things well in life, and we certainly want to support our children. That instinct is fantastic and often one we should follow. However, I’ve learned through working with athletes that parents’ support can be interpreted in a variety of ways.
Hopefully these three reminders will help us all be Sport Parents that our children want to listen to.
Sara Robinson is a Mental Skills Coach with a Master’s Degree in Sport Psychology. She resides in the Bay Area of Calif., but works with athletes and coaches all over the country to help improve their mental skills, communication habits, and increase their enjoyment in sport. For more information, visit www.trainingthemind.com. She can also be found blogging about mental skills for moms at www.getmombalanced.com.
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