Being a parent of an aspiring young athlete is a very peculiar situation. Your child is going through similar phases to the rest of the kids, but they’re also facing a whole different set of challenges on a day-to-day basis. If you’ve never played sports professionally, you’re probably lacking insight into unique situations, experiences, and issues. Sports parents who were pro athletes themselves are better informed, but even they are liable to make mistakes just like any other parent would.
Why Do Sports Parents Make Mistakes?
Whether you’re dealing with the burden of knowing or with the fear of not knowing, being a sports parent is not an easy role. There are lots of different sports out there and plenty of reasons why your child’s situation is unique.
Yet, sports parents often tend to err in similar ways and some patterns can be spotted. Normally, as parents, we have the best of intentions at heart. But we’re also dealing with things like inexperience, lack of information, biases, fears, and all kinds of factors that impair our judgment.
All of this can potentially lead to our inadvertently doing more harm to our child’s potential career than good. These are the ten most common mistakes sports parents make trying to raise a talented young athlete.
1. Pressuring Your Child Athlete to Succeed
Some sports parents are supporters of the “pressure makes diamonds” school of thought and tend to draw from it when deciding on parenting techniques. It’s an attitude somewhat based on the notion that mental toughness is a crucial characteristic of top-level athletes. While this is true, parental pressure is far from a good way of teaching your child athlete how to be mentally tough.
One study in 2006 showed that young athletes who are feeling pressure from both their coaches and their parents are more likely to develop maladaptive forms of achievement striving, to experience overconcern for mistakes, have doubts about their decisions and actions, and lowered perception of their own competence.
Another cause of parental pressure is parents believing their child might slack off or show lack of discipline if they don’t step in and tighten the screws. Parental involvement in itself is very useful for child development but you need to be careful.
If it’s too much or not the right kind of involvement, it can become a source of frustration, pressure, and stress for the child and you will inevitably be caught in the middle of it. There are much safer, more effective ways of motivating your child than simply giving them heat every chance you get.
2. Not Teaching Young Athletes There’s an Alternative
Actually becoming a professional athlete is extremely difficult. The stats presented in the table below are sourced from the NCAA database and show, on average, the chances of high school athletes making it to the pros.
As you can see, the competition is very high and the data tell a harsh story – only a small minority of young athletes ever actually makes a professional career in sports.
Your child’s chances are determined by a range of factors and neither you nor your child will have complete control over some of them. Even if your child has all the essential characteristics such as technical skills, soft skills, talent, resilience, or a good work ethic, circumstances such as chronic or traumatic injury may abruptly end their career.
Some take these numbers as a sign that only those who are truly committed to the cause will prosper. But what about those who went all in and still didn’t make the cut? They’ll surely be devastated that their dreams didn’t come true. What happens when what they’re best at just isn’t good enough?
Giving up on your dream career is difficult for everyone, let alone young people who have their whole lives ahead of them. Having an alternative will go a long way to keep them from spiraling down and something they’ll be grateful for later in life. It’s your job as a parent to make sure they’re keeping their options open.
Sports-related activities are a great context for developing important management and teamwork skills that they can use at any job. You need to point out these opportunities, because that way, they’re boosting their athletic career while gaining something to rely on in the future.
Our coach, Tiana, is a sports psychologist experienced in working with sports parents and an expert on the topics of motivating child athletes, making them more confident, and teaching them how to build mental toughness.
3. Failing to Establish a Good Sports Parent-Coach Relationship
The roles of sports parents and coaches have an innately different perspective. The coach has to put the team first, while the parents are usually concerned with the needs and success of their own child.
In order to complement their efforts, both the parents and the coach need to build a good relationship so that they can provide the young athletes with the best possible, coherent support. That means that parents need to make an effort to understand the coach’s vision and consider their way of thinking before taking any action.
Your child will benefit from the fact they’re not getting mixed messages. If parents keep undermining the coaches and vice-versa, the child won’t know what to think and who to listen to.
4. Teaching Your Children the Win-at-All-Cost Mentality
Playing to win is a crucial aspect of sports. Nobody plays to lose and if they did, it wouldn’t be sports. Those who win stand to gain a lot. Personal satisfaction, social recognition, rewards, praise… Winning is valuable, enjoyable – and definitely not the only thing that’s important.
There are many top-level athletes who would disagree with this statement. And while romanticizing the desire to win does have a certain appeal, you don’t have to dig a lot in order to realize that winning isn’t the most important thing. At least not when considered in the context of life.
If your child places winning at the very top of their system of values, it could have a very negative effect on their judgment. It might make them more determined or motivated, but at what price?
Having a “win-at-all-cost” mindset provides a person with the conditions to rationalize unacceptable behavior. Things like poor sportsmanship, not playing by the rules, cheating, doping… They might learn to value winning over being a good teammate or simply doing the right thing. Winning is important, but if you prioritize it in terms of values, you need to consider what you’ll be losing in the trade-off.
5. Getting Too Emotionally Invested (ie. Angry Sports-Parent Syndrome)
You’ve probably heard stories about sports parents behaving inappropriately to the point where they’ve ended up on the local 9 o’clock news. New clips of parents brawling, screaming, and cursing at each other, coaches, referees, and even children, are being uploaded each week. These examples of toxic behavior leave a mark on everyone involved, including the very ones these parents are trying to help – their own children.
It’s understandable that being a bystander in an adrenaline-inducing situation can be difficult but you need to have control over your emotions and keep calm. Sports parents who lose it are usually ridiculed and mocked, but the negative effects this type of behavior can have on a developing child can’t be emphasized enough.
It takes all the fun out of sports and the children are left feeling embarrassed. It sets a bad example on how to deal with losing and not playing well. It is ethically wrong for a whole cluster of reasons. If you find that attending your child’s games, matches, and sporting events is making you angry or over-excited, then please, for your child’s sake as well as your own, consult a sports psychologist.
6. Overlooking the Development of Soft Skills
Technical skill is fundamental to athletic performance. That being said, a career in sports doesn’t happen in a vacuum and athletes need to be able to work with others as well. Even athletes competing in individual sports need to have good people-skills so they can, for example, make the most out of their relationship with the coaching staff. There are also lots of management skills that can be beneficial to an athlete such as time management or judgment and decision-making.
In team sports, teamwork and management skills can be the difference between going pro or not. Those who are exceptionally talented might be able to wiggle their way through to a career even though they’re very poor team players. But in the vast majority of cases, if they’re unable to cooperate and work well within a group, their chances of success will be incredibly slim.
Project-based learning in international teams can be an amazing opportunity for young athletes to effectively develop management and teamwork skills. They can transfer what they’ve learned to their career in sports!
Nobel Explorers teaches children valuable management and teamwork skills through working on STEM-related projects as part of an international team.
Online STEM projects can be a great way for young athletes to effectively develop communication skills, emotional intelligence, and critical thinking in a pressure-free environment.
7. Teaching Young Athletes to Fear Failure
In order to learn how to win, you first need to learn how to deal with losing. Each failure, each mistake we make is simply feedback telling us that we need to do better or maybe try something different. By taking the time to analyze what we did wrong, we can gain valuable insights into what we need to do in order to improve.
But before we can do that, we need to be able to handle the frustration of defeat and failure, also referred to as building resilience or mental toughness.
Studies show that athletes who are constantly being criticized for what they’re doing wrong will have a greater chance of developing a fear of failure. This can have a crippling effect on their development because it will make the sensation of playing less fun, reduce their game to the use of the most basic actions, and stunt their creativity.
“The child is so focused on the outcome and fearful of the possibility of failure, that they get frozen and stuck and can’t perform at their best at that moment.”
Young athletes need to be able to explore their sport and step outside their comfort zone in order to diversify their skill set and add new dimensions to their game. They need to understand that it’s OK to make mistakes. You as a parent should help them build a mindset where they’re not indifferent to failure, but also not devastated by it.
8. Showering Your Children with False Praise
Praising your children in order to reinforce good behavior is one of the foundations of good parenting. However, you need to make sure your praise is adequate, highlighting the right things, and delivered in alignment with how your child is feeling. You may think of false praise as a way to cheer your child up after a bad game, but there are a couple of reasons why you should never do this.
When your child buys into your false praise, they’ll think that they’ve done well when in fact they haven’t. If these scenarios repeat often, they’ll slowly develop a false sense about their abilities and skills. This means that they’ll be going into every next challenge poorly prepared, more likely to repeat the same mistakes and perpetuating the cycle until they’re faced with an obstacle that can’t be praised away.
Another issue arises if your child is able to see through your false praise. In those cases, praise can actually make them feel worse because they think they don’t deserve it. Aside from that, you’ll come across as if you either don’t really understand what happened or don’t really care about how they’ve played.
9. Neglecting Other Aspects of Parenting
Young athletes will face unique challenges on their road to a professional career in sports but they’ll also have to deal with issues common to any other kid their age. Friendship struggles, school challenges, puberty… It’s easy to get carried away, especially if your child is really invested in a sport and loves what they do.
Your child will need guidance for a life beyond the context of sporting events and the training ground. The issues they’ll face either at school or with friends are not less important than the things happening on the court or field. You’re raising a person first and an athlete second.
10. Disregard for Health and Safety (Both Physical and Mental)
In the culture of “all in” and “leaving your heart on the field”, toughness, hard work, and commitment come first. Unfortunately, this usually means that the health and safety of athletes are being placed somewhere lower down the list. This type of ranking can lead from innocuous situations such as, “It’s just a knock, I’ll walk it off.” to the more dangerous, “So what if it’s swollen? I can still run!”
The fact that they “only have one shot” doesn’t mean they should “risk it all”. The fact that they need to “work hard” doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be “working smart” first.
The importance of health for a sports career is intuitive to us but we don’t always act like it is. Surely we’ve all heard more than enough stories about people from our neighborhood who “could’ve gone pro if their knee hadn’t given out”. Injuries are unpredictable but aside from luck, great results can be achieved through injury-prevention exercises and procedures, along with having the right attitude.
Most sports parents would agree on the importance of being physically healthy, even if they sometimes encourage behaviors that go against that notion. But the topic of mental health is not that well-acknowledged in the world of sports and dealing with those issues carries a huge amount of stigma. Anxiety and depression are portrayed as signs of weakness and can be debilitating for the player’s social rating. The good news is, each year, more players are speaking out about their struggles with maintaining mental health.
“Mental health isn’t just an athlete thing. What you do for a living doesn’t have to define who you are. This is an everyone thing.”
As a parent, you need to be a health advocate for your children because the athlete mindset will pull them in the opposite direction. Your kids need to understand how their body works, listen to what it’s telling them, and be educated on what it means to be healthy both physically and mentally.
What Can Sports Parents Learn From These Mistakes?
“Parents, listen and look to your child. Hear your child out. What are his or her interests?… One very important role a parent has is to help their child just select and decide what’s important and what’s not important. But… together with them and not for them.”
It’s funny how easy it is to get caught up in wanting to help your child any way you can. But good intentions are not a guarantee of the success of your actions. We love our children so much that it sometimes clouds our judgment. But just as our children can learn from their mistakes made on the court or field, we need to be able to learn from our own mistakes to be better parents.
Sports parenting, like all types of parenting, is a partnership. Our parental role burdens us with a greater sense of responsibility but we shouldn’t take on things that are not on us. We’re not helping anyone if we’re overstepping our boundaries and either contributing to our child’s feeling of being pressured, or robbing them of an opportunity to build their character and grow.
Finally, your child’s wishes are one of the most important factors that should be considered when making big decisions about their career in sports. In the end, they’re the ones that will have to live the life you’re helping them build and they should actively partake in the decision-making process as much as possible.
“Your child’s success or lack of success in sports does not indicate what kind of parent you are. But having an athlete who is coachable, respectful, a great teammate, mentally tough, resilient, and tries their best, is a direct reflection of your parenting.”
– John A. Casadia (Swimming Coach)