Parents can have a powerful influence on the development of an athlete. As a clinical and sport psychologist, I have seen both positive and negative effects that parents can have on their child’s athletic career. Youth and High School sports have the potential to be a tremendous experience for both children and their parents. The bonding that occurs in sport can last a lifetime. I’m sure many of you can think back to a time when your own parents were involved in your sporting activities. I would hope that most of these memories are wonderful ones of spending time together, of learning life lessons, and especially, of having fun.
Unfortunately, many parents unintentionally make the sport experience less than fulfilling for their children. These parents may have an inappropriate perspective of what sport is all about. Often, however, it is the well meaning parent that just says the wrong thing at the wrong time that leads to the child feeling criticized and under excessive parental pressure.
Sports provide individuals with such a remarkable experience. The benefits are tremendous and include the development of healthy exercise habits, leadership, a sense of belonging to a larger community, and improved self-esteem. But there are certainly some negatives, which include burnout, stress, missed social and educational activities and a disruption in family life. There is uniqueness in competitive sports. Where else is losing and failure built in? It’s guaranteed for at least 50% of the participants. Thus, even a superb performance often leads to loss, disappointment and perceived failure. I mean in sports, there are opponents who are deliberately attempting to prevent you from succeeding!
In my experience, the true value of involvement in sports is to develop life skills: a commitment to be the best he/she can be, setting and following through on goals, developing focus and concentration, managing one’s emotions, dealing with the pressures of performance, developing good interpersonal skills, and learning to create balance in one’s life.
As a parent, you can help your children develop these skills. The following tips are presented to help you in this endeavor:
- Your Children Should Be Having Fun
Sports should be enjoyed by your child. Playing sports is, at its very core, based upon having fun. A poll of student athletes placed “to have fun” as the #1 reason why they participated in a sport. Winning was #8 for boys and #12 for girls behind “improving my skills, staying in shape, being part of a team, and doing something I’m good at.” When sports stop being fun and become drudgery, kids lose their joy in playing and drop out.
- Your Child’s Goals and Motivations for Playing a Sport May Be Different Than Yours
Don’t project your own unfulfilled dreams onto them. Help them define success in terms of the attainment of their own goals. It’s very important not to tie your own ego into your child’s performance. So, you need to understand the reasons why your son or daughter participates in sports. Encourage them to discuss their feelings and motivations. Our job is to be supportive of their quest to pursue their dreams.
- Have Realistic Expectations
The fact is 96% of high school athletes terminate their sports career at graduation. The odds of winning athletic scholarships even if the child is a talented athlete are not very good. Only 1 to 2% of all the millions of kids who play sports will win an athletic scholarship. Less than 1% of college football players make it to the NFL. The odds of a high school senior basketball player eventually getting drafted by the NBA is about 3,333 to 1. About 2 million kids participate in gymnastics and only a handful makes it to the Olympic team every 4 years. So it is important for parents not to assume that all of their child’s sports involvement and training will eventually result in a professional career or a Division I athletic scholarship. The reality is that the vast majority of high school athletes are not recruited.
- Watch Out For Burnout
The more significant statistic, I believe, is that from age 10 to 18, participation in sports decreases each year. In spite of the popularity of sports in our country, less than 20% of high school students participate in a school sport. Obviously, there are more activities competing for our children’s time, including dating and just hanging out with friends. But I also think a major factor involved in kids quitting sports is burnout. According to the Institute for Youth Sports at Michigan State, 74% of the kids who play organized sports in this country will quit by the age of 13. That’s an alarming statistic. Many sport psychologists are beginning to examine the effects of early specialization on kids. Everybody watches elite athletes on TV and we start to wonder “what if my kid starts playing golf or tennis or soccer at 3 or 4 and only plays that sport? Can they become a pro also? Early specialization is on the rise over the past decade, which I feel can result in negative physical, psychological and social effects, such as increased pressure on the child, an increase in injuries, social isolation and burnout. The reality is 99% of the athletes who specialize never reach the highest level in their sport. Research clearly indicates that athletes play sports for enjoyment. As noted above, when it stops being fun, athletes quit sports. The passion has to come from within them, not from you. When practice becomes an obligation rather than fun, play turns into work and burnout can occur. The research seems to support the conclusion that those who participate in a variety of sports, and who specialize only after puberty, tend to be more consistent performers, have fewer injuries and stick with their sport longer than those who specialize early. As a teenager, they will be more physically prepared and emotionally mature enough to meet the demands of specialization.
- Avoid Excessive Pressure and Criticism
Parents have a strong influence on their children’s motivation, enjoyment, perceived abilities and confidence. How we react can greatly affect whether a child stays involved in sports. If we put excessive pressure on them, have unreasonable expectations, over emphasize winning, or criticize too often or too strongly, than it will lead to increased anxiety and stress and a decrease in their performance. Your child will feel like they are constantly under a microscope, will find it difficult to concentrate, and eventually will lose their motivation to continue to play. I have often seen a child’s performance decline in the presence of a parent. This can certainly be an indication of the child feeling too much pressure and/or criticism from that parent. Often this criticism is a result of too strong an emotional investment in the success of the child. So it is important to take a step backward and look at your own motivations and behavior.
- Be a Positive Source of Support and Encouragement
Be an unconditional source of support. Be a parent, not a coach. Point out what they did well. Save the critical evaluation of their performance to their coaches. Be an attentive listener. Allow your child to talk about the game, but give your child time to decompress after their game, especially after a tough loss or poor performance. They may need some time to get over it before discussing the details.
You may need to help your children to understand that their self-worth as a person is not related to their abilities as an athlete. They are still loved. Appreciate all of your child’s accomplishments, not just their athletic performance. Help them to recognize that tomorrow is another day and give them a hug if they need it. Don’t show disapproval of their performance either through your words or body language. Be honest and sincere. Be supportive in your comments, but don’t lie or exaggerate about their performance or they will see through this. If you have a regular routine after a match or a game stick to it, whether your child won or lost.
In conclusion, we have to ask ourselves: What do we really want for our children? We want them to develop some dreams and chase them. We want them to develop a passion and have fun in pursuing it. Our job is to support them in their pursuit and to help them if they stumble or fall. Hopefully, when they look back on their lives, they will have some wonderful moments and memories that include participation in a sport, being part of a team, bonding with their friends and family, and especially having fun.