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Sports Parents, We Have a Problem
Like I said, sports parents, we have a problem. Want to know the problem? Well, look in the mirror. I don’t mean to insult you by indicting you as being the problem as an individual parent. I don’t know you or how you are with your children in their sports lives. I’m talking about the many sports parents who have been both seduced by and abet the toxic youth sports culture in which your children are now immersed. You know, the one in which results are all that matter for parents and children alike, even at a young age. And let me be clear, many children are suffering for it athletically and personally.
I am writing this article based on a disturbing experience that made this problem so glaringly evident to me. My painful epiphany occurred while attending a regional championship in a sport in which my younger daughter was competing.
Here is what I saw:
- A father telling her daughter before the competition, “I know you’re going to win today.”
- Parents coaching their children before their events.
- At least a dozen kids in tears after their events.
- Parents in the finish area talking to their children about their result immediately after they finished.
- A boy who was lying face down on the floor of the clubhouse in tears while his father had his earbuds in and was looking at his phone.
- A father trying to console his sobbing daughter after her event. When a teammate approached, patted her on the back, and said “It’s okay,” the father asked her how she did. When the teammate said, reluctantly, that she won, the father high-fived and congratulated her with tremendous enthusiasm…all the while his daughter lay below him disconsolate.
- A mother who is a friend of mine told me that her son didn’t want her to watch his events because it makes him too nervous.
- A father I also know said that his daughter was in tears and vomited before her first event because she was so anxious and she was too upset to compete her second event.
Why were these young athletes so unhappy to the point of tears in sports that are supposed to be such fun? And keep in mind that these were kids younger than 12 years old, most of whom won’t even be competing in a few years because of their interest in pursuing other activities. I didn’t, of course, interview each one of the tearful young athletes. At the same time, I have seen variations of these kinds of reactions in my consulting practice for decades.
If you dig down one layer to examine the causes of such painful reactions in young athletes, you’ll find expectations and pressure, primarily from parents, but also from peers (by way of comparison rather than ill intent) and our intense youth-sport culture. The weight of expectations is a crushing burden on the shoulders of young athletes. Imagine your children having to put a 50-pound weight vest when they enter the field of play and you’ll get a sense of what they feel and how it will make them perform.
If you dig down to the very heart of these reactions is a fear of failure, specifically, that if these kids don’t perform well, they perceive that something really bad will happen (however objectively untrue it may be). Based on considerable research and my own work with young athletes, the most common causes of fear of failure include:
- Disappointing my parents (and, by extension, my parents won’t love me)
- Being rejected by my peers
- Ending my sports dreams
- It will all have been a waste of time
- Failure in sports means I’m a failure
These beliefs produce in children a threat reaction that causes powerful internal changes including:
- Psychological (e.g., negativity, doubt, worry)
- Emotional (e.g., fear, anxiety, stress)
- Physical (e.g., muscle tension, racing heart, choppy breathing, too much adrenaline)
- Behavioral (e.g., self-sabotage, avoidance)
- Performance (e.g., tight, tentative performances)
With this reaction, not only are kids pretty much guaranteed of not performing their best, but sports simply becomes a truly aversive experience.
Let me be clear that this problem isn’t even a sports problem. Rather, it’s a problem that permeates our results-obsessed achievement culture that you find in school, the arts, chess, anywhere in which kids can aspire to great success and where parents can become overly invested.
Now here is where I’m going to go on a rant, so be prepared. Mostly, importantly, my rant starts with a question: As a sports parent, do you want to be part of the problem or part of the solution (this should be a rhetorical question)?
Here’s a simple reality: Kids under 12 years old shouldn’t be crying after they compete (in fact, no kids should be)! What so many parents and young athletes don’t realize is that results at such a young age (even up to 16 years old) just don’t matter. Sure, it’s great for young athletes’ efforts to be rewarded with good results. And it’s gratifying for kids to get attention for their successes.
At the same time, unless you’re one of the rarest of rare “phenoms,” results at a young age aren’t strictly predictive of later success; many “can’t-miss kids do, in fact, miss). What matters in youth sports are not the results, but rather that young athletes have a passion for their sport, are willing to work hard and accept its inevitable highs and lows, and continue to develop physically, technically, and mentally in preparation for when it starts to matter in their late teens when college athletic scholarships and invitations to join national teams arise.
We wonder why so many kids are dropping out of organized sports by their early teens (about 70%, according to the research). This research has shown that the main reasons are that sports are no longer fun and they are too stressful.
We as parents and as a youth-sports culture are failing our children in a huge way:
- Our kids don’t enjoy their sports experiences.
- They don’t gain the many benefits of sports.
- Their preoccupation with results bleeds into other activities, school, and career.
- These early experiences can result in that weight vest becoming a permanent piece of clothing causing a lifetime of fear and low self-esteem (and the need to see professionals like me when they’re in the 40s and 50s!).
- They are just plain unhappy (and unhappy kids usually turn into unhappy adults).
We can’t change the sports culture. So, it’s up to us parents to shape our family’s sports culture and do the right thing for our young athletes. During this holiday season (and beyond!), give your children the gift that keeps on giving: Your love and none of the crap.
Here are a few concrete suggestions (and I realize how tough they are to enact, but I can assure you that I’m walking the walk on every one of these with my two athlete daughters):
- Remind yourself why your kids compete in sports (and it has nothing to do with results).
- Be happy and have fun at competitions. If you are, your children mostly likely will too.
- If you can’t control your emotions at competitions, don’t go.
- Before competitions, if you find that you are stressed, worried, or anxious, stay away from your kids.
- Before competitions, don’t try to motivate or coach them; nothing you say will help, but a lot you say can hurt.
- Before every competition event, smile and say “I love you.”
- After every competition, smile and say “I love you. Do you want a snack?”
- After competitions, if you find yourself frustrated, angry, or otherwise upset, stay away from your kid till you’ve calmed down.
- Here’s the toughest one: NEVER, EVER talk about results!! I know this sounds impossible, but it can be done (though it takes tremendous willpower). If your children bring up results, just say, “Results don’t matter now. What matters is that you gave your best effort and had fun.”