The vast majority of sports parents are well-intentioned. They want their kids to succeed and hope for the best for them in their athletic endeavors.
But despite good intentions, sometimes parental actions can be detrimental. As a matter of fact, parents are often are a major reason why athletes play poorly or even stop playing their sport altogether.
We spoke with sport psychologist Dr. Chris Stankovich to learn about the surefire ways parents can ruin a young athlete’s career.
Mistake 1: Making Sports a Business
Put simply, kids want to play sports to have fun. As they get older, they may begin to consider long-term opportunities in their sport, such as playing in college. But at heart, they play because they enjoy it.
Yet too often parents overemphasize the business aspects of sport. They act like a sports agent, managing and controlling every aspect of their athlete’s life. And this strips the fun right out of the sport.
“When parents lose sight of that and make it more of a work or business endeavor, that tends to take the life out of it for kids,” Stankovich says. “They stop looking at it as something they want to do, like when they were just playing it for fun.”
As a former athlete, I’ve seen this happen. The father one of my youth hockey teammates (he was 9 years old at the time) demanded he shoot 200-300 pucks a day. This is something he previously enjoyed doing on his own, but once it became a requirement, he gradually stopped doing it because it became a chore, not something he did for fun.
Mistake 2: Putting Too Much Pressure on Your Athlete
Putting pressure on your athlete is almost guaranteed to impair his or her game in some manner. Unfortunately, this is more common as sports become hyper-competitive
“Pressures are starting earlier and earlier. Kids are showcased in junior high school, and in some cases you hear of a kid committing to go to college as an eighth grader—although that’s an exception to the rule,” says Stankovich. “I think that some parents take that very seriously and employ a more serious approach to youth sports earlier on. That creates more pressure and anxiety, generally speaking.”
Stankovich admits that some athletes do well under pressure. For example, if they view an upcoming tough game as a challenge, their confidence, focus and resiliency go up. On the flip side, if an athlete is under pressure and sees the same game as an opportunity to fail, then focus is scattered, anxiety replaces confidence and resiliency diminishes.
Mistake 3: Yelling at Your Kid for Making Mistakes or Playing Poorly
Let’s say after a less than ideal performance, your kid gets in the car and you proceed to yell at him/her for the entire ride home. You recall how terrible he/she played and describe every mistake in excruciating detail.
Sound like fun for your athlete? Not so much. But it’s guaranteed to make him/her dread playing—especially if this is a frequent occurrence.
“There tends to be not much focus on effort and what was done right and a lot more on what was done wrong,” Stankovich says.
It can be frustrating to see your athlete play below his/her potential. But yelling is counterproductive. Instead, Stankovich advises having a casual conversation after a game when emotions are high, talking about a few highlights. On the following day when emotions have tempered, have a conversation without preaching or teaching. Ask questions such as, “What do you think you did wrong yesterday?” or “When you were in that situation, what could you have done better?”
Mistake 4: Regularly Embarrassing Your Kid
In a previous article, we covered 10 Ways You’re Embarrassing Your Kids at Their Sports Event. Some embarrassing instances can become serious issues, while others are cringe-worthy but harmless. A situation that could become problematic for an athlete is when a parent consistently yells from the stands, berating his kid, other athletes, parents or officials.
“I think what happens in a situation like this, kids over time begin to not want to be involved,” Stankovich says. “If they go into a scenario where they are likely to be humiliated, they are going to be more focused on what mom or dad is doing instead of what they are supposed to do in the game.”
Mistake 5: Not Knowing Much About Sports
“There is a lot of parent ignorance. Parents either didn’t play sports or they didn’t play the sport their kid is playing,” says Stankovich. And that’s OK. It’s not a requirement of a good sports parent to have played the same sport as your child, or any sport at all for that matter.
But if you fall into this category, you need to understand that you may not know everything about that sport. “Oftentimes parents don’t quite know the etiquette for the rules, and they allow their emotions to get in front of logical thinking,” says Stankovich.
Instead of getting all fired up about a play you don’t understand or giving your young athlete bad advice, consider your experience and act accordingly. If you think your child could improve on something, ask a coach before talking with them, or do some research on the game and consult with other more knowledgeable parents.
Mistake 6: Providing Unwarranted Positive Reinforcement
Positive reinforcement is great for your kid’s development. “I don’t think we can give enough positive reinforcement to kids. It’s really important to do that, because it builds rapport, it helps with learning and it helps cultivate better resiliency,” explains Stankovich.
With that said, parents need to walk a fine line when supporting their athlete’s performance.
Stankovich provides the following example. A young football player isn’t making a lot of plays on the field. But he’s running around and trying as hard as he can. He’s certainly not the best player on the team, but his effort is commendable.
“I think parents should absolutely reinforce that behavior,” says Stankovich. “Even if he’s not making a ton of plays, he’s sure as heck trying. However, telling him after the game that he’s the best kid on the field and should be on the all-star team is not warranted.”
“Always reinforce effort, but be more judicious on praise to make sure it’s warranted,” he adds.
Mistake 7: Always Blaming Other People
Your kid isn’t getting the playing time he deserves. It can’t be his fault, right? He’s the greatest athlete in the world! So naturally it’s the coach’s fault, or someone else’s on the team.
This scenario plays out far too often. Blame for lack of playing time or poor play is assigned to others. This teaches the athlete to blame others and not reflect on his or her own performance. Ultimately, this can lead to a bad attitude and confrontation with the individuals to whom blame is being assigned.
It’s more constructive to focus on what athletes can do on their own to get more playing time or improve their game.
“Look at what you control and let go of things you don’t control,” advises Stankovich. “You control your effort, hard work, being in good condition, knowing the plays, being a great teammate and being a great leader. If you do those things, then 99 percent of the time you are going to put yourself in a position to get playing time.”
Mistake 8: Forcing Your Kid to Play Year Round
Parents and athletes consistently believe that more is always better. We see this in both training and sports participation. Quality is often ignored in favor of quantity.
More athletes are taking this approach, playing sports year round. And the logic makes sense. You don’t want your kid to sit out a season while other kids continue to develop their skills and surpass your athlete on the field. You want to give your kid every opportunity possible.
A few things are wrong with this approach. For one, playing sports all year doesn’t offer any opportunity for recovery. For example, a baseball pitcher who never lets his arm recover can develop muscle imbalances, mobility issues and ultimately, overuse injuries. Also, no time off makes it difficult to dedicate time to training in the weight room, which is an essential component of athleticism. If left unaddressed, it will limit your athlete’s potential.
Finally, constantly playing the same sport can lead to mental burnout, as the sport gradually become tedious and less enjoyable. If your athlete starts to not have fun playing, it might be a sign he or is she playing too much.
Mistake 9: Telling Your Kid to Switch to One Sport Too Soon
Related to the previous mistake, many parents push their kid into specializing in one sport too early. An athlete shows promise in one sport, and all attention and effort are quickly transitioned to that sport.
According to Tony Gentilcore, an elite strength coach based in Boston, this presents three problems in the development of young athletes.
First, it results in overuse for the reasons detailed above. Playing another sport allows your body to recover from the first sport. For example, a baseball pitcher who plays soccer in the spring allows his arm to recover.
Second, playing one sport too early impairs athletic development. “Specializing in one sport too soon fails to fully engage and develop the nervous system in ways that teach the body to learn a wide variety of skillsets and movement patterns across multiple sports, or adapt to different stressors in different environments, often leading to premature injury,” says Gentilcore.
Third, kids need to be kids. Specializing in one sport too early makes it likely that an athlete will burn out and quit playing his or her sport—and possibly even all sports.
Of course as your athlete gets older, there will likely be a transition to one sport. But don’t force the issue too early.