July 24, 2019


Parents of athletes aim to be encouraging. Sometimes, though, the parent’s attempts to provide support actually add pressure on the young player. Here’s help.

Raising an athlete requires a lot from parents. Along with the financial commitment, we must often make sacrifices at work, juggle family priorities, and plan family vacations entirely around a tournament schedule. Mom and Dad want to be there for the kids, but sometimes the engagement and encouragement can in fact add stress for the young athlete.

Aiming to motivate and encourage a child while avoiding being pushy or adding pressure can help:

  • Avoid sport burnout
  • Encourage the athlete’s independence
  • Improve player-coach and player-team dynamics
  • Foster a better relationship between you and your athlete.

Janis Meredith, author of How to Motivate Your Child In Sports Without Being Pushy, was interviewed by Mental Toughness Trainer. The 20-year sport parent said, “we all want to see our kids succeed. And sometimes, without meaning to, we push just a bit too hard.”

Older athletes are better able to resist parental pushiness, but with young athletes starting in sports at younger and younger ages, it’s important parents put the work in now to show some restraint.

Suggestions for Sport Parenting

Say less.

Consider the conversation you have with your athlete after the practice or games. Do you ask several questions? Are you quick to offer feedback, pointing out what you noticed the child doing wrong at practice? Do you make it a point to reiterate whatever the coach may have observed to the team after the game or training?

Instead, try to ask just one question. Perhaps it will be:

  • How did practice go?
  • How did you feel about your game?
  • What was the play of the game?

Limiting yourself to a single question demonstrates your interest but gives your athlete more leeway to talk a lot or a little. Peppering the child with questions can feel like pressure.

US Women’s National Team forward Abby Wambach took to social media lately with a lollipop in her mouth and the suggestion that soccer parents needed something like it to stop their ceaseless shouting at games. Whether you want the excuse to satisfy your sweet tooth or not, the message makes sense. As your child moves up to more competitive levels of play, you’ll probably notice even the coaches are less verbal from the sidelines. Follow their lead.

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Be there.

Being at games is a good way to show your support. Your physical presence demonstrates you value what your athlete is doing — your words don’t need to do so. Of course it’s understandable that you can’t make every game, and choosing to carpool instead of attending every single training sessions just makes sense, but when you are present try to keep an eye out for a specific instance about which you can offer casual praise.

Notice the word choice there: “casual praise.” You can be jumping up and down with excitement inside, but it’s better when talking to your child to play it cool. Especially as they move into adolescence, young athletes are more likely to be embarrassed or annoyed by enthusiastic praise.

Being there also extends to offering your child opportunities to work on his or her sport outside of practice. Again, notice we said “offer” rather than “drag your child to every extra training opportunity available whether he or she wants to go or not.” You could suggest you’d be happy to take them to Friday night futsal Open Play or additional training with Own Touch or even to go out in the backyard to practice juggling[1] . But, make it a choice. If they say no, don’t force it. Try bringing it up again another time if they express desire in improving their skills or spending more time with teammates.

Attach approval to effort.

Focusing only on a game result, and praising your child only when he or she scores a goal or the team wins, can make it seem as if your approval is linked to performance. Yes, your child can enjoy good games, games won, and points scored, but try to offer accolades that reinforce hard work, sportsmanship, or communicating well with teammates.

Instead of “you’re the best scorer on your team,” you might say, “I like how you played aggressively up front today.” Or, rather than “I’m so proud of you for getting that hat trick,” you might say, “I can see your hard work in practice is paying off.”

Do not withhold your love or approval if your athlete makes a bad play or has a tough loss. This can negatively impact learning and performance, and your child may begin to hate the sport. Offer unconditional support: when Olympic diver Greg Louganis needed a perfect 10 on his last dive to overtake the Chinese diver for the gold medal, his last thought before he dove was, "If I don't make it, my mother will still love me” (he won).

The effort you make from the sidelines can have a major impact on your child’s sporting experience. You can’t force your child to be a winner. But, you can effectively encourage their love of the game and empower them for success on and off the field.


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