I love my kids more than anything. So, I get it—how they perform is important to me. But their performance is not a reflection of my parenting; it’s just a shadow.
Nurturing a love for the sport, not satisfying your own ego, is the way to help kids reach their full athletic potential.
Here are six ways sport parents are doing it wrong.
1. Wanting it more than them
I get calls every week from parents wanting mental coaching for their son or daughter. I screen each parent, and one question I ask them is: “Is this something your child wants?” Whatever the situation, the kids have to want it, period. No matter the sport, the best athletes have that passion. They don’t have to be asked to work at it, because they love it.
2. Not allowing them to fail
The safety net for children can be constricting. If kids know mom or dad will take care of it, they don’t learn how to do things themselves and have trouble growing up into independent human beings. Example: “I forgot my glove, (or my Gatorade, jersey, goggles, putter, etc.), but Mom and Dad will pick it up for me.”
Losing hurts, and it should. The pain eventually subsides, but if we remove the failure and setbacks—and not allow kids to own their mistakes—we actually cheapen the joy of winning. How can they truly appreciate winning and improvement if they have never lost?
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3. Traveling too early
Travel teams are the gateway drug to specialization. Any time before late middle school is too early. A few travel tournaments or matches here and there are great; they are fun! But even for young kids, the trips can start to happen every single weekend.
Here’s the danger: It becomes expensive, and once your kids start traveling, it’s too easy to buy into the idea that they now have to pick a sport and stay with it. Specialization isn’t all that important at this point, because most specific athletic movements (jumping, running, throwing, etc.) actually transfer across sports. Playing a variety of sports improves skill development. Plus, each sport offers a unique advantage—competitiveness. When kids learn to compete in different sports, they will eventually transfer their competitiveness to their favorite.
4. Not emphasizing & rewarding effort
Effort is everything. But if parents only emphasize outcomes, their athletes will learn and internalize the idea that “all that matters is winning.”
Players who are talented will win early and often, until they no longer win. If parents only emphasize rankings, final scores and talent, then taking risks, addressing weaknesses and competing become afterthoughts. At some point, kids are no longer the best, and they can get stuck in limbo between past expectations and low confidence.
5. Blaming the coach, the system or the refs
I was sitting next to a parent of a future Division I basketball player whose brother had made it to the NBA. This parent was miserable, loudly objecting to every single play or referee call that did not go his son’s way. I cried on the inside, knowing there was no way this kid could be happy, either.
A Little League coach once told me he knew when parents were talking about him, because the kids would no longer look him in the eye. Sad.
It’s about progress, not perfection. It’s not your role to call or blame the coach about playing time or to change coaches or schools, or to take issue with every umpire call you don’t like.
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6. Over-communicating with your child
There are good and bad opportunities to critique your child’s performance. During the game is not an appropriate time. However, I often see parents communicating with their son or daughter during games.
Body language doesn’t talk, it screams, and the kids can see your negative behavior. Also, the stands can be packed with hundreds or thousands of screaming people, and the one voice they will recognize is yours. Why are you trying to coach them during their performance?
Really want to be a good sport parent? Just tell your kid, “I love watching you play.”