by Frank L. Smoll, Ph.D.
A 20-year trend in youth sports emphasizes teaching coaches how to create a healthy psychological environment for their athletes. However, there’s also an important need to educate parents, so they can support and supplement what trained coaches are trying to do.
All parents identify with their children to some extent and thus want them to do well. Unfortunately, in some cases, the degree of identification becomes excessive, and the child becomes an extension of the parent’s ego. When parents over-identify with their child’s sport performance, they begin to define their own self-worth in terms of their son’s or daughter’s successes or failures.
A father who is a “frustrated jock” may seek to experience through his child the success he never knew as an athlete. A parent who was a star may be resentful and rejecting if the child does not attain a similar level of achievement. Some parents thus become “winners” or “losers” through their children, and the pressure placed on the children can be extreme. The child must succeed, or the parent’s self-image is threatened. When parental love and approval depend on how well their children perform, sports are bound to be stressful.
Coaches and parents are in an ideal position to help young athletes develop healthy attitudes about achievement and an ability to tolerate setbacks when they occur. In fact, research conducted with my colleague, Dr. Ron Smith, indicates that by educating coaches and parents, they can effectively reduce athletes’ competitive anxiety. Our research, which was published in the Journal of Youth Development, demonstrated the combined effectiveness of two adult-education programs.
The 151 participants were 84 boys and 67 girls, who played in two different basketball leagues. The average age of the athletes was 11.6 years. Coaches in one league (an experimental group) participated in a Mastery Approach to Coaching workshop that we developed. The workshop content emphasized skill development, achieving personal and team success, giving maximum effort, and having fun.
Additionally, parents of youngsters in the experimental league participated in a Mastery Approach to Parenting in Sports workshop. The program taught them how to apply mastery principles and how to reduce performance anxiety in their children. Coaches and parents in the second league (a control group) were not offered either of the workshops.
Pre-season questionnaires showed little difference in the levels of performance anxiety among the youngsters in the two leagues. However, by the end of the season, athletes playing for trained coaches and whose parents attended the Mastery Approach workshop reported that their levels of stress, worry, and concentration disruption on the court had decreased. Players in the other league reported that their anxiety had increased over the course of the season.
The evidence indicated that a combined education approach helped coaches and parents to create a mastery-oriented climate. In regard to this, we never ignore the importance of winning, because it’s an important objective in all sports. But with a Mastery Approach, winning is placed in a healthy perspective. As a result, young athletes exposed to the mastery climate had less worries about their performance, and they were better able to concentrate while playing.
Fear of failure is an athlete’s worst enemy, and sport competition can easily create this type of anxiety. The encouraging thing is that educational programs for coaches and parents can give them the tools for decreasing pressure and increasing enjoyment. An added bonus is that athletes who are not afraid of failure typically perform better. When coaches and parents are taught stress-reduction principles, they can be a winning combination for kids.
To facilitate distribution of the workshops, the research-based coach and parent programs have been converted to video format. To access the videos, go to the Youth Enrichment in Sports website at http://www.y-e-sports.org/
Frank L. Smoll, Ph.D., is a sport psychologist at the University of Washington. His research focuses on the psychological effects of competition on children and adolescents. Dr. Smoll has conducted more than 550 coaching clinics and workshops for parents of young athletes. Go to the Youth Enrichment in Sports website for more information.