Seven Critical Challenges for Sport Parents

By Frank L. Smoll, Ph.D.

To contribute to the success of a sport program, parents must be willing and able to commit themselves in many different ways. The following questions serve as important reminders of the scope of parents’ responsibilities. Parents should be able to honestly answer "yes” to each one.

1. Can you share your son or daughter?

This requires putting your athlete completely in the coach's charge and trusting him or her to guide the sport experience. It involves accepting the coach's authority and the fact that he or she may gain some of the admiration that once was directed solely toward you. This responsibility doesn’t mean that you can’t have input, but the coach is the boss! If you are going to undermine the coach's leadership, it’s best for all concerned not to have your child in the program.

2. Can you admit your shortcomings?

You must be convinced that the proper response to a mistake or not knowing something is an honest disclosure. When you make a mistake, you must not hesitate to admit it and openly discuss it with your son or daughter.

3. Can you accept your child's triumphs?

This sounds easy, but it’s not always so. Some parents don’t realize it, but fathers in particular may be competitive with their sons. When an athlete plays well in a game, his father may point out minor mistakes, describe how others did even better, or boast about something from his own sport achievements.

4. Can you accept your child's disappointments?

In addition to accepting athletic accomplishments, parents are called upon to support their children when they are disappointed and hurt. This may mean watching them play poorly, or not being embarrassed, ashamed, or angry when their 10-year-old cries after losing. When an apparent disappointment occurs, you should be able to help your  athlete see the positive side of the situation.

5. Can you show your child self-control?

Parents are important role models for their children's behavior. It’s not surprising to find that parents who lose control of themselves often have children who are prone to emotional outbursts and poor self-discipline. If you are to expect sportsmanship and self-control from your athlete, you need to exhibit the same qualities in your own behavior.

6. Can you give your child some time?

You’ll need to decide how much time can be devoted to your child's sport activities. Conflicts arise when parents are very busy, yet are also interested and want to encourage their children. Thus, one challenge is to deal honestly with the time-commitment issue.

  • Ask about your child's sport experiences.
  • Make every effort to watch at least some games during the season.
  • Never promise more time than you can actually deliver.

7. Can you let your child make his or her own decisions?

An important part of growing up is accepting responsibility for one's own behavior and decisions. As your child matures, you should offer suggestions and guidance about sports. But ultimately, within reasonable limits, you should let your athlete go his or her own way. All parents have ambitions for their children, but they must accept the fact that they cannot dominate their children's lives. Youth sports can offer an introduction to the major parental challenge of letting go.

Do you want more information about parenting young athletes?

  • The Mastery Approach to Parenting in Sports is a research-based video that emphasizes skill development, achieving personal and team success, giving maximum effort, and having fun.
  • To access the video, go to the Youth Enrichment in Sports website.

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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.