by Frank L. Smoll, Ph.D.
Most mothers and fathers are productive contributors to their children’s well-being in sports. Unfortunately, however, the negative effects of a small minority of parents are all too obvious. The good news is that incidents of parental misbehavior are not the norm! In fact the majority of parents are able to channel their genuine concerns and good intentions in a way that heightens the value of their children’s sport experiences.
How can you become a successful sport parent?
There’s no set formula, but the guidelines below are designed to increase the chances of producing favorable results.
1. Set a good example of an active person.
Active parents produce active children. If children see their mom and dad participating in and enjoying sports, then it’s going to be more natural for them to want to pursue those activities. On the other hand, if parents are couch potatoes . . .
2. Let kids participate in determining when they are ready for sports.
Children who are forced into sports before they are ready usually have bad experiences. When kids say they are interested, parents should start looking earnestly at it. By involving children in the decision-making process, they feel a sense of ownership in the outcome. This creates a greater sense of commitment: “I’m doing it because I want to do it, not because I’m made to do it.”
3. Give priority to your child’s own interests.
Most kids develop a sense of their personal interests at an early age. And although parents might prefer their child be active in sports, maybe the child would rather play a musical instrument. Parents should let their children have a say in determining what tune they march to. Remember that youth sports are about what participation can do for kids, and not what parents get out of it.
4. Don’t use sports as a babysitter.
Some parents erroneously believe their involvement merely consists of getting their child signed up and driving them to and from practices and games. But that’s just part of it. Parents not only have a right but a responsibility to oversee their child’s sport participation.
5. Emphasize the process of enjoyment rather than the product of winning.
Research on young athletes’ motives for playing sports has consistently shown that their primary objective is to have fun. Studies also indicate that the main reason why youngsters drop out of sports is, “It isn’t fun any more.” Simply stated, children want to play sports for personal enjoyment. And when the fun disappears, so do they.
6. Emphasize striving to improve skills rather than comparing oneself with others.
Growth and development happen at different rates in youngsters, and this should be made clear to them. It is particularly important that children whose skill is lagging not view this as a permanent condition. Parents who praise self-improvement efforts, can help their kids derive pleasure from their progress over time. This creates many worthwhile experiences in sports—even for athletes who never will be stars.
7. Don’t live your dreams through your children.
All parents identify with their children to some extent and thus want them to do well. This is natural and healthy. But sometimes parents over-identify, and the child becomes an extension of themselves. Parents who are “winners” or “losers” through their children are experiencing the frustrated-jock syndrome, which places extreme pressure on children. In such cases, the young athlete must excel, or the parent’s self-image is threatened. To avoid this, don’t define your own self-worth in terms of how good your children are.
Do you want to learn more 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 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.