3 Things Well-Meaning Sport Parents Get Wrong

Sport involvement can be such a positive experience for children and for their families. I’ve worked as a Mental Skills Coach for the last 10 years helping young athletes learn about the mental side of sport and develop their mental skills and abilities.

I’ve seen first-hand how kids develop confidence through sport, learn how to communicate and get along with others, and understand how to enjoy working toward their goals. During this time, I have also seen a lot of children who are not enjoying sport, who want to quit, and unfortunately who have parents that are hurting their experience more than helping.

Though I work directly with the athletes, I do have interaction with the parents and most are very kind, thoughtful, and well-intentioned in wanting to support their children. What they don’t realize, however, is how their actions are being interpreted by their children. Even well-meaning parents can negatively affect their child’s sport experience.

If you see yourself in any of these 3 behaviors, the good news is that you can make changes, so try the ideas included if you think any of these are happening in your family.

Overscheduling kids

A quick Google search of “overscheduling kids” in the news section will bring up hundreds of recent posts on the subject. It’s a bit of a buzz word right now, and with good reason. When kids have too much on their plate, this can lead to stress (now and down the road), negative emotions such as anger, and lack of sleep.

Think of your own life- when you have too much going on, you probably don’t feel your best and you have many more years of experience, development, and ability to deal with the impact of a tight schedule. Your kids do not have the same abilities you do in juggling a loaded schedule.

Busy schedules can come from too many activities, multiple sports, even extra lessons or coaching for their main sport. Add in family responsibilities, even fun activities like birthdays on the weekend, and a child ends up stressed.

Though an athlete may enjoy their sport, being overscheduled may lead to the perception that they don’t like it because they are “too busy” and don’t have enough time for fun.

What can you do?

  • Take a hard and honest look at your schedule, not only for the day but for the week and month.

  • Put all of the tasks on the schedule, and invite your child to look at it with you. Ask how they feel.

  • Talk about which tasks they enjoy the most and which they don’t.

  • Think about where you can add in some breathing room.

Yes, their sport might require a lot of time from them, and if this is the case, it becomes even more important to create (even schedule in) down time, rest, and activities that are relaxing and enjoyable. In doing this, the athlete may enjoy their sport more because their time outside of it is less stressful. 

Being too involved

Some parents go to every practice and every game. While this certainly shows your dedication to your child, be aware that it can also add pressure without you meaning to.

Though you may see it as support and enjoying your child’s playing and practicing, your child can easily interpret it as you’re watching their every move. They may become more timid and fearful of making mistakes because they don’t want to disappoint you.

Being in sport is a lot about learning from your mistakes and developing skills and abilities. If your child isn’t able to do that in practice, not only do they miss out on skill development, but they may end up developing a fear of failure which causes people to hold back and even give up.

Additionally, parents often want to talk about the practice or game after. Though there is no problem with conversation, and communication in general is very positive, your child may feel as if it’s an interrogation or even judgement of how the practice went.

Athletes need you as mom and dad, not as coach and sometimes these post-practice or post-game conversations can feel more like coaching than parenting.

What can you do?

  • You can definitely still attend practices and games, but perhaps not every practice.

  • Talk with your child to hear what they would prefer. Maybe they’re okay with you being at practice, but would prefer not to talk about it on the way home because that’s what’s causing stress. 

  • If your child is young and not ready to have these types of conversations, try an experiment. Let them know you may not be able to attend all of practice and see how they react. If they’re upset, then stick around. 

  • Perhaps you don’t chat as much about practice after you leave the field.

  • Take the time to play with different schedules of being there to see what works best for your athlete (and for you- it’s very easy to personally get consumed with those schedules and you might enjoy some time off too).

Athletes need you as mom and dad, not as coach and sometimes these post-practice or post-game conversations can feel more like coaching than parenting.

Creating competition stress

Games, matches and competitions are often already stressful for your athlete, especially if they’re young. Children and even teens haven’t always developed the abilities to handle stress and pressure.

The act of competition is enough to produce stress: the athlete is expected to perform in front of others, judges may be there to evaluate performance, they need to execute their skills well, their team is counting on them, and more. Not to mention that a coach may expect a certain level of performance and winning.

With all of that, parents can add more stress. Yes, you can attend the game to support your child, but think about what else you may be doing while there (and even on the way to the game) and how that may be interpreted.

For example, do you cheer loudly? Do you yell at refs? Do you coach from the sideline? At the end of the game do you give a hug and a “good job” or do you dissect what happened? Without meaning to, your excitement and investment in your child can lead to feelings of overwhelm and stress for your child.

What can you do?

  • Take a step back and look at your actions and words.

  • Check in with how you’re thinking and feeling at the competitions. Sometimes we want to encourage our children but the way in which we’re doing that is feeling overbearing to them. Or, we see their potential and so we want to “push” them a bit and end up pushing too hard.

  • Take the time to reflect on how you approach competition and even talk with your child about it: what do they find helpful? Is there anything they’d like for you to change?

  • Reflection and conversation can help lead to a game-day plan that works for everyone.

Your kids love you and with that comes the desire to be successful and make you proud. And your support comes from a fantastic place but sometimes it’s interpreted by your child in a negative way.

Even the most well-intentioned parents have these moments, so if you saw yourself in any of the behaviors noted above, know that you’re not alone, that you’re still a great parent, and that there are changes you can make to support your athlete in a different way. 

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Sara Robinson has a Master’s Degree in Sport Psychology and has worked with athletes on mental skill building for the last 10 years. As a mom to two boys, she uses mental skills on a daily basis because let’s face it- you need to be mentally tough as a parent! She now blogs at Get Mom Balanced,  where she helps busy moms find balance and become more mentally skilled. As if that weren’t enough to keep her busy, she also teaches Sport Psychology courses and is a freelance writer.