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“Research has indicated that by the time youngsters reach the teen years, they’ve heard ‘No’ or ‘Don’t’ 40,000 times.  That’s powerful teaching, and the brain has learned the message well.  As adults, we tend to do what was done to us.  We need to unlearn this bad habit.”
– (Harvey Dorfman, Copying it Down, pg. 77)
A parent’s influence on their child’s athletic career may be the most important one they’ll ever have. For good or for bad.  And often, for bad or for worse.  This article is meant to share with you the potential pitfalls that parents are vulnerable to if they are not taught how to be good sport parents. There are plenty of great sport parents out there.  However, if you go to any sporting event you’ll see the range of unlearned sport parents, including a favorite, the one living their dream through Johnny yelling at him exactly what to do as its happening.  And another favorite, the parent on their iPad out in left field missing their son or daughter’s childhood in lieu of watching their “soaps” while wondering when the game will be over so they can pick up their daughter from gymnastics.
Sadly, it is often too late that many parents become aware of their own words and behaviors impact on their child’s athletic career.  Hence, the need for this article.  For the parent who is willing to take an honest and humble look at their sport parenting behaviors, it just might be what saves a good relationship and positively impacts their son or daughter’s athletic career.  In other words, if parents realized the negative impact they may be having on their child’s career (and thus life since sport is everything to a kid), would they be willing to work on it in order to give their child the best chance for performing well?

To what extent and longevity might parental influence still reign in an athlete’s life?  First ask yourself, how much are you still influenced by your upbringing and parents’ opinions, today…even if they are no longer walking the earth?   Would your influence on your child be any different?  Realize, you are making an impact on your child’s life every single day with every single word said or unsaid and each action or inaction.  Tone and body language include.  If you project anxiety…who is likely to become anxious or play with anxiety?  If you are arrogant…who might never become coachable?  If you are overprotective…who might become rebellious, bitter or resentful?  If you are overbearing…who might burn out?

It really comes down to you taking an honest look at you and asking yourself, “Are the behaviors and words I use every day being received by my child the way I intend them? How do I know if they are? Do I ask them?  Wait, am I even aware of my behaviors and words?” Again, to what extent and longevity can parental influence reign in an athlete’s life?  The following case is not by any means extreme.

An anecdote from the late Sport Psychology Consultant Harvey Dorfman’s, Copying it down, comes to mind of an established professional ball player Dorfman was counseling.  The player shared that he wanted to marry his girlfriend but his dad said he couldn’t because it would distract him from his baseball career.  Dorfman, then the Oakland A’s team counselor, asked each of them (the player and his girlfriend) if they wanted to marry each other to which they both said, “Yes.” Dorfman then persuaded the ballplayer to make the call right then to his dad and tell him that he “loved him very much and oh, I am getting married,” to which he did. After the proposal, the girlfriend proceeded to hug Dorfman rather than her future husband, to which Dorfman responded, “You’re hugging the wrong guy.” She replied, “No, I’m not.”

The next day Dorfman speaking to the 6’5” professional baseball player said, “Your size, your age and your experience each played a part in your growth.  But your behavior stayed the same as it was when you were a boy.  I think that last night you declared yourself to be a man.  A free man.”

What impact did that freedom have on his future performance?  Probably a very positive one. This is not a rare experience.  And if it’s happening in the pros it is absolutely happening at every level of amateur sport.  Many athletes today allow their parents to dictate their career choices.  This stunts growth in every category of life, and in reality, hinders the very thing that most parents are trying to promote…maturity.

“But I invest so much in my child’s career with lessons and….”  Are the very slippery slope justifications that cause a child to feel the need to live up to the expectations of their parents (whether real or imagined) and put pressure on themselves to please everyone.  Be humble and honest enough to look at the person in the mirror and ask yourself, “Am I helping or hurting?”  What you do with whatever answer revealed may be the difference in your child’s life and career.
Some Suggestions:

  • Teach them to have a relationship with God.  The only stable source in a sports world of instability.
  • Love unconditionally.  That is your privilege as a parent.  It teaches your child to love themselves unconditionally.
  • Be a Parent.  Not their coach.  And if you literally are their coach…Be the coach when coaching, treating them with the same respect and diligence that you would the other players…then be a parent the rest of the time.  This will teach them the importance of separating selves and being who they need to be when they need to be it.
  • Be patient. Rome wasn’t built in a day nor will your child’s athletic career or abilities be determined by one performance or statistic.  Being patient with them teaches them to be patient with themselves.
  • Let them encounter adversity.  The sports arena is the greatest place to learn adversity due to the low real world consequences of a game.  It took Thomas Edison thousands of failures to find success.  Adversity is necessary for growth and building relentless determination.
  • Focus on the process rather than the results.  Statistics tell a small part of the story.   One game is one experiment.   When you talk about their approach and process to success it will teach your child to focus on their approach to getting better that will result in better performance. Not results.
  • Realize your child will stop listening to you at a certain point no matter your knowledge level.  It’s what they’ll do.  You did it too. But maybe you can do for them what wasn’t done for you.  Be a parent.  Higher someone else to be their coach.  It may save a relationship.
  • Learn to ask good questions rather than tell them what they are doing wrong.  This will teach them to ask themselves good questions rather than dwell on everything that’s wrong.
  • Communicate with your child about an appropriate time to debrief a game (open and honestly without judgement with a specific beginning and end time) and only if the son or daughter wants to do this.  This will teach them to feel comfortable and confident in approaching you with the things going on in their life. It will also help them become good communicators rather than emotionally immature beings.
  • Watch your words. Something as simple as “You got it! Get a hit big guy!”  Can be an anxiety provoking experience for your child.  It places pressure on them no matter how seemingly helpful or innocent the encouragement might be.  This will teach your child to be smart with their words in life and aware of the impact words can have on another person.
  • Be Aware of the Little Things: Ask your child if they like being cheered for or how you can best encourage them that will be beneficial not detrimental.  This will teach them that even the little things matter.
  • Keep life outside of sport…sport free.  Talk about other things.  Life that revolves around sport is the quickest way for a child to identify only with their “Athletic Identity” in which their self-worth often becomes based.  Heaven forbid there are other kids in the house who may not be “the golden child.” They hear everything and bitterness and resentment can develop quickly.  Talking about other things and allowing other children in the family to have some air space will teach your child that there is more to life than sport and will relieve them of pressure to be perfect.
  • Give them a break.  Remember when there was this thing called childhood?  It doesn’t exist in most places anymore.  Some of the greatest learning in life happens outside the watchful eyes of adults.  This may be the only time appropriate for you to mandate what they do in their career.  Don’t think your child needs to attend every tournament or showcase they get invited to attend.  It’s all about money to the organization…not your child.  If your child is good enough…the right people will find them.  Put them in other sports – the best athletes play many sports.  Have them learn to draw.  Teach them outlets.
  • Have fun.  We teach athletes to have fun.  Find a way to do the same.  Too many parents are more worried and stressed out at the end of a game than the players.  Preach what you practice.  This will teach your child to have integrity.  And at the end of the day…our integrity is all we have.

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