Finding the Right Balance Of Involvement for Sport Parents

Craig Sigl, the Mental Toughness Trainer for Youth Sports Trying to find the “right” or correct balance between pushing or encouraging our kids and standing on the side lines and keeping our mouths shut, is an issue I struggle with personally all the time.

Some parenting experts say that you should push your kids hard to prepare them for the rigors of competition and life. On the other hand, some experts say you should just let the kids play and have fun.
There’s no doubt about it, parents SHOULD be involved in their youth athlete’s sports life! But the question is “What’s The Right Amount of Sports Parents Involvement?”

Of course we all want the very best for our kids! So who’s right?

Here are some things to consider when you are trying to find
that sweet spot in your parenting…

I have two teenage boys in sports.  You would think as a mental toughness trainer who has helped so many kids their age, I would have lots of credibility with my boys.

Although they do respect my opinion they don’t always listen to everything I suggest they do.  So I have really worked on and fine-tuned what I think is the right amount of sports parent involvement and wanted to share that with you.

Youth athlete depressed and anxiousMost kids play a sport for the thrill of having fun with other kids, but it’s not always fun and games. There can be a ton of pressure in youth sports and a lot of the time it comes from the feeling that a parent or coach expects them to always win.

So the age-old question for sports parents is how much to push vs. let them make their own choices and suffer the natural consequences?  When it comes to sports the issue can get even more touchy and personal, depending on the parent’s past experiences, enthusiasm and involvement in the sport.

Unfortunately there is no one right answer that works for all kids and that is where most parents get it wrong!

A lot of parents make the mistake of assuming what worked for them will work for their child.  It’s NOT true!  Our children are not carbon copies of us. They have their own feelings, issues and ways of dealing with the stress, strategy and competition.  This holds true for siblings as well, one child may react positively to your direction and the other child may rebel.

I am going to give you a few ideas to think about when considering the degree and method of your support and participation in your child’s sport and how that may effect their personal development.

We live in such a hectic time and it seems like everyone is always in a rush. We overload our days and expect so much from everyone around us.

Parent screaming at child during a gameIt’s pretty natural for a child to also feel urgency to succeed and do it quickly. Over-involved sports parents, who, in their loving enthusiasm, want to help their kids too much, often do more harm than good.

Many kids feel they can’t perform up to their parents or coach’s expectations. Parents make the problem worse by scolding or yelling at their child or by sending confusing messages. A parent can’t tell their child to “go out there and have fun”, while sitting up in the stands writing down their stats to discuss on the way home.

Too much parental interest can confuse children and weaken their motivation. It can get to the point where the child isn’t sure whether they are participating to please themselves or just their parents.

On the other side of the coin are parents who let their kids do whatever they want.  I can tell you from first-hand experience in working with hundreds of adults in my office, most adults say they wish their parents had given them stricter boundaries.

Children should be taught to embrace the journey, not the destination! One of the biggest mistakes you can make is focusing too much on trophies, ribbons, and scholarships. The irony is, if parents and coaches focused more on the fun and the skill-development aspects of the sport and let go of the pressure to win, then the kids are much more likely to win.

Pistol pete would practice 8-10 hours a daySo the bottom line is, whether or not they have the motivation to be a successful athlete is ultimately up to your child. We tell the story of Pistol Pete in our trainings, who of his own volition, would practice 8 to 10 hours a day. Trust me, his parents weren’t paying big bucks to have him on a traveling team or have personal trainers work him out. Pete had a pure love for the game. Nothing was going to keep him from being the player he was going to be.

If you have an athlete who pushes themselves too hard, it may comes from a strong desire to be the best they can be. But, sometimes it can be for the wrong reasons. If your athlete isn’t having fun playing their sport, it’s should be a red flag to you that they could be trying to win your approval or are trying to prove they are better than others. These types of athletes typically burn out before too long.

Sports parent creating an environment of trust and communicationThe most important thing you can do as a sports parent is to create a trusting environment with good open communication with your child.  Yes, I know that’s easier said than done, but wherever you are at, there is always up. The fact that you are here and care is a big step in the right direction and your kids pick up on that.

Picture of a relaxed brainOne thing that may help is for you to keep in mind, studies have shown kids’ brains are not fully formed until sometime in their 20’s.   This means that you should not always take what they say literally. If they say they “hate you” or some other derogatory remark, it’s very possible that they are in an altered state and really don’t mean what they’re saying.

So try not to take it personal. Yes, go ahead and enforce your family’s values and administer consequences – just do your best to take your emotion out of it.  If you recognize that you are too emotional, hold off making any decisions that day.

On the other hand, kids need our support and encouragement to be better than what they think they are.  We, as adults, see the bigger picture and a longer-term perspective.  This helps tremendously when they experience a loss and think it is the end of the world.  Tell them stories of some of your personal losses or mistakes and how you picked yourself up and brushed yourself off and moved forward.

It’s all about balance.

parent encouraging youth athleteSome simple guidelines you can always do to help motivate your athlete:

1. Encourage your athlete.

For their courage and effort and respond with encouragement to their mistakes.  Emphasize the importance of fun, personal improvement, and skill acquisition over winning and performing well.

 2. Help your child develop internal motivation.

There is scientific evidence that great athletes are motivated more by their own internal goals, than by external rewards such as fame, money, and status.  Things like respect and self-esteem that can always be gained regardless of what others think.

3. Enhance your child’s self-esteem.

By encouraging your child to evaluate their own performance and have them find 2 or 3 things they did well.

Parent talking to son4. Listen and acknowledge their feelings.

Make sure your encouragement is specific, believable, causes self-reflection. Don’t use it to manipulate.

5. Use written encouragement.

Leave notes of encouragement or inspiration in your child’s backpack, on a mirror or in a book.

6. Have your child teach you something about their sport.

Go out and play it with them.

7. Ask your child for advice about how you can support them.

Don’t assume you know what’s best in this area.

8. Remember children learn best in an encouraging and fun environment.

What has been your experience as a sports parent?  Are there issues you are dealing with you would like some advice?  Be sure to leave your questions and comments below for Craig to answer!