How NOT to be one of those sport-loving parents!

Thursday, 03 Jun 2021

One of the benefits of being involved extensively in leadership and sport is in developing an understanding of how wonderful some parents can be in supporting their sons and daughters when pursuing sporting excellence, and conversely, how damaging some can be albeit inadvertently.

I have also witnessed on a number of occasions the children who eventually drop all sport because as youngsters they were put under significant pressure. In one case (well known to Garron Forman and I and which occurred some time ago) the child eventually quitted representative football at 13 years because his father’s input was so obsessive and excessive. 

We often don’t see ourselves as others see us and I find myself wanting to urge the parent to ‘back off’. Check out these warning signs to see if you are indeed a horrible sports parent.

1. Read: Range: How Generalists Triumph in a Specialised World by David Epstein

This is powerful argument for how to succeed in any field. Stop being obsessive about the one sport and focus to develop broad interests and skills even though everyone around you is rushing to specialize. From the ‘10,000 hours rule’ to the power of Tiger parenting, we have been taught that success in any field requires early specialization and many hours of deliberate practice. And, worse, that if you dabble or delay, you'll never catch up with those who got a head start.

This is completely wrong.
David Epstein shows you that the way to succeed is by sampling widely, gaining a breadth of experiences, taking detours, experimenting relentlessly, juggling many interests - in other words, by developing range. Studying the world's most successful athletes, artists, musicians, inventors and scientists, Epstein demonstrates why in most fields - especially those that are complex and unpredictable - generalists, not specialists are primed to excel.

2. Coaching from the sideline

Encouraging comments are welcome. Everyone wants a cheering section, and athletes often feed off the energy of the crowd. But parents shouting instructions from the sidelines are rarely helpful. First, it takes the player's focus off the field and puts it on you. Second, what you're telling the player to do may directly contradict what the coach is trying to communicate. The last thing you want to do is confuse your kid and they are generally embarrassed that you are doing this. Best to call out positive comments but refrain from coaching comments.

3. Your expectations are too high

Having been a soccer selector for State for 20 years I know about unrealistic expectations. Even in the highest levels of sports, only a small percentage of athletes or players ‘make it’. And of that collection of truly elite athletes / players, an even more minuscule number get a chance to play professionally. It's good to have dreams. It's good to set high goals. But the odds are against you and your young player. Approach the game with that knowledge. It’s good to have high expectations but they need to be realistic.

4. Criticizing other kids

A father from another school complained bitterly once when his son did not make it into the ASISSA football team. Of course, the usual arguments were postulated – most particularly – our ‘systems’ were wrong (yep – heard that many times!). However, it is the argument which says that my child deserves to be in the team because s/he is so much better than the other kid which really hurts. Myopia comes to mind!

5. Arguing with . . . just about anyone

By this stage it’s evident to everyone but yourself that you’ve become unhinged. This is often accompanied by a level of self-righteousness that is also unhinged. Not sure what the remedy is for this as being unhinged makes it hard to see reason.

6. Playing the blame game

Sometimes a child will make mistakes. Sometimes his or her teammates will make mistakes. Sometimes the coach will make mistakes. Sometimes the team will just get beaten. That’s the great thing about sport – we learn how to lose and learn how to deal with the subsequent emotions of losing. Live with it. There's another game next week.

7. You think every opponent of your child cheats

The tackle the opponent made was outrageous and dirty. The tackle your child made was strong and fair. They were the same kind of tackle. We are inclined to lose objectivity when we watch our children play games.

8. Bragging

Say no more! The nice thing about CIS and PSSA is it reminds us often that our children are big fish in small ponds.

9. Not letting your kid have a life outside of sports

The aforementioned father made sure he got his son up each morning to do sprint training (which would help him in football) and then lined up extra practice sessions with a football hero/genius/former prodigy etc. Practice makes perfect, but there's a limit to how hard you should push your student-athlete. More importantly than transforming your child into a perfect footballer or whatever, is to let him or her evolve into a well-rounded person with interests and abilities outside of sports.

10. Yelling at your kid in front of everyone

I recall being on a tennis court with one of my sons so the father – son conversation on the court next to us was perfectly audible. I recall the father telling his son (who was obviously not hitting to the standard dad required) that “people like him send coaches to the psychiatrist” (amongst other foul comments). My son and I were gobsmacked.
Accepting constructive criticism is part of getting better. But there's a right way to do it and a wrong way. Loudly, in public is certainly a bad way. You'll embarrass your kid and put a bad taste in everyone's mouth and in any case, it’s best done by a coach. You are the dad or mum – leave it to the coach. Asking your child how they thought they played is also a ‘Dorothy Dixer’ designed to be destructive. And your child knows it!
11. Swearing/complaining/being a loudmouth

See #4 above!

So, here is how I see it:

If children live with criticism, they learn to condemn.
If children live with hostility, they learn to fight.
If children live with fear, they learn to be apprehensive.
If children live with pity, they learn to feel sorry for themselves.
If children live with ridicule, they learn to feel shy.
If children live with jealousy, they learn to feel envy.
If children live with shame, they learn to feel guilty.
If children live with encouragement, they learn confidence.
If children live with tolerance, they learn patience.
If children live with praise, they learn appreciation.
If children live with acceptance, they learn to love.
If children live with approval, they learn to like themselves.
If children live with recognition, they learn it is good to have a goal.
If children live with sharing, they learn generosity.
If children live with honesty, they learn truthfulness.
If children live with fairness, they learn justice.
If children live with kindness and consideration, they learn respect.
If children live with security, they learn to have faith in themselves and in those about them.
If children live with friendliness, they learn the world is a nice place in which to live.

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