Recently I read about a town in Australia that actually implemented laws that govern parent behavior at sporting events. Stepping out of line is punishable by banishment from the play area, and/or fines. My first thought was: “Really? Is that necessary?” Then after reflecting on our own American sports parents I realized that the Aussies are right on track. We have seen cases as extreme as the case in Texas where the cheerleader’s mother killed a rival cheerleader to promote her own daughter’s chances of “making the team”; to something as common as bad-mouthing the umpire at a little league game. Being in the kids/sports industry I can say that I have seen some curious parenting styles out there that run the gamut.
Working as an administrator, coach and teacher for over 30 years, I have seen some cases that would be unbelievable to the average person. I have also seen some parents that taught me a thing or two about how to behave when I became a parent, and I try to emulate those role models every day.
The goals of a good sport parent should be the same goals held by a good coach; develop the whole athlete. As a coach and parent I have tried to teach my children values and model virtues, I have focused on developing character. Yes, of course as a coach, I do like to win; but as it states in our Gymfinity team handbook, “when the trophy is more important than the smile, then there will be no true way to win.”
Sports parents have a very important job, without them, and without them doing their “job” the coach’s job becomes nearly impossible. First off, a parent must provide the athlete; that is not just getting the kid to the gym, but providing a sport ready child. To clarify, let’s compare athletes to race cars: cars need good parts, good fuel and a good driver. Just like children need a healthy body (car), with a good diet of food, sleep and other various ingredients (fuel) as well as a good sound mind (their driver) to understand not only the “how to”, but the “why” of their activity. Without the race car in good shape, the coach has nothing to work with.
Next the parents need to balance reality for their child. They need to have their children juggle one ball for sports, one for school, and one for family. When a child/athlete drops a ball, they need to be there to help them recover and get the ball aloft again. Those two tasks, providing and balancing, are the parent’s most essential. Beyond that they need to sit back and observe, allow their child/athlete to do what they can, make decisions on their outcomes, wrestle with the results and unconditionally love them regardless of the win or loss.
Like parents, coaches and the athletes have their own jobs to do too. Though a coach’s job is more technical, they rely on the parent and athlete to fulfill their roles in order for them to carry out their own. Problems arise when the three sides of the triangle (coach, parent, and athlete) start to blur and overlap. When one steps into another’s role there is confusion, and for the child, that can cause great stress and usually results in the opposite of the one thing everyone intended to enhance; the performance. Problems also arise as well when the balance I spoke about is lost, when winning and sport is prioritized over education and family it will lead to the destruction of the child athlete. It may not happen overnight, but the slow attrition of breaking the child down is in action.
There are some common parents perspectives that lead to a child’s failure (understand that the term failure is not only in reference to sport). Most parents will read this information and disassociate themselves from the familiarity of the problems; they agree that it must be hard for a kid with parents like that, but not see that they might be “those parents.” I think we should remain open-minded. My son tried playing soccer last year but it didn’t take. I found myself in the position of having some degree of all of the characteristics evident in problem parents, and I am supposed to know better! I found that I wanted my son “winning” or playing well because I was never a good soccer player and really wanted to be. I wanted to be a part of the team at my school (after they cut gymnastics I sought out other sports) but I was not very good. I was a good athlete and I knew the value of training hard and always believed that hard work is its own reward. I knew that every parent on the team and other teams knew I was the “Gymfinity guy”, I had a reputation. I felt that I needed to show, not only that I was a good coach, but a good parent. So, all of the mistaken views parents have, the ones that caused me such pain over the years, I now embodied. I wanted my son to show that we are capable of playing soccer; I wanted him to do what I couldn’t. I wanted him to train with vigor and desire, the reaching and surpassing of his personal goals. And I wanted everyone to know, that when Owen scored his goal, it was because I was a great parent. Wrong, wrong and in so many ways, wrong. Owen was Owen. He played until it wasn’t fun. Like me, he isn’t a big fan of team sports, so I guess in a way I did get the “mini-me” I was after. And as for parenting satisfaction, at least I was better than the guy on his phone the whole game, which will have to be good enough.
There are some very definitive descriptors between the over-zealous parent and the supportive and positive parent. Sometimes they are subtle and sometimes they scream. The obsessive parent always seeks to have their child noticed, overtly or covertly, they want their child recognized. How else will anyone know that they are a good parent? They are often dissatisfied with effort being good enough, they are only happy with tangibles; like a “W” in the column or a trophy or a medal. These parents don’t give their child/athlete any room to make decisions or the strength to deal with the repercussions of those decisions. Yet when the parent is the one dictating the game-plan they only have criticism for the child who carried out their failed plan. These parents often don’t see they’re to blame for the failure. “I just want what’s best for her,” is a mantra and every time I hear it, I know that the next sentence is going to be all about the parent. A good sports parent allows their child/athlete to make some of the decisions that affect their performance. Obviously the younger the child, the harder it is to allow them to make decisions, but you might be surprised how much thought is happening in that little brain. You have to listen for it, but to be supportive you should develop that skill. After the soccer season, my Owen tried basketball. First day of practice, he stood, motionless, for 15 minutes holding the ball. Other kids played around him, the coach encouraged him, other parents cheered for him to at least bounce the ball, but nothing happened. I stepped out to change my other son’s diaper (ah, parenting), and when I returned was told that he hadn’t even flinched. That didn’t take “super ears” to hear that message. So Owen wasn’t a baller. OK.