Parenting a Competitive Athlete
When I was growing up, all I wanted to do was sit in a comfortable corner and read a book. I was the kid with asthma and food allergies before it was a thing. I carried an inhaler and epi-pen before people cared about life threatening environmental triggers and was ridiculed in turn.
My mom made me enroll in several activities, which I endured until she let me quit – ballet, softball and the like. I ultimately ended up in band, in which I played throughout middle and high school. Having never been a sports fan, I survived my brothers’ sport activities by always having a book with me, which I would read, totally ignoring the game, until my brothers had the ball or were up at bat. And so it is no surprise that such a person would then give birth to two athletically gifted children.
My kids have played and excelled in several sports, and we are now settling down to the one sport that they each enjoy the most. My son plays travel baseball and attends private coaching sessions to help him with batting and fielding. My daughter plays competitive tennis, is currently ranked in the state, attends pre-academy tennis, has a private coach, and we’re looking at getting her a hitting coach. Every day of our lives is consumed with sports. It is exhausting to me but I will sally forth as long as the kids want to do it and we can afford it.
But before we got here, I spent many years at early morning soccer matches, basketball games, cross country meets and track and field meets.
During that time, I have watched my kids grow and change; handle great wins and bitter defeats. I have encouraged, coached and comforted. But most of all, I have had the opportunity to observe other parents and how they handle their kids’ athletic pursuits. In all this time, I have observed 5 types of sports parents:
The Drop Off Parent
This parent rarely stays during practice. They like the idea that their kid is participating in a sport. The sport offers some physical activity and gets the kid off the couch and away from electronics. Often though, these kids aren’t very interested in the sport. Indeed, it’s more of a social activity than a sport to pursue long term. The kids are often disruptive during practice because to them, this is just another activity that their parents have signed them up for. They aren’t really invested in the activity at all.
I have heard coaches complain about these parents who they think are using the activity as a babysitting service. But I think that recreational sports are just that – recreational. Not every child is trying to be the next Michael Jordan so they should be allowed to go out and have fun doing something physically active. Parents of disruptive kids – and you know when your kid is that kid - should stay and manage their child’s behavior so that the experience of the other kids is not diminished.
The Professional Parent
This parent acts as their child’s sports agent and manager. They need the child or team to win at all cost and are not above cheating. They will verbally attack their child’s opponent to help rattle them so that their child can gain an advantage. They will coach their child to bend the rules a far as possible, possibly even step over the line a bit, in order to secure that win. This parent spends hours poring over the opponent’s statistics, analyzing their game and spotting weakness for their child to exploit, picking up shards of information that will help their child gain an advantage. In short, the parent has dedicated his life to putting another “W” on his kid’s record. The problem is that this parent has no scruples about using any means necessary to get that “W.”
While I see nothing wrong with studying your opponent and learning everything possible about them before going into a game, I have to draw the line when it comes to cheating or verbally attacking young children in order to try to throw them off their game. I have seen it. It has happened to my daughter during a tennis match (she ultimately won but only after an official parked on the court and threatened the other parent).
What these parents seem to lose sight of is the fact that focusing more on their child’s training and mental toughness to play the game will take them much further than a few, or several, contrived attempts at intentionally undermining the opponent. Or cheating. So, to the Professional parents – if you have to resort to those kinds of tactics so that your kid can win, perhaps your kid isn’t as talented as you think they are. Spend your energy on training and you won’t have to resort to playing dirty.
The “My Kid is Going to Be Drafted” Parent
This parent is operating like their 10 year-old is going to get a call to play in the major leagues at the end of the season. They think their kid is better than all the other kids and don’t mind letting the coaches, other parents or team members know it. They can be heard bad mouthing the other players and the coaches. This parent is obnoxious and really takes the fun out of the game for everyone else. They appear to be miserable because they are having to put up with all the incompetent coaches and untalented team mates. One wonders why they don’t just leave since they are so unhappy.
My advice to the parent who thinks their kid is the most talented kid on the team: suck it up. Allow the kid to use this season as a character and sportsmanship building season. Next season, be sure to find a team with equally matched players. But you don’t need to make the other kids, who are developing, feel bad during the process. It helps no one, not even your kid.
The Competitive Parent
This parent is living their life through their kid. They likely played this very sport (or wish they had) as a child. Their number one goal is to have their kid be the best one on the team and perform to 100 percent perfection during the entirety of every game. This parent heckles their own kid mercilessly, constantly telling the kid what to do and how to do it while the kid is in action on the playing field. This parent may even run alongside on the sidelines yelling tips and commands to their kid. As a spectator, you feel sorry for the kid because the parent just.won’t.shut.up.
Similar to the “thinks their kid is going to be drafted” parent, this parent is convinced that if the 9 year- old child just performs to perfection, she will, in fact, get that D-1 scholarship or go professional in 8 years. But unlike the above-mentioned parent, this parent doesn’t feel the need to make the other kids look bad in order to build his own child up.
My advice to the competitive parent: Take a chill pill. Really. I am a believer in competition and competitive sports. However, as parents, we can take it too far. Showtime is NOT the time to coach your kid. Once your kid is out on the playing field, they have to depend on their training and mental fortitude to get through the plays. It is time to trust the training and let them fly. If it’s a team sport and they have coaches, you’ve got to let the coaches coach. If it’s an individual sport like tennis or golf, reserve your coaching for when its allowed. And then only provide the most useful and specific coaching because the kid has to make his own decisions based upon what he sees when the ball is live. Berating a child in the middle of a game is absolutely counter-productive.
These are the parents that I try to model. They understand that their kids are on a journey. A long journey. They balance encouragement with tough love. They understand that they are there to help their kid reach her goal and they are supportive no matter what. These parents understand that the kid has to live his own life. They don’t have any retirement plans riding on the future success of their 11 year old.
My Thoughts on Parenting a Competitive Athlete
I have learned so much from other parents as my kids have entered the truly competitive world of sports. Here are my top 10 takeaways:
1. Keep it all in perspective – The younger your child, the more this applies. Most kids who are at the top of their game at 9 and 10 are no longer playing that same sport by the time they are 16. Understand that and allow your competitive athlete to have a childhood.
2. Be present during coaching – When my kids took Suzuki violin lessons, parents were required to attend every lesson, take notes and practice with their kids between classes. If your kids are playing competitive sports, you have to do the same thing, especially if you are paying for private lessons.
3. Coach away from practice – Once you have the notes from the practice coach, you have to practice with, or provide practice opportunities for, your athlete outside of formal practices. Unlike recreational sports, a competitive athlete must practice her sport for many hours a week in order to remain competitive.
4. Be encouraging and supportive but also real – Your kid has a coach who is hard on them and who demands perfection. If your kid is in competitive sports, he likely also has a bit of perfectionism in him and expects the best from himself. As the parent, it is your job to be honest with your child about her performance, strengths and weakness, but it is equally, if not more, important to be encouraging and supportive.
5. Follow your child's lead – When my daughter finishes a match, my husband wants to download everything about the match. I have to shut him down because I can tell that, win or lose, she doesn’t want to re-live the match play by play. So instead, I have her tell me the top 3 things she thinks she did well or improved upon and the top 3 things she needs to work on before her next match. We have a short conversation, led by her, and then we’re done. We move on to an activity that allows her to decompress. This works for her. My son has told me that it makes him nervous when he hears my voice during his baseball games. So, I do not cheer for him or speak in a tone that will allow him to hear me when he’s on the field. As a parent, you have to give your competitive athlete what she needs in order to keep her head in the game.
6. Be nice to the other parents – Whether it’s the team parents or the opponent’s parents, you all gave up your weekend, holiday or dinner time to get your kids to the event. Everyone is tired. Everyone is busy. Everyone has laundry piled up back at home and a list of things they couldn’t get done because they are with their kid at the park. Let’s all be civil and, dare I say, friendly to each other. You’re either going to be spending a lot of time with these people or you will run into them again. And if you’re really nice, they may even help you or share some information with you that will help you to help your child.
7. Focus on the long term – When you are parenting a competitive or elite athlete, you have to keep the long term in mind. Development is key. Help your kid understand that he’s shooting for long term goals. Which means that while they are working on a certain aspect of their game, they might not be perfect. They will lose matches. But that’s OK. What’s important is that they are developing their skills which will yield dividends later.
8. Remember development is key - In the tennis world, some parents have their kids play tournaments almost every weekend. All year long. All in an effort to build points and rankings. Even professional players don’t keep up this kind of demanding schedule. They train, they let their bodies rest, they do the things that will help improve their game off court. We see similar issues with young baseball players who play demanding schedules year-round. With the focus on winning at all costs, kids are experiencing game ending injuries at younger and younger ages. So parents, focus on development. An 8 year old’s rankings will mean nothing when they have a career ending injury at 13.
9. Be watchful of burnout - Parents focusing too much on winning can also cause a child to burn out and hate a sport they previously loved. I have heard many anecdotes about kids who walked away at the top of their game because they were burned out. I’ll admit my own child walked away from being a nationally ranked cross-country runner (16th in the country, number 2 in the state!) because I pushed too hard. In the end, I was heart broken but the truth is, it was all likely my own doing. My son then wanted to take a break from baseball. Over the objections of several family members, I allowed him to take a 2 season break. When he went back, he was energized and excited to play again. If I had pushed him to continue, he probably would have ended up quitting. I have learned my lesson and am here to pass it on to you.
10. Have fun - At the end of the day, I urge you to make sure your kids are having fun. Every sport has their “maturity date” and will require a certain level of commitment leading up to those drop-dead dates. But while you are helping your kid reach his goals (not yours), please help him find a way to remain mentally fresh and enjoy his childhood.