There has been more discussion in the past decade about parental expectations and youth sports. While the majority of parents are still able to be supportive and enjoy watching their children play sports, there seems to be a growing number of incidents in which parents are verbally attacking coaches, other parents, teammates or opponents of their children and sometimes their own kids following a youth sporting event. Most people remember the two dads who made headline news in 2000, for fighting after a youth hockey practice in Massachusetts. As a result of the fight, one father was killed and the other is serving time in the state penitentiary. The question is why? Why are parents seemingly becoming more violent at their children’s sporting events?
I think there are multiple reasons why parents’ expectations can quickly get out of balance. I would like to briefly list them here.
Love: First off, it’s important to say that most parents thoroughly love their children and want what is best for them. As parents we need to realize that our love for our kids can get in the way of objectivity. We can want them to succeed so much that we push them too hard; scrutinize their performance too much and leave them feeling like they can’t measure up to our expectations. We leave them feeling like they failed, when that wasn’t the intention at all. Sometimes our love and desire for them to do well results in being unable to see what is too biased. We may think our kid deserves more playing time than they do or think they perform much better than everyone else, because after all we’re suppose to feel that way, they’re our son/daughter. So we begin yelling for more playing time, “He/she should be playing on the top line.”
What our children need from us is to know how proud we are of them, regardless of how well they do or how talented they are. We need to teach them good work ethics, to persevere, to be good teammates. Most importantly we need to teach them we’re proud of them just because they’re our child, no performance necessary.
Identity issues: Some parents try to live out their dreams vicariously through their children. This happens in all areas of life, not just youth sports. Some parents push their children too hard in drama, music, school grades, etc. This type of parent usually didn’t fulfill a dream they had as a child and now they see the opportunity to do so through their child. They literally are living out their dream through their child. If their child has a good game, they had a good game and if their child didn’t get much playing time, then the parent feels they’re a failure. This is very frustrating and maybe hurtful, especially if they feel they are reliving their own painful experiences as a child. So they respond to their hurt with anger.
Legacy issues: Some parents had very successful youth sports careers and maybe even played at a high level in college or professionally. For some of these parents they have an expectation that their child will carry on their legacy; the family business if you will. How well their child plays is either a good or a poor reflection on them. If the child is a star, then the parent’s own career is being carried on and if not, the parent feels they are coming under scrutiny. “How could the star center’s kid not be as talented?” Or worse, what if the child doesn’t like the sport the parent played or any sports at all. Usually the parent feels they some how failed, because their child isn’t just like them.
Win at Any Cost: Some parents don’t even understand the sport their child is playing, but they understand the final score on the board. They believe you’re either a “winner” or a “loser”. They don’t get nor care about the process of development. There is so much occurring in youth sports that isn’t reflected in the score. I’d be a liar to say I don’t care if my sons’ teams win or not. We all like to see our kids get some victories or at least be competitive. Yet, I have seen great things come out of losing seasons. Perseverance, a desire to be better, a “never give up” attitude, an understanding that it takes work and persistence to achieve your goals and solid friendships. These traits, however, don’t come without adults who understand the process and encourage their kids in it, win or lose.
The problem with all of these scenarios is it’s about the parent, not the child. Many times the child will go along with the parent’s dream willingly, because they love their parent and want to please them or bring them glory. But often times the child is not living out their own dream at all. It’s important as parents to help our child find and pursue their goals, not ours.
What happens to some children when they feel so much pressure to perform? They often don’t perform well. They don’t make good teammates, because they feel they need all the accolades to make their parents happy. They lose their love for the game (if they had it in the first place). Some times, in the worst case scenarios, we see teen athletes crack under the pressure and fall into delinquency; drugs and alcohol abuse, etc.
It’s very important that kids find their niche in this world. What do they want to do? I’ve worked in my counseling office with far too many kids who are playing a sport or instrument, not because they love it but because they want to please their parent. I have heard kids say, “the only time I can connect with my dad is when we’re talking about sports.” Often times these kids feel so much pressure from their parents to perform, they don’t love what they’re doing and they feel angry doing it.
I’m reminded of listening to a man tell a very sad story of how he loved drama and music, but his dad wanted him to play football. He had no interest in it, and chose the theatre. His dad decided to adopt the kid next door and would miss his own son’s productions but would never miss the neighbor kid’s football games! The message his son got was “I’m not good enough.” We need to let our kids know they are important and encourage them to pursue their dreams, while we watch and cheer them on.