I’ve always loved sports but wasn’t very good at them growing up. Playing on losing teams, being among the last to be picked and keeping the bench warm were pretty much the norm. When the highlight of your grade school basketball career is a 5-4 victory, you’re no stranger to failure.
My parents were very encouraging but allowed me to take my lumps. Regardless of the score or my performance, to them it only mattered that I play hard and be a good teammate. At the time, I wasn’t thinking about either of those aspects, but now I realize how important they were to my personal and professional development.
Unfortunately, helicopter parents — overprotective moms and dads who hover over their children’s lives, protecting them from failure — are making their way onto the playing field. Helicopter parents might sit in on their kid’s job interview or argue junior’s grades with his college professor.
Vanessa Shannon, Ph.D., director of mental performance for Norton Sports Health, works with college athletes. She said helicopter parenting does a young athlete more harm than good — especially if you want your child to experience long-term success in sports and life.
“Don’t save your children from failure,” Dr. Shannon said. “Failure in younger life is ultimately what builds grittiness and what allows us to overcome adversity later in life. Allow them to experience the struggle and, of course, be there in a supportive role and be on their side.”
While some parents believe that coddling or standing up for their child will improve their athlete’s chance of succeeding in college or professional sports, Dr. Shannon said it may actually do the opposite.
“In middle school, and to a lesser extent high school, there are players who can improve and succeed rather easily,” Dr. Shannon said. “But that changes when they get to college — everyone is good at that level. This is the first time many of these athletes experience failure or adversity. If they’re not used to embracing and learning from failing, oftentimes they get discouraged and give up.”
Another tip: Don’t praise your athlete’s talent, abilities and attributes, but instead praise hard work and effort.
“If you say to a child, ‘Wow, you’re really talented,’ then if the child starts to struggle, the child starts to believe they are not talented enough to handle that situation,” Dr. Shannon said. “Whereas, if you praise a child and say, ‘Wow, you must have worked really hard. You must have given it a lot of effort,’ and they start to struggle, they know that effort isn’t fixed. They know they can continue to give more effort and they can actually be successful.”
Dr. Shannon said a sports parent must change as the child gets older.
“Over time, your role with respect to your child’s athletic career has to evolve,” she said. “Initially, you maybe are a coach or team parent or something like that. Your role is going to be more informational or more instructional, you’re going to be more hands-on. But over time, as children become young adults and move into high school, your role has to transition to supportive.”
Dr. Shannon’s do’s and don’ts for parents of athletes:
1. DO praise hard work and effort; DON’T praise talent.
2. DO allow them to struggle; DON’T always save the day.
3. DO have conversations with them; DON’T stifle communication skills.
4. DO teach patience, persistence and delayed gratification; DON’T rely on technology to communicate (i.e., talk about it!).
5. DO practice what you preach; DON’T be that youth sports parent.
Learn about other ways Norton Sports Health supports athletes of all ages.