By Kathryn Rea Smith, PH.D.
How should parents with children in youth sports behave? A great article—“What makes a nightmare sports parent—and what makes a great one” written by Steve Henson in February 2012 (http://www.thepostgame.com/blog/more-family-fun/201202/what-makes-nightmare-sports-parent), provides some insightful answers. In the article, Mr. Henson refers to findings from an informal survey of college athletes by longtime coaches Bruce E. Brown and Rob Miller. In the survey, athletes were asked about their worst and best memories of playing youth sports. The athletes said their worst memories were of riding home with their parents after a game. Their best memories were of hearing their parents say, simply, “I love to watch you play.” Furthermore, the article lists “five signs of an ideal sports parent” and “five signs of a nightmare sports parent.”
The five signs of an ideal sports parent are as follows: 1) Cheer everybody on the team, not just your child, 2) Model appropriate behavior such as graciousness in the face of a loss, 3) Know what is suitable to discuss with the coach (e.g. asking for suggestions about how to help your child build skills at home) and what to avoid (e.g. playing time for your child), 4) Know your role (spectator, not coach or official), and 5) Be a good listener and a great encourager when your child approaches you with a question or concern. As a psychologist, I find these suggestions for positive parent behavior to be right on point.
I was even more intrigued, though, with the five signs of a nightmare sports parent: 1) Overemphasizing sports at the expense of sportsmanship, 2) Having different goals than your child, such as when the parent is thinking about “future scholarship” and the child is thinking about having fun with friends, 3) Treating your child differently after a loss than a win such that a child feels more valued after a win, 4) Undermining the coach by “coaching” from the bleachers, and 5) Living your own athletic dream through your child by taking credit for a good outcome or being overly dismayed by a loss. The “nightmare” behaviors represent the kinds of issues and concerns that were sometimes brought up in sessions when I practiced as a psychotherapist. Several individuals spoke of quitting a sport because they could not take the parental criticism, pressure, or performance expectations. Some spoke of losing the joy of the game as a result of their parent’s actions.
Their best memories were of hearing their parents say, simply, “I love to watch you play.”
The main reason parents should adopt behaviors associated with Brown and Miller’s ideal sports parent is that such behaviors are good for the parent-child relationship. Children feel accepted and supported when parents take them to practices, attend games, cheer for the whole team, and tell them how much they enjoy watching them play. Such lucky children will feel grateful and appreciative towards their parents. Conversely, children who are coached from the bleachers or criticized during the ride home will come to resent their parents. They may grow to believe they are only as good as their most recent performance in their parent’s eyes. Over time, chronic resentment can lead to distance and disconnection, the opposite of the kind of relationship parents hope to have with their children. A secondary and more pragmatic reason for adopting positive sports parent behaviors is that children who don’t have to worry about their parents are free to concentrate on the game and on what their coach has to say. They eventually learn to self-evaluate and set personal goals for improvement. Those with critical parents are likely to be distracted from the game due to anxious concern about what the parent is thinking and are more likely to make mistakes.
Participating in sports is known to foster physical, social, emotional development, and a sense of mastery. When parents behave well in the bleachers and avoid the “nightmare” traits, a closer, more positive parent-child relationship is an additional positive outcome.
Kathryn Rea Smith, Ph.D. is a private practice psychologist specializing in psychological assessment and parenting consultation. Dr. Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.