Parents Get the Raw Deal
Sport is an indispensible arena in our contemporary world for the pursuit of excellence, health, self-fulfilment, community and simple enjoyment. For the modern athlete and coach the challenge of excellence has never been so competitive and demanding. However, it is not just professional athletes and coaches that sport stirs. Behind every athlete are parents that are generally hidden but often have made huge and essential efforts behind the scenes in their supporting role. There is often little acknowledgement for this effort and also much blame if things do not work out right. This pattern is not just at the highest echelons and can happen in all sports at every level (7). The latest research of elite sport shows that it is imperative that athletes have the right parental support if they are to be successful. Furthermore, an athlete’s level of enjoyment, social intelligence and personal development relies largely on the relationship with their parents.
On the other side, as a sports coach I have had my fair share of wanting to pull my hair out in my interactions with parents. It is not easy when faced with difficult demands, unrealistic expectations or hearing a parent putting their child down in front of you. However, while acknowledging the difficulty of this relationship as a coach, the more closely I have worked with parents the more I see the huge impact this vital role has on adults. This is especially true in the competitive environment of sport that is often purposefully exposing everyone to extreme stress.
Considering how important parents obviously are from the beginning of working as a sports coach, it was striking the friction that existed between coaches and parents. I would often hear strong complaints about parental involvement in their child’s athletic development. The main impression that existed is that parents get in the way. In addition, they were also held responsible for a player’s poor attitude, motivation, commitment and even genetic potential (e.g. a player not being tall enough to be a tennis professional). This definitely struck me early on as a tough deal for parents. It meant that the best a parent can do is sit quietly by the side-lines and supply full expenses, psychological and physical support while the coaches and athletes get on with the serious business of being successful in the chosen sport.
This is obviously a generalisation, but does capture something important about the culture of sports. It must be said that over the last few years talk about building rapport with parents, open communication, and giving more tailored provision has increased both in sports centres, governing bodies, and in research (4,5). Nevertheless, on what to actually do in this regard there are not many clear paths from coaches and academics alike. The intention of building better relationships and an acknowledgement of how good it could be for athletes, coaches and parents is definitely growing. There is a big difference between knowing what is required for parents to help their children and teaching/facilitating these standards. For example, the knowledge that being judgemental of a child’s performance can really dent self-confidence and create defensiveness for a young performer seems clear. Yet, speaking to a parent about this or showing them a model of non-judgemental communication is often insufficient and extremely awkward to suggest. It is also complicated because holding back judgements because it is deemed wrong to be judgemental is not a quick fix technique that can make athletes suddenly beam with confidence. In fact, not having feedback can indirectly reinforce a child’s petulance or difficulty in maintaining self-belief under pressure. There is a simple reality that developing communication as a parent is far from easy. How to begin to bring about an education that engages and stimulates the real work required to improve communication and the understanding parents so desperately are asking for. This is obviously very sensitive and leaves the coach or governing bodies open to being intrusive or ‘nanning’.
The first stage of helping parents seems to start with understanding what it is actually like for parents from their perspective. What are the pressures of being involved in sports in the reality of daily life and the already insurmountable responsibilities modern life engenders? An attempt to suspend the expectations that so easily can be put on parents under the pressure for excellence, a projection that suggests they should know all the answers to their child’s growth. This article is going to try and do this in the hope of bringing to light some of the key relationships a parent navigates with coaches, players, other parents and themselves. Hopefully this can widen the perspective of the sports environment to bring a clearer vision of a path forward in supporting parents.
The relationship between coach and parent is often not for the faint hearted. A big factor when looking at this central relationship is the particular culture of a club and the individual coach that is available for a parent wanting coaching for their child. This can be a lottery. Some coaches have a natural communication style and are open and responsive to parents. However, many under the competitive pressures inherent to the job can be defensive, distant and demanding. Whatever the situation, it is the parent that has to traverse this relationship. Often this is with limited knowledge of the overall structures available for their child and having to deal with sometimes complex communication with an expert that may or may not be interested in what they think or want to understand. This can be a frustration of not knowing how much money is right to spend on training, to feeling unsure what is happening in the child’s development is really what they need, and even a situation where a child’s confidence and potential are being undermined by poor coaching. In this situation it can be extremely difficult to know what to do.
If your child is gifted you will have lots of different people competing for them to sign up for training. Conversely, if the same child loses form or is injured they can be swept aside as quickly as they were welcomed in. Everyone believes they know what is best and a wrong decision can seriously affect the child’s potential in their sport. Likewise, if your child is late to a sport or developing at a slower rate getting good quality training can be hard. Knowing how to bridge the gap between the standard the child is and the one they want to reach is another fine balance. It is essential to be encouraging and believe in your child but likewise it is necessary to be realistic. This makes negotiating important and knowing who to trust is critical to this. There are not just financial and quality factors in choosing training but also the overall wellbeing of the athlete that has to be considered in these decisions. Furthermore, there is also an important consideration of how the parent will be treated and supported. This is happening at all levels of the game and something that a parent is expected to be able to deal with regardless of how much experience they have.
It is not only how parents are seen and dealt with by coaches that needs to be navigated. Another part of the deal of being a parent in sport is the managing of a young athlete. Of course on the surface this is accepted with the duty of having a child; it is nevertheless still a trying task. When a parent has a lot of drive with their child they can be accused of being too authoritarian. This has some truth as a child who is participating from fear of letting down their parent will struggle in the long term and the relationship can easily become strained. There is a big questions about the long term wellbeing of a child who is not given space to make decisions for themselves about their sport. This can be the case but it is not a simple judgement call because without that leadership an athlete has much less understanding of the long-term view of what it takes to master the skills required in their sport. This means parents are expected to provide realistic backing of their child’s passion and talent as well as being able to support the child’s independence in choosing their own path.
In addition to the difficult balance between guidance and empowerment, it is just as likely that a parent is banished from participation by their child when they are actually wanting to simple be involved. When parents get on the court/pitch/swim pool with their buddying stars, or something as simple as playing catch, they are often met with defiance. The athletes are not only resistant, but often ridicule any mistakes made and become angry for any attempts at coaching or encouragement. The same can be true even for a parent simply wanting to sit down and talk with their child about their sport. This can be met with unclear answers, silence, docility or defensiveness. Adults are expected to be above this, but it is still an unpleasant experience and one not easily solved. In fact, it is usually an accepted behaviour that a child is defensive and angry even when the parent has a genuine intention to support.
Now this is not to say that parents could not have more skill or awareness when getting involved with their child’s sporting participation. There are many disturbing examples of over involvement, lack of enthusiasm and encouragement. However, it would make a big impact if children and parents can work well together to the benefit of both. This would mean a parent feels comfortable to both allow the child space to learn for themselves but also to be able to play with their child and hold boundaries to inspire motivation and develop discipline without that creating hostility or the child not feeling valued.
If we move from training to competition it gets even trickier. Who is often to blame if things go wrong? If parents are not outright blamed, then they still can have a long drive home in silence with a child who doesn’t want to speak. Naturally parents accept this responsibility and often do not complain, but it is a tremendously difficult situation to console a hurt child who has lost an important match or feels their performance has let not only others but also themselves down. This means parents not only have to be skilled communicators with the coach, they have to be a motivator and counsellor with a child that often will take this service for granted while severely admonishing any mistake made. This will all occur after a parent has spent a large portion of their spare time driving, waiting around, watching and taking care of their athlete. Further, it shows that not only is a parent expected to have many significant skills but also has to make many sacrifices at the same time. If this was not difficult enough there are still two more trials to face that often feel better just to avoid, i.e. the relationship to other parents and even more problematic, the internal relationship a parent has with their own fears, dreams, expectations and self-doubt. First, I will discuss the former – mine field of other parents.
In a culture of a club it can be very competitive and tense. I have often been told “I can’t stay on the side-lines and watch because of the atmosphere with the other parents”. With limited places in squads at club, regional, national and international levels it is obviously going to create anxiety. Not only this but each parent has different experience and expectations of what is the correct etiquette. Managing this is not for the faint hearted. Unfortunately it is not only anxiety that parents are having to deal with, but also the tension that gets created within the competitive sporting atmosphere can lead to parents facing aggression, intimidation, back talking or the other extreme of isolation.
There are plenty of examples of sports bringing parents together and great friendships being formed. There are definitely clubs and competitions where a reassuring and enjoyable atmosphere is built. It does seem this is more a minority at this time. This is largely because it is far from easy. How do you manage an aggressive parent, gossip or communicating with others who do not seem interested? Potentially parents can be a great support for each other as they know what a difficult job they have. They can help bring perspective and understanding, or at the very least welcomed friendliness during the long hours of demanding training and competition. It is not something everyone is concerned about, but it would seem a nice boost for sports if some of the tensions were reduced and a sense of community could be fostered. To achieve this it often needs an openness to the reality of competition, a welcoming culture where people feel included but also a responsibility for parents to communicate with each other.
This brings us to maybe the hardest part of the journey; dealing with the internal highs and lows of being a sports parent. What this means can be made clear by the question ‘Do you enjoy being a sports parent?’ or ‘Could it be easier and more fulfilling?’. This has a lot to do with the individuals own way of dealing with stress. This leads to one of the astounding parts of observing parents in sport. Regardless of the deal parents are getting a lot of what they do when viewed from a distance is incredibly self-sacrificing. This is so normal, it is rarely recognised.
I am always amazed at how much parents will do for their children. It is taken as a given in our culture, but when you stop and look it is extraordinary. The costs involved in training, kit, time off work, competition, driving here, there and everywhere is no small commitment. In fact, the investment can be colossal. However, it is not just financial, the time needed to pursue sports even at county level is demanding, to go to national or international by recent estimates is 10000 hours (2). So, that’s 25 hours a week, 40 weeks a year for 10 years. That is a lot of time spent watching from the side lines. In that time you can expect many tantrums, disappointments, dips in form, uncertainty and plenty of moments dealing with coaches and other parents. Through the highs and the lows it is time spent for the purpose of the child’s development. Of course for this commitment and challenge comes potential intrinsic rewards that can far outstrip the demands. The potential pride, connection and pleasure of sharing a child’s journey in their sports is priceless. In many ways, reaching this level of intrinsic reward as a parent is just as big a test than what the athletes face on the field of play.
Many parents will say giving time to their youngsters is totally worth it, in fact, being there for their kids is its own reward. Still from working with parents as a coach it has shown that actually the toll of the environment described above does have a big effect. Despite the hardships outlined, a lot of parents say that this is small compared to dealing with their own expectations and fears and that this is the hardest part of all. Taking a closer look at this is fundamental to improving parents experience in sport.
Watching can be torture, but why? Surely it is just a matter of enjoying the excitement of the game and the warm feeling of seeing a child putting their heart into what they are passionate about. At the end of the day, is it silly to get worked up over children chasing a ball around, performing a summersault or swimming a length of a pool? Not a chance. This is simply because the bond between child and parent is more powerful and therefore vulnerable than any other. Now this is so obvious it seems ridiculous to mention it. Yet, when coaches, athletes, media, and anyone else complain about parent’s behaviour I believe they have forgotten this obvious fact. When a parent is feeling overwhelmed and disappointed with how they are dealing with the demands of sport, it appears mostly due to the pressure having led to a loss in the quality of connection they have with their child.
A parent will be strongly condemned for projecting their own lack of early success on their child and equally for not giving more drive and discipline for a child to reach the next level. When we look closer at this, it looks myopic. When a parent is watching their child it is impossible that past experiences and emotions will not be raised. Even when one watches professional sport from afar, ones emotions are hard to contain. Look at how the best in the world can affect our emotions if they look like they are giving in or underperforming when it matters. This is something that does not seem to have an off button and is the inherent beauty of sport. With great difficulty one can push away or deny what watching their child makes them feel but the consequences of this can be just as bad for the relationship with the child, and also for the parent’s health. It is increasingly documented that emotional literacy is fundamental to the overall health and wellbeing, whilst holding back emotion is a sign of illiteracy (1). This is not to say that a parent should be left to blindly put their own expectations and anxieties on an athlete; this is not good for anyone either.
How can we understand what is to be done with the strong emotions that come when a child is performing? There are a plethora of trials that can arise from within; strong anxiety that it will be ok, anger that full effort is not being shown, sadness at a child almost winning a final and then suddenly losing, disappointment with a below par performance and worry that it is your fault that your child is not mental tough or motivated. This is an area that can be the most distressing for parents and where parents get the rawest deal. It is this part where they are often blamed or judged for what they are feeling, without empathy of the difficulty of these emotions and any way of being supported through this complex situation.
Reading modern adult psychological development studies show in-depth the nature of the difficulties of being a parent (3, 6,8). This research shows that our own childhood experiences are always going to be influencing how we are with our children. However, evidence shows that with development practices parents can increase their ability to take perspective to acknowledge and understand what is happening within. There is little or no encouragement of this currently in our sports culture. In a sports arena, how children are doing is going to reflect on parents and there is no getting away from this. Every time a child performs they are under the spot light, and therefore so are the parents behind the scenes. When a child is underperforming it will create an emotion (anxiety, disappointment, anger, hopelessness, etc.) in the parent and then from the way this is recognised there will be a response. The normal reaction is to either push this back onto the child; ‘why can they never keep it together?’, ‘Why don’t they listen to what I say?’, ‘How can they keep making the same mistakes?’ or internalise it as a parent ‘Why am I so useless?’, ‘Why don’t I know what to do and all the other parents seem ok?’, ‘Am I letting down my child? That would be horrible!’.
Without the ability to take perspective and process the emotions around the child’s performance, conflict can easily arise. After all the work and self-sacrifice a parent makes it is hard to have these difficult experiences without anyone seemingly noticing, or worse not being shown that this is an inevitable part of being a parent and one that has great potential for self-learning. In addition, for sure they will not be the only parent facing these difficulties and it has been evident that each and every parent I have worked with are feeling pressured in some way or the other. Part of this article is to show that this is the reality of being a parent and seemingly always will be. This is where being a parent is just like being an athlete. Going into a competitive environment with no preparation and support will lead to poor results and a lack of enjoyment. This is why it is believed the future of parents in sport is one where developing emotion and mental strength is part of the experience, as is developing strong relationships with child, coach, and other parents.
As outlined above I believe at this time parents more than any other group in the culture of sport have the raw deal. The athletes and coaches have many pressures but they are expected to have training and to continually develop themselves. Parents are expected to know what to do and culturally there is more pressure and less support. There is an appetite for education and understanding with the increasing number of books, magazines and TV programs focusing on parenting and psychology. However, watching the TV to develop self-awareness can only be a beginning. It would be similar to expecting an athlete to improve their performance by watching more sport on TV. Parents hold one of the most important keys to how well our young athletes are doing in sports. As a culture, having space where parents can come and be supported with their challenges and development and not just be left behind the scenes could really boost the whole sports environment. Coaching for parents is the beginning of this move to help parents deal with strong emotions, the undisciplined or underperforming child, the difficult coaches and other parents. Most important of all is seeing parents have their own journey and like an athlete, the challenge can be met with growth and a deeper enjoyment.
1. Cherniss, C., Extein, M., Goleman, D., & Weissberg, R. (2006). Emotional Intelligence: What Does the Research Really Indicate? Educational Psychologist, 41 (4), 239-245.
2. Colvin, G. (2008). Talent is overrated: What really separates world-class performers from everybody else. London: Penguin Books.
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4. Gould, D., Lauer, L., Rolo, C., Jannes, C., & Pennisi, N. (2008). The role of parents in tennis success: focus group interviews with junior coaches. The Sport Psychologist, 22, 18-37.
5. Harwood, C., Drew, A., & Knight, C. (2010). Parental stressors in professional youth football academies: a qualitative investigation of specialising stage parents. Qualitative Research in Sport and Exercise, 2(1), 39-55.
6. Kegan, R. (1994). In over our heads: The demands of modern life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
7. Matos, N., Winsley, R., & Williams, C. (2011). Prevalence of Non-functional overreaching/overtraining in young English athletes. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 43(7), 1287-1294.
8. Wilber, K. (2001). A theory of everything: An integral vision for business, politics, science and spirituality. Boston: Shambhala.
Article written by Sean Wilkinson