28 April 2007

Guidance on Being a Sporting Parent

by Juliette Lloyd


Everyday when I look at the sports pages, I am reminded of the role that parents play in their offspring’s sporting endeavors. Watching the William's sisters during this year’s tennis circuit, one cannot help but realise the enormous impact that their father Richard has had on their tennis careers.

It is of course not just in tennis that parents have an impact on their children. Having spent 8 years coaching rowing, I am only too aware of the impact, both positive and negative that parents can have on their child’s enjoyment and achievement in sport. During the build up to the “big fight” between Tyson and Lewis at the beginning of June, much was written about the role that their parents played in their lives inside and outside the ring. In a recent article, Alison Kervin examined the different parenting styles they were brought up with and how they have had a major impact. “Tyson and Lewis are two very different men from quite similar family backgrounds. One had a searingly close relationship with his mother and has a normal, rational attitude to women. The other had a patchy, distant relationship with his mother that has left him tortured by an inability to show an ounce of respect or basic civility towards them.” (Times 8th June 2002).

There are many other examples, like Tyson, which show that the foundation of success in adult life, is often an experience of misery and loss in childhood. It is this experience, according to O’Sullivan (1997) that produces drive and it is often an early experience of triumph over adversity or of survival that produces the critical “bounce-back” qualities of successful people, where failure is not an option.


Achievers like Tyson are “reactive narcissists” according to a leading expert in this field - Manfred de Vries (1985). These are people who achieve great things despite a traumatic youth. George Graham, one of the most successful football managers, is according to de Vries, a good example of a “reactive narcissist”, for, out of his traumas of childhood, was born a tremendous hunger for success.

If this makes depressing reading, then fear not, because clearly there is more to success than childhood trauma. There are many high achievers who confound this theory - Lennox Lewis and David Beckham being two. Both are examples of people who have achieved, not as a way of coping with distress but because they happen to love what they do and were always encouraged by their parents and those around them, and never pushed into doing it. These people are termed “constructive narcissists” by de Vries, and are those for whom achievement springs from a happy childhood.

So what is the answer for parents? How can they ensure that they are doing the best for their children to ensure they participate and achieve in sport for positive, constructive reasons rather than destructive, negative ones?


  1. The first point to remember is that sport is supposed to be fun. Make sure your children are having fun. Help them to overcome the heartaches, which will undoubtedly occur, by helping them to learn from these experiences and use them in the rest of their life.
  2. “Success in sport” is often equated with winning and this is where problems can occur. It is important to find out your child’s reasons for their participation and motivation in sport, rather than get stuck in your own. I have seen many parents who push the child for their own motivations, rather than letting them play for themselves and the results can be devastating. A recent book, “Little Girls in Pretty Boxes” (Ryan, 1997) which is set in the world of gymnastics, shows the disastrous impact parents can have on their children by imposing their own motivations and not listening to the child’s.
  3. Always give unconditional support. The example of Mike Tyson, although extreme, shows the danger of growing up in a hostile environment without love, and using sport to survive. Make sure that your children know that win or lose you love them unconditionally. This will ensure a stable platform from which they can spring to higher heights and one they can come back to whenever they need it.
  4. Be a role model. You don’t actually have to be active in sport to be a role model - you can model helpful behaviours and actions and support your child all the way. One area in which you might do this for example is eating. In her new book Amanda Ursell (2002) encourages parents to realise the influential role which they play and be role models for healthy eating and activity rather than leaving this area and many others to chance.
  5. Show respect for your children’s coaching staff and ensure that you establish good lines of communication with your child’s coaches. If there is a problem, then taking matters into your own hands only makes matters worse. A more effective tack would be to discuss your concerns with the coaching staff first to prevent embarrassment for your child and frustration from the coach and then work together to find the best all-round solution.
  6. Focus your child on being the best he/she can be, rather than being better than someone else. Comparisons are very dangerous, because they will always be better than one, but worse than another. Instead, help them to focus on themselves and their improvements, rather than the outcome of a competition. Teach them that success means achieving personal goals and that winning isn’t everything.


Parents obviously will effect their children, be they absent or present in all areas of their lives, and sport is no exception. The role of a parent is never easy and in sport this is the same. The examples of sportsmen and women and their relationships with their parents show us that there is no single path to success and fulfillment, but the parental role is vital in establishing the way in which the child experiences sport.

To my mind, the most valuable piece of advice is summed up by Newsham & Murphey (1999. They encourage parents to keep sport in perspective and remind parents that, “the main purpose of sport is to create an opportunity for fun and growth. All the triumphs and heartaches that are inherent in sport … can provide learning experiences and lessons that help pave the road to adulthood.”

Your child should be encouraged to be involved in sport for all the lessons and growth that it brings to them. Success will come in many guises - it doesn’t have to be just about winning. Help them learn the valuable lessons which sport can bring and to enjoy the experience - in this way both your role as a sporting parent and their role as an athlete will be fulfilled.

  1. De Vries, M. (1985). Narcissm and Leadership: An Object Relations Perspective. Human Relations, 38: 583-601.
  2. Ryan (1997).Little Girls in Pretty Boxes - The making and breaking of elite gymnasts and figure skaters. The Women’s Press: London
  3. Buy this book on
  4. Kervin, A. Bad Boy meets his Match in the Mother’s Boy. The Times Sport, Saturday June 8th 2002.
  5. O’Sullivan, J. Blame the Parents. The Independent Tabloid, 21st May 1997.
  6. Newsham, S. & Murphey, M. (1999). Sport Psychology Guidelines for Parents of Young Athletes.
  7. Ursell, A. (2002). Kids’ Food for Fitness. A & C Black.

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