20 April 2007

How Parents Can Ruin Kids Sport

by Pinky McKay

Kathy, the mother of a child with a disability describes her son's grade one ball in tin relay. "There was Johnny, proud as punch, holding his ball, ready to run and place it in the tin. Some other mothers whose kids were in the same team were huddled together. Then one of them came over to me and said, "wouldn't the other children have abetter chance of winning if you took your son out of the team?" Kathy says, "I just saw red. I screeched at this woman. I'll kill you before I'll take my kid out of that team."

As Kathy's experience demonstrates, ugly parents aren't a unique feature of Wimbledon. Neither are they exclusive to competitive or elite level sport. Ugly parent syndrome can be unleashed at the most junior level and, unfortunately, it isn't uncommon for fury to be directed towards another parent's child.

Anthony Klarica is head of Sports Psychology at Olympic Park Sports Medicine Clinic in Melbourne. Anthony is so concerned about parents ruining kids sports that he believes guidelines should be drawn up to explain how parents should behave at sports events, how they should interact with their child and their peers, as well as how children should be treated away from the sports arena.

If parents follow these guidelines, he says, it might be possible to prevent psychological distress in young athletes.

Anthony Klarica claims parental attitudes were a main cause of burnout, stress and other psychological problems .In extreme cases young athletes who couldn't cope with poor performance levels had exhibited suicidal tendencies.

A classic example of broken prodigy is Jennifer Capriati who went from 13 year old child tennis champion to 16 year old drop out and drug user. After a loss in Japan, Jennifer was heard screaming at her father, "What the hell do you know? You are destroying my life. I don't care if I ever play tennis again. Just get out of my life."

Capriati justified pushing his daughter to play far more than she wanted by saying, "when the fruit is ripe, you eat it." Parents don't need to be overtly abusive to ruin kid's sport. According to Anthony Klarica, the number one mistake parents can make is trying to become their child's coach. Although parent's efforts to give their kids an extra edge may be well intentioned, this can be counter productive.

Parents who instruct children on the way to an event, yell or signal moves from the sidelines, and tell them what they should have done after the race or force kids to train, place the emphasis of sport on winning, rather than participation. This pressure to perform can cause stress which actually detracts from the child's ability to perform or it could promote a defeatist attitude.

Kevin Spinks is a professor and researcher in sport psychology at the University of Saskatchewan, Canada. He spent nine years working in Australia with elite athletes and teams. Spinks cautions, "children who perceive winning as all important need a high opinion of their ability to maintain the confidence to perform because they interpret failures as signs of their lack of ability. These children tend to think along the lines, "I'm not very good at this, so why bother really putting myself out. I'll only end up failing anyway. When they fail, they take this as another sign that they do not have the ability, thus perpetuating a downward spiral, possibly resulting in a complete withdrawal from sport."

Anthony Klarica says, "for adolescents, the drop out rates from sports are astronomical. It is quite possible that one contributing factor is parents putting too much pressure on winning. The truth is there are more losers in any sport than winners. Young athletes need to learn how to cope with losing."

What does motivate parental pressure to win? What lies behind those typically pushy parent catchcries of justification; "it's for your own good. You need to understand that you didn't play well!" What drives parents to teach their children that peers are the enemy? or to resort to emotional blackmail, "who wants you to succeed more than I do?"

According to Angela Rossmanith, author of When Will the children Play? "It can be tempting for some parents to project their aspirations onto their children but probably the most common reason for wanting our kids to do well - apart from the positives for them - is that it validates us as parents: If my child does well we might reason, it means I must have done a good job." Rossmanith says, Children pay a heavy price when our goal is for them to be on top - they can come to feel depersonalised, valued only for what they achieve, and merely indicators of their parent's success."

For some parents, involvement in their children's sport is viewed as a personal sacrifice so they demand a result (winning) for their efforts. Anthony Klarica says, "parents should remember that they are supporting their children's development. Kids shouldn't feel obliged to perform."

Klarica advises parents to ask themselves "What do I want my child to get from sport?" He says, "physical activity is about developing coordination and skills, cardiovascular and muscular strength to lay the foundation for a healthy life ahead, as well as social skills. Children can learn skills that will be beneficial in other areas of their life and, later, in the workplace, especially if their parents role model positive behaviour such as encouragement."

Anthony Klarica says, "when the focus is on enjoyment of sport, rather than winning, children are likely to maintain interest. Anthony Klarica offers some sporting guidelines for parents:-


  • Encourage your child to participate in physical activity.
  • Put an emphasis on participation and effort, not winning.
  • Support your child while he/she is playing, simply by being there.
  • Comment on how hard they tried, or something positive.
  • Leave the coaching to the coach.
  • Ask the child how he/she would like you to act or support them. Is there anything they would like you to do?
  • Model self control and enjoyment if playing with them in the yard or at the park.
  • Do not yell at the child for errors or mistakes.
  • Do not yell abuse at umpires or opposition during a game.
  • Do not criticise umpires, opposition or put a coach down in discussion with your child about practise or a game.
  • Do not put all the emphasis on winning.
  • Do not make exaggerated facial expressions or hand signals to the child while they are playing or competing.
  • If you are playing a sport or activity with the child at home, or at the park, do not try to turn it into a definitive coaching session. Rather, allow the child to have as much fun as possible, so that they are motivated to go and participate and play again. That way they will remain in the sport longer and develop the skills and abilities over time.

Pinky McKay is a mother of five
who has spent hours on the sidelines watching (and cheering).

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