The 7 Worst Things Parents Do To Young Athletes

In Learn
By Alex Flanagan | May 18, 2016

The 7 Worst Things Parents Do To Young Athletes

(By guest contributor Dr. Mara Smith)

Our job as sports parents is to enjoy watching our children play. We need to help them understand that playing isn’t about things being perfect, always turning out the way they want, or winning. But rather, being equipped to handle what comes their way. Preparing for a life where they persevere in the face of failure, that they focus on their own efforts and not outcomes and that they feel the exhilaration of exerting themselves.  But far too often our behavior, even if it is unintended, undermines all the wonderful lessons sports can and should teach a child.

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Here are the 7 ways parents keep kids from getting the full benefits of playing sports.
  1. Treat children differently after a great performance/win than a poor performance or lossThere is little doubt that parents love their children regardless of the outcome of a game, but sometimes parents get so worked up they can’t let it go and their behavior can convey something different to the child. This can lead to children believing their value depends on whether they win or lose.  Come on.
  2. Have goals and expectations that are different from the young athletesTime and again we hear kids say the most important things are having fun, being with their friends and learning new skills. (Winning is way down on the list).  Parents who are looking for a stepping stone to a scholarship or making a super select team need to adjust their expectations.  Kids often say that even though they know their place on the team their parents think it should be bigger.  Annoying.
  3. Undermine the Coaches. Trying to scream instruction from the sidelines is never as helpful as parents think it is.  There are two voices the athletes can hear and it is coaches and teammates – not parents.  For young athletes it can be both confusing and distracting.  For older kids, it can be distracting and embarrassing.  So stop.
  4. Undermine the Refs. Badmouthing and criticizing the refs teaches the young athlete to badmouth and criticize the refs.  Whatever is being screamed at the refs is completely irrelevant.  Your criticism or perfect perspective and omnicient view doesn’t matter to anyone. Zip it.
  5. Be Overly Emotional (and try to pass it off as “being passionate”) In almost every sport (except perhaps tire tossing) there is a benefit to maintaining composure and keeping emotions on an even keel.  So, here is where we can model what we want to see.  If a parent is screaming, V8ing their forehead, whirling around like a Tasmanian devil – it sends the wrong message. Settle down.
  6. Hijack a young athlete’s experience. Easily defined by the collective “we”.  We worked with a special coach on that, we worked on that play, I can’t believe we lost that game.  Let the experience belong solely to the child.  If they are on to their next activity and you are still moping, thats a red flag. Step away.
  7. Believe that the best lessons in sports come from winning.  Winning might be more fun and feel better, but a lot of what is learned in sport comes from the times when young athlete and/or their team isn’t winning. After all, a game is the perfect place for a kid to fail.  No one needs to be rescued from a loss and it has no permanence unless one gives it such.  You might do your absolute best and not succeed – thats how it goes.


Dr. Mara Smith specializes in working with athletes on building mental skills. She is a former competitive gymnast, a mother of four and recently launched the athleteminder app – using technology to help athletes across all sports to train their brains as well as their bodies.  She lives and plays in Lake Placid, NY.  Follow her on Twitter at @DrMaraSmith and @AthleteMinder

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