Finding the right balance with parental involvement in children’s sport is not easy. We all want to encourage our kids in whatever sports they pursue, but how can we push them without being pushy?
It is a fine line between offering constructive support and being a pushy parent
The line between being a supportive or a pushy parent is quite a fine one. Parents are one of the most important factors in how your child assimilates into sport. They can also be the greatest impediment to a child’s enjoyment.
For every Richard Williams – father of Venus and Serena – there are hundreds if not thousands of oppressively pushy parents, almost all of them well-intentioned, going about things in entirely the wrong way.
Psychological studies have found that children whose parents place too great an emphasis on winning often develop low self-esteem, anxiety and are much more likely to drop out of sporting activity.
You don’t need to be violent or abusive to have a negative effect
It can affect any of us. The idea that this sort of behaviour is limited to inherently unpleasant thugs is simply not true. Pushy parenting in sport comes in varying degrees. At the more extreme end there is the violence we’ve all heard about – ‘rival’ parents exchanging insults and blows, appalling abuse dished out to referees, coaches being insulted and assaulted, pitch invasions and all manner of unedifying incidents. But you don’t have to be brawling on the sidelines to be having a hugely negative effect on your kid’s enjoyment and development.
Without wanting to turn this into my own personal confessional, my own son was gently encouraged to start playing football at around age 4. To begin with, he loved it, and he was pretty good too. Two-footed, scoring goals for fun – he seemed a natural. But increasingly I found myself on the touchline every week becoming far too involved in the games they’d play at the end of every session, getting annoyed when he messed about, shouting out instructions and coaching. What an idiot.
After every session I would get home and quietly berate myself, knowing very well I wasn’t helping in the slightest. A week later I would fall into the same bad habits. We would travel home together, bickering if he’d not played and applied himself like Luis Suárez, sometimes with him in tears. I soon stopped attending and left his Mum to take him every week.
Sure enough, my son lost interest, and I believe much of, if not all of the blame lies solely at my door. I sucked all of the enjoyment out of it for him. I knew how I was acting was not a good look, and more importantly it wasn’t helping him. But in the heat of the moment all rationale and self-control went out of the window.
How can we address our own inadequacies as sporting parents?
One way of dealing with this all too familiar problem is to get, say, Mum to stand back and write down every single instruction shouted by Dad to his child during a game or a session. In one 30 minute game you are likely to have around 100 shouts, such as “pass it!”, “shoot!”, “get back!”, “close him down!”, “TACKLE!”. It is a great way of highlighting just how much nonsense we shout at our kids, overwhelming them with unnecessary instructions. To read it back and face up to it is really quite alarming. We have to allow our kids to make mistakes.
A 2015 study by the Marylebone Cricket Club and the Chance to Shine charity found that 45% of the 1,000+ children (aged 8-16) surveyed said that the bad behaviour of parents made them feel like they no longer wanted to take part in sport. Four in ten children said that their parents criticised their performance, with 16% admitting that it happened frequently or all the time. The same study asked parents how they felt about their own behaviour and the vast majority acknowledged that inappropriate or bad behaviour discourages children from taking part in sport. Almost half reported that they had witnessed other parents abusing coaches or referees.
Your ‘expert advice’ is not helping
Encouragement is key. You might think barking out your expert advice is encouraging them. It isn’t. Avoid like the plague applying pressure in terms of winning or losing. Do not instruct, and instead focus on the process and not the result. Help your child to understand that a mistake on the sports field is not a personal failure. Kids cannot become afraid to make mistakes.
There is no doubt parental support and encouragement is an important factor in a child’s enjoyment and success in sport, but – and I know from experience – it is quite amazing how a parent’s idea of what is and isn’t helpful can become so distorted. In some cases, parents are living vicariously through their child. Some, preposterously, may see their child’s sporting activity as their potential pension. But it cannot be any more plain that shouting at your child from the sidelines is not only completely pointless but damaging. Enjoyment encourages children, and encouragement enhances enjoyment. And what on earth is the point of sport if it is not enjoyable?
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