Ever heard of lawnmower parenting? It describes a type of parenting that manifests in excessive involvement in a child’s life, parents who ‘mow down’ obstacles in their kid’s path, so their son or daughter never has to experience any kind of adversity or discomfort.

In sport, ‘lawnmower parenting’ is increasingly apparent and it is patently not good for a child’s development in a sporting context. Recently, Judy Murray replied to a tweet about lawnmower parenting, saying ‘prepare the child for the path, NOT the path for the child’.

‘I’ve failed over and over and over, and that is why I succeed’

It was a neat and succinct way of putting it, and its meaning couldn’t be clearer. The path ahead for all of us is uncertain and can be daunting, especially the path ahead of our children. Our parental instincts are often to smooth that path, which, when our children are very young, is normal and very much required. As our children mature, though, and begin to approach adulthood, it is dangerous to try to prepare the path for them. It teaches them that someone else will solve their problems for them, and that can be deemed irresponsible. How is your child going to be able to cope with adversity when the lawnmower parent is no longer around? They’re not – they’ll probably crumble.

In sport, it is no different. It was the basketball legend Michael Jordan, no less, who said “I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life, and that is why I succeed”.

What is this thing called mental toughness?

In sport, bouncing back from adversity is key to most successes. Research across a range of sports strongly suggests that those who demonstrate resilience to adversity are more likely to reach set goals. In his study called ‘What Is This Thing Called Mental Toughness? An Investigation of Elite Sport Performers’, Graham Jones said:

In summary, the definition of mental toughness that has emerged from this study reflects the general tendency in the literature to associate mental toughness specifically with being able to cope with adversity in competitive situations.

Another study – Bouncing Back From Adversity: Athletes’ Experiences of Resilience – found a resilient mindset and social support are key to overcoming adversity.

That study, by Poulin and Holman, revealed that those with greater social support demonstrated lower levels of stress. Poulin and Holman noted that oxytocin, also known as the ‘bonding hormone’, is released through close social relations, which in turn decreases stress levels. Such findings are easily applied to sport: social support from coaches, family and friends decrease the negative effects of stress resulting from facing adversity, in turn making it easier to commit to the goal, control one’s immediate environment and have the confidence to face challenges and adversity.

All of this seems fairly obvious, but ‘lawnmower parents’ lose sight of it in favour of ‘preparing the path for the child’.

Allow failures, prepare for success

‘Losing builds character!’ is a pretty tough phrase to swallow for your 10-year-old sobbing in the back seat of the car after yet another drubbing. We’ve probably all been there, as kids and parents alike, and that notion is a tough sell. But it is clearly true.

In ‘The Mighty Ducks’, the naff 90s movie about a group of rubbish ice hockey players, the team bonds in constant defeat, gradually gets better and eventually wins. That’s the dream of players on losing teams: that the misery will end. Losing regularly builds camaraderie, often driven by the gallows humour coping mechanism, and sportsmanship. The team may falter, but teammates improve incrementally and the win nearly always comes. However unlikely, however infrequent, however rare, that win nearly always comes. And it’s worth persevering for.

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