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The most important things parents can impress upon their young athletes is you are their biggest fans, you love them no matter what the outcome and seeing them do their best, not the wins and losses, is what makes you proud.
Too many parents, however, have taken over their kids’ sport experiences by having too high of expectations and aspirations. There are subtle distinctions between the two and if parents don’t know the differences, it can have a huge impact on their child’s love of sports.
“Working With Parents in Sport” defines aspirations as wanting to perform to the best of standard, whereas expectations convey the belief about the likelihood of succeeding. It’s great for kids to have aspirations, but just wanting to be the best doesn’t always lead to that.
“Raising expectations can be good as it allows athletes of all ages to have a clear picture of what they should be doing,” Matt Shaw writese in an article at on the website, “but if expectations are too low then motivation can be reduced and yet if they are too high then it can hinder confidence whilst increasing both fear of failure and nerves.”
So how can you use the power of expectations better? Parents in Sport lists the following suggestions.
- Your voice is important. By reinforcing the expectations of your child’s coach, you show your support for what they are trying to teach. Ways to improve your communication is to be approachable, ask lots of questions and listen more than you talk. “What would you do differently next week?”
- Encourage high self-expectations. This helps athletes develop accountability. If athletes have their own high self-expectations, they are more likely to ask for feedback, ask for help and train and play with high motivation without others around them having to motivate them. Ask them to think about what expectations their favorite athletes or role models would have before thinking of their own.
- More isn’t always better. If your expectation exceeds your child’s ability, this can lead to a downturn in their performance and become a source of stress. The “goldilocks rule” applies — too little or too much and is not good. Challenging but realistic seems to be a good guiding principle.
- Use simple adjectives. There is a time and place for conveying your expectations. Kids should focus on what they need to play well. Take a middle ground approach — think too much about expectations and performance can worsen. Think too little and athletes may not know what to do. Ask them “what three things do you need to do to perform at your best?” ensuring they think about only what they can control and providing them with simple steps to do what they need to do to perform at their best.
A parent’s role in youth sports is to be a source of encouragement. “Youth Sports Trainer” describes the “Delusional Fantasizer” as those parents who maintain their child is better than all their peers and is destined for a career in professional sports, despite evidence to the contrary.
The Fantasizer “questions their child’s team placement, playing time, and position … attaches their own self worth to the athletic success of their child …This parenting style causes either embarrassment or entitlement in the athlete, both of which leads to alienation from teammates and eventually lack of enjoyment in sports.”
The “Over-Trainer” is someone who “pushes their child to train beyond what is safe and developmentally appropriate based on the belief that pushing will give their athlete a competitive edge.”
Growing up as a competitive swimmer, a mother of three of my teammates was an “Over-Trainer.” The family was wealthy and the parents built an indoor pool in their back yard. A few of us were invited over to train in their pool in addition to our other regular workouts. One summer that mother even hired a private coach and paid for him out of her own pocket.
However, that pool was never used as a recreational facility. The kids only were allowed to use the pool for training. You get in the water, you train. As a result, the daughter and middle son quit competitive swimming at an early age.
Youth Sports Trainer notes the “Over-Trainer” is one of the most destructive parenting styles and can lead to injuries, mental burnout and eventually lack of enjoyment. It also can lead to anxiety and depression.
Setting a middle ground with your young athlete is not easy. You have to push, but not too hard. My advice is to take the cues from your own child. They will let you know either verbally or via their actions if they are having fun, the most important element of competitive sports.
Nancy Justis is a former competitive swimmer and college sports information director. She is a partner with Outlier Creative Communications. Let her know what you think at email@example.com