The Conscious Sports Parent
Parents as Collaborators in Creating a Supportive Youth Sports Climate
The intention of this article is very simple.
It is, in short, to make a change. This is our attempt to go beyond the creation of, again as has been done hundreds of time, more awareness on the state of the sports environment and the influence it has on our children’s development.
Surely it is very easy to say “sports are great for development” and share many popular examples to support that assumption.
We might just as well turn it around and say “sports are horrible for development” and share again many examples that support that assumption.
As we all have witnessed, sports has shown itself in the past as both a testimony of human will-power and creativity as it has exposed human superficiality and channeled our most animal instincts.
The aim here will centre here around what we are envisioning when we create the “youth sports environment” and how parents can contribute and collaborate.
Before we share more, we wanted our kids have shared about this when we asked them three questions:
1. do you like it when parents come to your games?
2. what behaviors do you like/dislike of parents before and after the game?
3. what advice would you give to parents that would support your playing?
Organisers, coaches, parents and kids together form the living tissue of the basketball community that works in unison towards a healthy, long-term, loving sports climate that supports continuous learning, exploration and self-cultivation.
It would be quite diplomatic to say that we don’t want to point fingers in this article, but we will have to dissect certain common parental behaviors as it is still very clear that within youth sports many examples are still observable of subconscious physical, mental, emotional and social tendencies that could potentially limit our kids’ still very vulnerable and plastic development.
Further we will look into suggestions regarding communication style, self-regulation techniques, implications of more supportive and rather controlling behaviors in relation to our children’s self-worth, coping mechanisms and life orientations within and beyond the sport environment.
Pressure is not (felt as) support
“I just want to do everything
to help my kid
“I wish all of this was around
when I was young,
then I would have made ‘it’
so I’m happy I can
give my kid ‘this’.”
If we want to engage children in sports from a young age and support them to reach their full potential, then it is definitely essential to offer a great environment during these developmental or ‘plastic’ years – and parents play a very important role in this process. So what constitutes a fertile soil when we are speaking of a healthy, supportive and safe sports climate?
When we look at research on parent-child relationship in sports psychology we observe certain behaviours that could lead to appropriate and inappropriate parent participation. By “appropriate” is meant that it would lead to an increase on the child’s enjoyment and motivation in the sport whereas “inappropriate” would lead to a decrease. One of those aspects is the way in which we communicate with all children.
- Children do want to share their sporting experience with their parents and what they want to feel and hear from them is that they are supportive of the efforts they put it and the attitudes they bring into the activity.
- What kids do not prefer is to feel pressured and controlled towards a certain type of performance or measurable success.
- Kids appreciate practical advices but choose not to receive technical coaching if the parent did not have personal experience or achievements in the sport.
If we would place such expressions on a communication continuum we could observe a range going from rather pressuring communication towards more supportive communication.
As parental pressure increases, children report that enjoyment and satisfaction decreases. Parents may have the best intentions for their child and may believe that expressing disappointment after a ‘poor performance’ will promote more motivation towards improvement but from the perspective of the child it often backfires and may lead to less joy and a-motivation.
Each child is unique so it is important to check the outcome of your communicative assumptions with the actual behavioral reactions of your child and to stay flexible in your approach.
So when do children perceive pressure from their parents?
Directions and controlled behavior are felt as pressuring. An important self-reflective element here seems for the parents to make a distinction between the motivation that the child has in playing the sport and aligning motivation of yourself as a parent with that of the child rather than directing theirs to align with yours.
Projecting your own motivations could negatively influence the child’s perceptions of their own ability, where they should orientate themselves and their attitude in life – in short it could make them believe that their self-approval lies in the gratification of others.
It is easy to fall in this trap if you have not exposed yourself of the motivations you unwittingly hold for your child.
Sports of course offer the alluring perfect playground to re-try personal unfulfilled athletic dreams by projecting them on the unwritten, innocent child
…but this has its consequences and parents’ motivational issues could influence their children’s motivation to change course from from a task orientation (“being present in the game”) towards an ego orientation (feeling loved and valued based on performance and outcome conditions).
Children’s opinions unfortunately sometimes show that their parents manner of being involved in their sport experience was associated with anxiety, decrease in motivation and potential drop-out behaviour.
Just to show a potential long-term effect such unresolved motivational issue might have, we recall a sports psychology workshop of an NBA mental coach who mentioned an All-Star level player whose his points per game dropped by an average of 6 points whenever his father attended his games. The coach had the adult player train with a life-size cardboard in the basketball facility to help him become more at ease and prepare him for his father’s presence!
To repeat the initially stated, children do love to share their sports activities with their parents but the nuance is that the shared experience they prefer is found in support and comprehension.
Kids, just like any adult, want to be seen and understood for who they are, for their attitudes, the things they actually can control with their presence, attention and intention. Kids don’t want to feel constantly evaluated for their performance or to feel like a tool for the living out of the parents’ hopes and dreams instead of their own.
Or as the Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti said: “the highest form of human intelligence is the ability to observe without evaluating.”
It is of the highest possible order of importance for their development – yes, even in sports! – that our children feel, not just know, that our love for them is unconditional and never conditionally based on their sports performance.
Why do kids play sports?
Along the years of growing Elite Athletes we have met many professional players in whom we noticed an unfortunate trait. The majority of them have stopped being players: they do not experience basketball as play anymore – it became a performance.
The best among them, or at least the healthiest pro athletes, we see are the ones that, even though they made their job of this game, they can still play! They move with a sense of lightness and open perspective to find ever-creative solutions. They still remember why they started and how they started on that neighbourhood playground. This trait inspires and is very noticeable.
So why do kids start playing sports? The research is clear, kids play sports because of three main things:
- Community: to have a sense of belonging and affiliation to a group of friends, to a team-spirit with shared values and aims
- Developing new skills: kids love to improve in things and learn new things
- To have fun: experiencing the dynamics, the action, challenges and novelty in sports
Low on the rankings of those results is winning.
There might lie a potential in a kid to become a professional player. Be that is it may, we should not be the pushing ones. Rather we are the ones that should stay “on top” of such projected hopes and dreams by creating an environment where the joys of playfulness and free exploration stay alive. In the long run this is of high priority if we want to create an environment that support long-term health, curiosity and joy for life.
This does not imply that training and games should not be challenging and demanding but it does mean that it should not fixate players into a belief that they only are valuable human beings when they win games and perform well based on an excel stats sheet.
When parents are unconscious of their own outwardly projected motivations and link the achievements of their children to their own moral worth, the child will perceive this.
Kids are not miniature adults and words cannot fool kids as well as they can fool adults. When parent’s verbal comments are not consistent with their non-verbal signals for example – what their body language communicates – then kids will sense the latter. It makes them feel unsafe. As Reich wrote in his work Children Of The Future, “It is, to repeat, the energy charge accompanying the ideas, and not the ideas themselves which counts.”
Connected to our topic here we could say that it is not exactly our words and actions that matter as they can be fabricated in any form quite easily: the core of our communication is that what lies behind our words and actions that matters in the sense that it is thát what is experienced by the child. Therefore if an unresolved conflict in oneself as a parent is the base from which communication in the sports environment originates, then it is this behind-lying message that will be transmitted as the meaning behind the words or actions.
As Rosenberg repeated often on the essence of what he called Nonviolent Communication: “the basic literacy of Nonviolent Communication are feelings and needs. And you learn to hear the feelings and needs behind any message.”
Therefore it is important that parents become self-aware of their expectations as they will be reflected onto the children. It is not because you are present at the game, that you do see your kid for who he or she is. If you are unconscious of the expectations you have of your child, there is a chance that you see your child through those expectations. If you are looking for a certain outcome you will tend to only see the success or failure of the manifestation of that outcome.
“When I was successful
in youth sports,
people told my father that
he was lucky to have
a child like me.”
Imagine what a line such as the one above might bring about in a child’s relationship with sports.
Consequently it is of value that parents get to know themselves in how they are reacting to different sports situations, how their children perceive these behaviors and what the long-term consequences might be of this interaction.
Behaviors might find their origin in personal negative sporting experiences or perceptions of a negative sporting environment hence it would be a great opportunity to transform this negative trend towards a nourishing one. One sports psychologist, Dr. Bridget Murphy, shares: “If you are guilty of pressuring behavior, your child may be too frightened to be honest in response to your questions. Thus, a careful, and often difficult self‐exploration is necessary.”
Beyond the chance for parents to understand themselves better through observation of their behavior in their child’s sports environment, another sports psychologist, Dr. John Sullivan turns the one having the learning opportunity around and says that “children have an opportunity to learn physical, mental and emotional self‐discipline from sports, and part of the learning process is watching how their parents act at a game.”
Being a Conscious Sports Parent in Practice
The gold investment in becoming a supportive sports parent seems to boil down to becoming more conscious of your own behavior: in and the around the sport and learning how to regulate your thoughts, emotions and physiology in order to embody a supportive presence throughout.
Similar to the child practicing to become a more proficient player, being a sports parent seems to be a challenging endeavour that holds within itself many opportunities for self-development. It is much comparable to the training of a skill that needs to be crafted and worked on by putting in the time and effort to monitor and re-orient one’s actions and responses.
What would be the main quality of a conscious sports parent?
In general it seems to be someone who observes in his child (and equally those of others) what they bring to playing the game – their intentions and attitudes in the dynamics of the games – and avoid looking with the eyes of the evaluating accountant by commenting solely on performance outcomes such as winning, scoring x amount of points, etc.
Communication expert Marshall Rosenberg speaks of the de-humanising effect of thinking of a child in terms of what he is. Therefore a language shift needs to be made and the conscious sports parents understands that language needs to shift from evaluation to observation.
What kind of questions does a conscious sports parent ask?
Above you have read on the continuum of pressuring and supportive communication. Now it is time to give you some examples.
Examples of more pressuring communication and how the child might perceive the meaning behind the words:
“Did you win?” the value of sports is whether or not the team wins
“How much did you play?” the value of the experience is based on minutes
“How many points did you score?” you need to be better than others and compare with others
Examples of more supportive communication to foster intrinsic motivation and introspection by asking the child about perceptions of enjoyment and learning:
“Did you have fun today?” sport is a game to be enjoyed
“What did you do well?” gives feeling of ownership to the kid
“What did you learn?” gives kid the space & time to reflect on his experience
And of course one thing you can always say:
“I LOVE WATCHING YOU PLAY!”
Now to finalize, let us really equalize the activity of being a conscious sports parent with that of an athlete.
Suggestions for warm-up, the sideline game, the car ride home cool-down and the practice in between games
Conscious Parent Breath Practice
As we all feel in our bodies, the pressures of the rhythm of life have their impact on our daily state which causes us to not always act as we would like to.
One thing we teach our kids is to find a way to return to “Zero”, which you could equal to being in a grounded, relaxed state. Zero is where you can make conscious decisions rather than being in a reactive emotionally charged mode – where your biological state has hijacked your mind – that might cause you to act in ways you could regret later.
The three elements we teach our players to “return to Zero” revolve around the trifecta of Posture, Movement and Breathing and we recommend you practice them too. For the purpose of not writing a whole book, I will limit myself to a short attention on breath.
“Take a deep breath” is what you’ll often hear, but focusing on the inhale seems to be not as effective in activating the relaxation response, therefore it would be better to create a long exhale. We teach our kids this in the following way:
- create length in your spine by sitting upright and do relax your chest and rib cage
- allowing the inhale to come in freely feeling the movement in your lower belly
- feel the short pause after the inhale before it goes into exhale
- imagine one meter away from you that there’s a candle with a small flame
- during the exhale part of the breath softly move that flame a little bit by blowing a slight breeze towards the flame, but make sure you don’t blow it out!
- when the exhale has passed, allow three counts between the pause
- freely allow the inhale to come in again and repeat a couple of minutes
It is important to practice this at home, in your car in traffic, at work, etc. and not just at the actual games so you actually get some experience under your belt and create a strong memory of the power you have in changing state by using this, or another preferred, breath practice.
Warm-up prepares you to get ready for the game. During warm-up you want to make sure you remind yourself of the intention you have for yourself before getting a seat at the sideline. You could remind yourself of the positive effect of supportive communication, of having attention on observing rather than evaluation and staying present of your own state.
Just as is the case for our players, it is important as parents to start the game present in your own body so go ahead and do a couple of long exhales to really be there.
Also make sure that when talking to your kid before the game or before a training session:
– help the athlete to get physically prepared
– attend to child’s needs or requests for mental prep
– make comments focused on their performance
– communicate expectations about winning
– give tactical advice if you have no experience in the sport
On The Sideline
On the sideline, we find ourselves in the heat of it all, our emotions will for sure run high and our most deep-seated drives will rise up.
Here is what kids indicate what they expect from their parents during games:
- etiquette and compliance with vision and guidelines of the club
- positive posture and body language
- control over emotional reactions
- praising good attitudes and decision-making
- encouragement after poor execution
- allowing the kids to play and not “playstation-shout” during the game
Sometimes children experience so much pressure and drop in motivation that they ask their parents to not come to the game. If this has happened to you – and if not, realize it does happen – then these might be behaviors to consider being guilty of:
- You yell instructions to your child, undermining the coach and causing embarrassment and confusion for the child: “who should I listen to?”
- Your criticise the referees
- You criticise the other team’s players or coaches
- You criticise players on your child’s team
- You argue in the stands or become attention-seeking and overly demonstrative
- Your cheering is overly loud and non-stop
- You cause embarrassment by hanging around the player bench checking up on your child
- You try to give coaching advice to the coach
- You become angry if your child makes mistakes or the team loses
Parental verbal behaviour on the sideline can do harm by hurting self-confidence and instigate fear of failing – and therefore trying new things – in the young. Parents’ words and body language express their point of view on the value of winning versus losing, their expectations on what the meaning is of success, and what their perceptions are on their child’s competence.
Beyond that, constant sideline noise of parents limits the child’s sense of autonomy and belief in their problem solving ability. A balance should be sought between involvement and support while also allowing children appropriate space to be exposed to sport challenges and develop unguided self-regulation in the dynamics of the sports. Parent that are able to support the child’s autonomy by providing choice and encouragement of individual decision-making is furthermore linked to parental ability to tune in to their child’s internal mental and emotional experiences.
Therefore as philosopher in communication theory Paul Watzlawick often said:
“you cannot not communicate.”
Even if you do not verbally express it, you still communicate through non-verbal cues and signals.
Placing some examples of parental sideline behaviour on the continuum we discussed above could give some orientation:
Praising & Encouraging
“That’s the way Kobe, good work!”
“Way to deliver the pass Kobe!”
“Shoot the ball Kobe!”
Balance Positive & Negative
“No, c’mon Kobe … okay okay, good try!”
“You’re playing too slow Kobe!”
“That’s pathetic Kobe!”
The Car Ride Home
The Car Ride Home refers to all the interactions between children and parents that happen after the game has finished. For many kids this has been mentioned as one their least favourite moments of the week when it comes to their sports experience. We expect our players to keep their full presence until the end of the game and for parents this is just as much true: we all need to learn to stay awake to our behaviour during “the car ride home”.
Post-game time is a good moment for the child to decompress from the game or reflect on their game. If you can support them in their self-reflection without projecting expectations or criticisms go ahead. And if they’d like to get your feedback they will probably ask you about it themselves.
What kids do want after the game:
– positive feedback on effort and attitude
– realistic feedback
– give feedback when child is ready for it
What kids don’t want after the game:
– criticism on their performance
– blaming outcomes on referee or others
– focusing on the negatives of performance
Lastly, just as we encourage our kids to frequently use their Kaizen-charts to monitor themselves, it might be beneficial for parents to do this too by reflecting on their behavior using the same charts.
Further you could collect behavioral feedback from trusted others such as your partner, other parents, the coach – or even, your own child.
This will allow you to see how others see you as a sports parent and help you to contribute to raising the level of awareness and support in the sports environment we create for our kids.
As an end note, we would like to share that as coaches ourselves we do realise how difficult behavioural change is – especially in the emotionally-charged sports environment we are in.
Our wish is for parents to become, our active co-contributors in setting up a healthy, playful and supportive sports environment for our kids now and in the future.
Behavioural transformation is hard and won’t come from reading an article, a presentation or a couple of instagram quotes. It is something that demands frequent practice and self-reflection. We promise to offer circumstances for our parents of our kids to learn more about self-regulation and where they can exchange communicational to inspire each other.
As with all change we want to see outside, this starts with turning our look inside.
It starts with ourselves.
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