Nurturing Athletes: Top 5 Mistakes Parents Make and How to Avoid Them
Read time: 8 minutes
Parenting is extremely rewarding, but it can have its difficulties. We understand that raising young athletes can often be both thrilling and challenging, and that the journey through sports is often paved with a mix of victories and defeats. But above all else, it’s lined with valuable life lessons. While it’s natural to want the best for your children, there are some common mistakes that parents can unintentionally fall into along the way. I have seen hundreds of athletes, both in my experience when I was a young player and later in life as a coach, who have lost interest in the sport they love or were unable to reach their full potential in some part due to to the pressures they felt from their own parents to improve and succeed. Let’s explore what I believe to be the top 5 mistakes parents of athletes can make and some suggestions on how to avoid them:
1. Unrealistic Expectations
Sometimes it is a case of a parent wanting their child to recreate their own experiences in a certain sport, and they end up living vicariously through them. In other instances, parents hope for children to earn scholarships to ease the financial burdens of college tuitions. Sometimes, it’s as simple as thinking that the child is more passionate about the sport than they actually are. Regardless of the reason, high expectations can often lead to disappointment and the disappointment of a parent is a difficult feeling for any child to process. Young athletes are intuitive to how their performance affects those around them (parents, coaches, teammates) and the fear of letting others you care about down by not being good enough can be crippling to performance and drain any love that the athlete has for a sport very quickly.
To avoid this, it’s crucial to embrace your child’s journey, which includes both wins and losses. Encourage them to enjoy the sport rather than focusing solely on outcomes. Learning how to manage their own confidence levels as they fluctuate (which they will, no matter the talent level), as well as learning how to fail productively and positively, is the greatest win for the child in the long term. The job of a parent is to facilitate that through endless support and positive guidance. As sports psychologist Dr. Alan Goldberg wisely advises, “The focus should be on effort, attitude, and the joy of competing, rather than solely on winning.”
2. Overinvestment in a Single Sport
Specialization in one sport from a young age may seem like a shortcut to success, but it can lead to burnout and injuries. Many elite athletes have diverse sporting backgrounds, and other off-court interests that they pursue while they are figuring out their own desires and passions. The pressure to excel in a single sport can be overwhelming and counterproductive, and is more and more of a trend in today’s society. As the sports world has developed commercially over the past several decades, so too have the unlimited options that parents have in terms of sports participation for their children. With that, certain expectations may begin to foster as a hope for return on investment of money and time, which as outlined above can have a negative effect in the long-term.
Instead, allow your child to explore different sports and activities. It not only reduces the risk of burnout but also promotes overall athleticism and well-roundedness. Playing several sports seasonally until the child feels ready on their own to commit to a specific one with more dedication decreases the risk that they will feel as if their parents were the ones who pushed them to strive for excellence in it.
3. “Helicopter Spectating”
We’ve all heard of helicopter parents — those who generally hover over their children’s every move, often causing unnecessary stress. This can carry over to the stands where parents watch games as spectators under the assumption that just being there is supportive in itself. While intentions are undoubtedly good, it’s essential to give your young athlete some breathing room and to allow them to play the game without having to look over at you for approval throughout. It can become difficult for young athletes to perform if they are focused in on the judgement of others from the crowd rather than the game itself.
The key is to strike a balance between support and independence. Allow them to make decisions and learn from their mistakes, and if they ask for advice during breaks in play feel free to offer it then. Before and after the game are optimal times to provide any kind of constructive advice and support that you wish, but yelling out instructions during the course of play can be counter-productive. As former NBA player Kobe Bryant once said, “When kids feel like they have some ownership in terms of the journey, they’re going to be more inclined to work harder.”
4. Failure to Recognize Individual Goals
Not all athletes have the same aspirations. While some may dream of Olympic gold, others may simply enjoy the camaraderie of team sports. Recognize and respect your child’s unique goals and passions. Encourage open communication to understand what they want from their athletic journey. Parents are pillars of guidance and serve as a compass for their children to try and point them in the right direction but the fact about achievement is that if it doesn’t come from the person who is pursuing it themselves, they are much less likely to get there. No parent’s desire can translate to a child’s success without some kind of positive internal motivation to succeed as the driving force behind it.
Being open to listening as well as placing a large importance on working hard and giving their all to whatever they are participating in is what will open the door for passion to exist. And if the passion does not develop, perhaps they are better off trying something else for a while which will excite them more. As sports parent expert Lisa Cohn points out, “It’s important for parents to understand that kids have different motivations and reasons for playing sports. Your child’s definition of success may be different from yours.”
5. Neglecting the Importance of Education
While sports can be a fantastic teacher of life skills, I think that it’s still vital to strike a balance between academics and athletics. I think most parents would agree. Focusing solely on sports at the expense of education can limit future opportunities, and the reality is that an overwhelmingly large percentage of young athletes do not continue on their sports journey beyond high school. Even fewer are able to pursue playing professionally as a career. The statistics vary across different sports but specifically in basketball, the numbers are extremely low. Some facts and figures provided by the NCAA can be found below:
Support your child’s academic pursuits, emphasizing the value of a well-rounded education. Many successful athletes excel both in their sport and in their studies, proving that these two worlds can coexist harmoniously.
Raising an athlete is a journey filled with highs and lows, triumphs, and tribulations. The mistakes we’ve discussed are easy to make unknowingly but also avoidable with a little mindfulness. Remember that your role is not just to shape an athlete but to nurture a well-rounded, resilient individual. Our job as coaches is to support you in that role and to carry that mindfulness out every time we are with your children on the court for a session, regardless of their level of ambition. Don’t forget — despite everything discussed above, sports still carry incredible value to children’s development and offer opportunities to develop an extremely valuable set of life skills and tools that they can carry with them forever. That’s why our mission is what it is.
As you navigate this exciting journey, keep in mind the words of former professional tennis player Arthur Ashe: “Success is a journey, not a destination. The doing is often more important than the outcome.” Embrace the journey, celebrate the small victories, and be there to support and guide your young athlete through the ups and downs of sports and life.
Written by: Nem Mitrovic