Parent’s Play a Crucial Role in Child’s Athletic Development

roleBy Cindra Kamphoff, Ph.D.

Although my high school days were so many years ago, they seem like yesterday. I have vivid memories of playing sports. My favorite sports were cross country and track and field and I remember my parents attending every meet they could. In fact, I can’t recall a meet they didn’t make.

When I think back to my favorite memories running in high school, all of them have my dad in common. He was always the first person to greet me after I finished regardless of the outcome. I remember his exact words in his peep talk before my final race at the state meet. And I remember the enormous bear hug he gave me after the conference meet my junior year.

But likely the most impactful thing my dad did was debrief each race with me, which is something I do with the athletes I work with today. It was a ritual and something I looked forward to. The night after each meet, we would sit down after dinner and talk about my race. He would ask me what went well, and we would set goals for the next meet. When I complained about my teammates or coaches, he would put a stop to that immediately. He kept me positive and focused on myself – which is essential for us to perform up to our potential.

I think my dad was using sport psychology techniques without knowing it. He hadn’t studied sport psychology but it was like second nature to him. His positive attitude and goal-oriented behavior was so prominent; it is something that I emulate even today. He led me in the direction of my dreams by asking me about them and always believing that I could accomplish anything I set my mind to. He supported me when I was successful as well as when I felt like I “failed.”

In sports, parents impact their children in at least three ways. First, they play an influential role in the type of sports they play. Parents decide which sports their child will participate in or not. Second, they provide an important financial role by

purchasing equipment and driving their child to and from practice and games. But probably the least recognized way parents influence their child is how “interpret” the event. Meaning, what parents do or say, or not do and say, impacts how invested and involved their child will be in sport.

Dr. Jim Taylor, a sport psychologist in the San Francisco area, describes the way we should support our children as “positive pushing” in his book by that name. At its core, positive pushing is about being positive, supportive, and encouraging. It takes thought and sensitivity. Positive pushing is a fine balancing; failing to push your child can be as disastrous as well as pushing your child too much. The key is knowing your child as well as intently watching and listening to their reaction. This approach should be balanced – supportive but not overbearing.

The majority of parents do not intent to interfere with their child’s development or sport involvement in a negative way. Sometimes we put pressure on our children without even knowing or recognizing it.

Here are a few tips that you can use to be the best parent you can be:

  1. Do you best to emphasize and reward your child’s effort, hard work, and preparation regardless of the outcome. Kids like to win and winning is emphasizes in our culture. Put we don’t have control over winning and it can put pressure on us that doesn’t allow us to perform up to our potential.
  2. Instead, it is best to emphasize the development of important life skills children learn in sports such as being confident, showing teamwork, handling pressure and adversity, and demonstrating responsibility. These skills are important for life and sports, and can have a much more impact long-term than winning.
  3. Show interest in your child’s activities and performances. Show up, provide the resources that you can, and when you are there, look like you are enjoying yourself. Try your best to be calm, relaxed, and positive to model how your child should act to perform their best.
  4. Work to provide healthy encouragement. Help your child to stay focused on putting their best effort forward, and give them specific praise (“That was a great throw to second base” compared to “Nice job out there.”). This way they know exactly what they should continue. The feedback should be sincere and from your heart.
  5. Discipline your child for poor behavior in sports (i.e., throwing a bat in baseball or softball, disrespecting a coach, etc.). We can’t expect coaches to do all of this for us. And when we discipline our children, we emphasize behavior that will allow them to be successful.
  6. Avoid comparing your child to other children. We perform our best when we are focused on ourselves and our improvement; help your child do just that. Choose your words carefully and describe the improvement you see (“I noticed that you have really improve your speed compared to last season.”).
  7. We must do our best to separate our own ego from our child’s performance. We can set them up for success my using these tips, but in the end it is up to them. We don’t have control over exactly how they will do and we can’t live through our children. This can be difficult, but it is not best for them when we live through them.

By implementing these tips, this will allow our child to be a better person, athlete and performer. This will help them take a grounded, but not above others perspective that will help them be successful in sports and live. And it will allow them to have a positive experience and develop friendships along the way.

As my two boys grow older, I plan to follow my dad’s lead by providing unconditional love and support. I am sure I will mess up – what parent hasn’t? But I will do my best to emphasize their effort and improvement. To develop them into confident athletes that work well with others. To develop into performers that can handle adversity and failure, and put winning in perspective. And will work to provide them with the opportunities in sport so I know they can be successful. Will you also join me in following my dad’s lead?