“Easy, mom and dad – it’s just a game”: The psychology of parenting kids in sports

February 10, 2015


February is Psychology month, and we’ll be featuring a number of pieces from local psychologists throughout the month. This week comes from Carla Penney.

From the first day of t-ball to the end of junior league, parents enroll their kids in organized sports to provide them with an opportunity to be physically active, learn new skills, and ultimately have fun. Participation in sports gives children the outlet that so many of them need to burn off energy and expand their minds, and is a forum for talent to take off. Furthermore, being part of a team teaches children invaluable lessons in respect for others, discipline, commitment, and how to work with their peers to achieve a common goal.

With all that considered, it would seem that for outgoing kids, participation in sports is the answer – what greater benefit from an activity could parents ask for? However, what is often happening is that the competitive nature of sports doesn’t take long to create something negative in parents who were once happily cheering on their kids from the sidelines. Many become so consumed by the intensity of the game and the possibility that just maybe my kid will be the one to excel, that they forget that this is supposed to be fun. So, a few years into a sport, why are these once easygoing parents now frustrated and why are the kids stressed?

The drive to see their child shine on the field often clouds parents’ rational thinking. For those of you who have ever watched from the stands, you have no doubt heard parents yelling at their kids to ‘skate harder’ or ‘run faster’, and have seen the frustration on their faces when their kid doesn’t produce.  They may turn to you and talk about how hard they have worked with their child, and how they can’t believe their kid isn’t trying harder. The conversation then leads to practice plans for the week ahead to keep drilling those skills.

The problem is that pressure, criticism, and high expectations totally backfire.

The pressure that some parents place on kids to succeed in sports can come from a number of factors: some parents never achieved athletic success and want it badly for their child, some who were star athletes as kids may only accept the same level of achievement in their child, while others are caught up in the fantasy that their child has what it takes to make it, and they as a parent must stop at nothing to realize this dream.

Kids who do not receive the support and encouragement they need at crucial stages of development will fail to reach their full potential in any area. Sometimes, sincere attempts by parents to be supportive often leads to the perception of an expectation. Parents who encouragingly tell their child: “I think you’re going to get a hat trick today” may not realize the disappointment their child feels when this doesn’t happen.

Kids tend to internalize expectations, and if they don’t meet them, it can lead to feelings of incompetence, low self-esteem and stress. Parents’ demands about how their kids should perform actually hurt kids’ performance. If parents keep their expectations reasonable this will help instill a high level of self-confidence in their child, which will turn into success and higher achievement.

As a mother of two boys who are involved in sports, I have often wondered what the most effective motivation is to encourage success in a game. Should I say something specific, like “make sure you keep your elbow up when you’re batting”, something general such as “play hard”, or should I say nothing at all? The phrase ‘have fun’ just seems old.

However, the more I’ve considered what to say before the big game, the more I realize what those two simple words mean for a child: have fun. I’ve heard parents of kids on competitive teams say that it can’t only be about having fun…well, maybe it can. Kids are driven to try their best when they enjoy the experience, since they are intrinsically motivated. Although there are countless essential skills, rules and strategies to learn and master, it all means nothing if the child is not having fun doing it.  When parents place too much pressure on their child to succeed, enjoyment in the sport and performance suffers. With patience, support and motivation from parents, having fun leads directly to success.

So, what can you as a parent do to make sports more enjoyable for your kid (and, believe it or not, yourself)?

  1. Relax. Ok, so I can see that this is hard to do when there’s two out, bases are loaded, and your kid is up at bat. I’ve been there. But you screaming at him from the sidelines will actually not help him hit a homerun. Positive encouragement, however, will go a long way in making him feel supported and confident. Remember, confidence leads to success.
  2. Let the coaches do their job. Coaches are there for a reason – to teach your kid the skills necessary to play the game. What you tell your child before a game may conflict with coaching instruction, and result in mixed messages for your child. Talk with the coach if you feel there is something specific you would like addressed.
  3. Find the positive and say it. If your child did 20 things wrong in a game, and one thing right, then focus on that one thing they did right. There will be plenty of time long after the game is over to talk about building their skills in other areas. Right now, they need to feel good about their effort.
  4. Remember to forget. Kids quickly move on after they have lost a game. You should too. Don’t focus on what went wrong, instead motivate your child to put their best effort into the next event.
  5. Consider all sports has to offer. My 9-year-old told me that he loves going to the rink just to hang out with his friends. Make time for your child to do what they enjoy most while at a sports activity – this will make the experience of playing a sport even more awesome.

So I have decided that after my kids’ games, I will say one thing that I liked about their performance. Something like: “I really liked it when you made that pass right on Andrew’s tape”. That’s it. None of this “you just needed to skate a bit faster” or “you played great, but…” I just say one thing that I liked. Then, stress-free, we get in the car and drive home. Or to the hotel to play mini sticks with the team. Because, after all, ask any kid – that’s the best part of playing sports.


Carla Penney, Registered Psychologist

Carla lives in Massey Drive with her husband and two sons, ages 9 and 6. She has spent countless hours in cold rinks and sunny baseball fields, and looks forward for many more to come.