Your daughter’s been having a great season at lacrosse. Before an important game, she turns to you, worried, and asks, “What if I lose?”
Is your answer: “That’s not going to happen. Don’t think that way?”
Or do you say: “Why do you ask? Let’s unpack this: What would happen if you did lose?”
If your answer is “That’s not going to happen,” chances are you’re taking a vicarious approach as a sports parent.
Vicarious sports parents put themselves directly in their young athletes’ shoes, playing the game along with them from the sidelines, staying as physically close to every practice as possible, riding their child’s emotional roller coasters and experiencing their successes and failures as if they were their own.
While it’s great to care and to want the best for young athletes, vicarious parents are simply too invested in the results. Without realizing it, they feel their child’s success is a direct reflection of themselves. The pitfall is that they their behavior can border on destructive. They get easily and quickly stressed out, often blaming others when the outcome is not in their kid’s favor. They compare their daughter to her peers, nag her about her preparation or performance and shout instructions onto the field during a game.
Vicarious parents also tend to view their child and her game through an “all-or-nothing” lense. That is, when the child wins she’s absolutely the best but when she loses, she’s the worst and her worth plummets in her parent’s eyes.
All of which adds up to a lack of perspective crucial to making rational decisions.
Supportive sports parents, on the other hand, maintain a healthy space between their child’s experience and their own, which enables them to be, well…truly supportive. They provide an environment that’s safe — one in which their kids don’t feel threatened by the prospect of being “all-or-nothing” and can be rest assured that at home, not matter how they perform, they have unconditional love and support and their identity is far more than that of an athlete.
Because youth sports are about personal development and the learning process, this matters tremendously. Unfortunately though, the professionalization of youth sports has shifted the emphasis from personal development to scholarships and from toughness to trophies, forcing kids to focus on the end result rather than the process. Along they way, they are losing the chance to develop mental toughness — that is, grit and guts, resiliency and the will to fight without giving up. Mental toughness is a priceless life lesson.
Despite their most heartfelt good intentions, vicarious parents ultimately rob their child of this learning opportunity. On the contrary, supportive parents reinforce it by encouraging their child to think for herself, come up with her own solutions and deal with the outcomes, whatever they may be. They refrain from critiquing, offering feedback and creating expectations by telling their child what she should — or should not — do. In other words, they don’t “should” on their kid.
Although polar opposites in many ways, the vicarious approach and the supportive approach are not mutually exclusive. All parents can behave one way with one of their children and differently with another. Or the pendulum can swing back and forth, with different days and seasons bringing different aspects of a parent’s approach to light.
Whichever approach you lean toward, the most important takeaway is to be aware of this and of what drives it — and to work toward striking the healthiest balance possible between your vicarious and supportive parenting instincts.
By Dr. Rob Bell for the Healthy Moms Magazine
Rob Bell, Ph.D. (drrobbell.com), is the author of several books on sports psychology including The Hinge:: The Importance of Mental Toughness, Mental Toughness Training for Golf: Start Strong Finish Strong, and NO FEAR: A Simple Guide to Mental Toughness and, most recently, Don’t Should on Your Kids: Build Their Mental Toughness (2015), co-authored with Bill Parisi. A sport psychology coach and owner of DRB & Associates, where he works with athletes, coaches and teams on achieving peak performance, Rob has coached winners during the PGA tour. He is a regular guest on ESPN 104.5 “The Zone” in Tennessee, has appeared on Fox News in Indianapolis and has been featured on The Golf Channel as well as in Stack Magazine, Runner’s World and The New York Times.