I recently watched a documentary about four athletic kids and their parents. These parents had, according to their own descriptions, given up their careers to dedicate their time and money to their athletically talented child. In each case, the parent was visibly angered when their kid missed the basket or didn’t make the putt. There was swearing and berating involved. Any one of these attacks on their children fit the definition of verbal and emotional abuse. Obviously, this documentary found the “worst of the worst” bleacher parents to feature. I sat, appalled, watching the parents in the documentary. But then I realized that I, too, have been a psycho sideline parent, screaming and embarrassing my children just like the crazy parents in the documentary.
I have a daughter who’s a good distance runner. For one year, during 8th grade, she was one of the best distance runners in our highly competitive, sports-obsessed town. She won the league championship in cross country and set a new record in track in the 3200 meters. She even got featured on a local news channel. All of which made me feel awesome as her mom. I felt a great deal of pride, and every victory of hers felt like my own. The vicarious enjoyment we get as parents seeing our children succeed is undeniable. I cheered like a crazy person when she ran, and when she, for the first time all season, came in first place at the championship cross country meet, I nearly exploded. And I couldn’t help but dream about what could possibly happen if she and we went “all in” with the running thing.
The kids in the documentary clearly had no choice but to keep doing their sport at the level their parents demanded. In several scenes, kids listened with tears in their eyes to their parents’ criticisms. They endured hours of private training and grueling work-outs. The parents acted more like coaches and managers than supportive parents. No way were these kids allowed to quit their sport. Even when it was no longer a source of fun and joy for them, which these parents had made sure of, there was no option of quitting. Too much had been invested in their success. It had become a job. A job the whole family was counting on.
Back to that magical year of running… My daughter and I read an article in our local paper about the top high school cross country runner in our town, who was second in the state and heading to college on a full athletic scholarship. In the article, this amazing athlete talked about her life. Her day included an hour of stretching before school, a highly regimented diet, a lot of running, and virtually no time for relaxing or social life. She commented that she’d have time for socializing “later.” We were impressed with her dedication and knew, after reading about her life, that that kind of singular focus on running is what it takes to be the best. And that lifestyle is not a fit for our family, who are more the “jack of all trades, master of none” type of people.
My daughter liked running and was good at it, but she also liked other sports, being with her friends, shooting and editing videos, and reading. She was not ultra-focused on running. So, when she decided she wanted to go to a smaller school with a much less intense running program but with more challenging academics and diverse opportunities for service, music, art, and her other interests, we supported her decision. We’ve watched the girls she ran against in 8th grade getting much faster then she has over her high school years. At times, we’ve wondered how fast she’d be if she trained like they do. But we’ve also seen our daughter grow and thrive in many areas of her life.
Kids listen to their parents and want to make us proud, and I think, if we had pumped up the idea, we could have convinced her to put all her eggs in the running basket and join the highly ranked running team at our local high school and start the rigorous training required to be great. But I’m so glad we didn’t. Instead, we let her figure out her own goals and we worked on our own rather than living for her achievements. My husband and I are runners, too; however, neither of us were cross country runners in high school or college so our running “careers” have been later in life (we call it the “masters” division). Rather than being solely focused on our kids’ athletic endeavors, we’ve made athletic goals for ourselves. And, I think, we’ve inadvertently modeled something important for our kids about staying fit, setting goals, and working hard. And that’s probably one of the reasons why our daughter is a good runner.
When my daughter told me last year that she figured out she actually really likes running, that made me happy. Even happier than if she won the state championship.
I know this post probably won’t change the minds of any parents who are convinced their child is the next great champion and needs to be coached and drilled to death, but maybe someone will look into their child’s eyes today and ask them if they still like the sport they are spending so much time on. And allow them do something different if their sport no longer is, or never was, their passion.
Need more convincing?
Parents Ruin Sports for their Kids by Obsessing about Winning:
“An incredible 70% of kids drop out of organized athletics by age 13. Seventy percent! Some drop due to financial constraints, others due to time constraints, but most stop playing because it just is not fun anymore.”
The Tipping Point in Youth Sports:
“But no one asked the kids if this is what they want. Sure, they like competitive games, but they want to also play with their friends. Sure travel is fun, but every weekend? Yes, they understand they need to practice, but it still MUST BE FUN. Yes, they want to win, but they still want the freedom to be creative, explore, try new things, and yes, even make mistakes!”
Is it Wise to Specialize:
“I’d also argue that multi-sport kids have a better chance to stay emotionally healthy, because they’re free of the all-the-eggs-in-one-basket pressure that goes with specialization — a pressure that can lead unhealthy patterns when it comes to relationships and emotional stability.”
The Race to Nowhere in Youth Sports
“So goes the all too common narrative for American youth these days, an adult driven, hyper competitive race to the top in both academics and athletics that serves the needs of the adults, but rarely the kids.”
Thank you for reading!
Read an interesting parenting book or article lately? Send me an email and tell me about it!