An Ithaca College study published this month in the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology confirms again that we, as parents, have absolutely no idea what we’re doing.
This is especially true, according to the study, for parents of kids aged 6-18 who participate in competitive swimming, tennis, gymnastics, bowling, wrestling, cross country and indoor track. Probably baseball, soccer, football, basketball and hockey, too, but they haven’t gotten around to observing team sports, so they don’t yet have a gauge on how stupid we are when our kids play those.
What egregious parenting gaff has been revealed now? How are we damaging our kids who play individual (and probably team) sports?
We place expectations upon our children. And that, apparently, is bad.
To be clear: I agree to an extent, but reject the notion that expectations are to be avoided in youth sports. I’ll explain why in a minute.
According to the study, parental expectations in youth sports are bad because the more ambitious the expectations, the greater the level of anxiety (pregame jitters) exhibited by the kid athletes. Similarly, the more parents wanted their kids to out-perform the other kids – in other words, the more the parents cared about who won – the less a kid was able to concentrate during the competition.
The reverse was true, too. The study found that the more ambitious the kids’ goals were, the higher the levels of anxiety experienced by the parents.
Hey, that’s fair. If we’re going to mess with our kids’ minds, they have every right to mess with ours right back.
Look, I’m all for managing expectations. I’m all for maintaining an even keel, especially when it comes to my kids and sports.
We enrolled our kids in YMCA soccer for years. Every player got a trophy. There were no standings. The score was kept informally, and no one knew (or cared) who the champion was at the end of the season.
There are parents and academics who believe that kind of athletic competition is a waste of time, that it defeats what they consider the purpose of kids participating in competitive sports. Their idea of meaningful participation in youth sports is that learning how to win a game at a young age can prepare their children to “win at life” as adults.
I wrote about my objection to that way of thinking about youth competitions in 2013 – After School Activities: Just Let Kids Be Kids. The bottom line for me was that the skills required to win a youth athletic competition only very loosely translate to the skills necessary to succeed in any profession except professional athlete and maybe coach.
Perhaps a kid can learn social skills as part of a team, but excelling on a field of play at age 8 is not a predictor of a corner office with a Fortune 500 company.
Still, now that our older son is well into his first season of competitive baseball, you’re darn right I have expectations. These expectations are fundamental. They are not negotiable.
- I expect him to learn how to catch, throw, run, slide and swing a bat well enough that he won’t get hurt during the course of a game.
- I expect him to pay attention to his coaches during practice, and that he’ll listen to me when we’re playing catch in the back yard.
- I expect him to treat his teammates and his opponents with respect.
- I expect him to learn the rules of the game, and I expect him to remember what he is supposed to be doing at all times on the baseball field – and if he doesn’t remember, I expect him to ask his coaches or more-experienced teammates.
- I expect him to finish his homework before week-day practices and week-night games.
- I expect him to have fun.
Now, I understand what the Ithaca report meant to condemn. There are parents who take sports too seriously, who live and die with every moment on the court, in the pool, on the mat or on the field. If pushed too far, that can be tough or even impossible for a kid to handle emotionally, and it’s not a good way to teach. It’s certainly no fun for anyone.
What I’m not wild about with this study is that it attempts to caution parents that any expectation has the potential to heighten the level of anxiety for a kid athlete. Furthermore, this is automatically assumed to be a bad thing.
I submit that parents should set reasonable expectations regarding a child’s participation in youth sports. Those expectations should be explained clearly and parents should be sure that their kid understands exactly how to live up to the expectations.
My expectations are reasonable, but I also acknowledge that trying to live up to all of those – including the part about having fun – might present a challenge for my sons. So be it. Growth happens when we confront our anxieties. We either overcome them or succumb to them. Either way, we learn.
Give a kid goals and watch him or her excel.
And that’s part of the job as parents, to present challenges for our kids to overcome. Overcoming those challenges might not put them on the path to a career as a high-powered executive, but it will help them learn how rewarding it can be to live up to – and sometimes exceed – expectations.