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Sports/Parenting: Red Flags for Over-Invested Sports Parents

Are you over invested in your children's sports participation?

One of your most essential goals in your children's lives as athletes is to have them gain ownership of their participation. They need to feel that their sport is their thing. But ownership isn't just something that they can gain on their own. Rather, it is a gift you give them that offers so many wonderful benefits to their development as young athletes and, more importantly, as young people. It is also something that you can take away from them with ease.

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to your children gaining that ownership of their sport occurs when you commandeer that ownership to meet your own needs. There are a variety of red flags that you should look for in yourself and your spouse to judge whether either of you is putting your own needs ahead of those of your children, whether you are stealing your children's athletic life.

Red Flag #1: Merging with Your Child 

In your zealousness to see your children find athletic success, you are in danger of becoming so involved in your children's efforts that you may not distinguish between your own needs and those of your children. The University of Washington researcher Frank Smoll calls this the "reverse dependency trap" in which parents overidentify with their child's experience and define their own self-worth based on the success of their children.

Sports may actually become more important to you than to your children. This excessive interest on your part, rather than promoting your children's participation, undermines their interest by taking away their ownership of their sport. Your children may develop the perception that the sport is no longer theirs because you seem to be doing more than they are. In essence, you merge with your children in their athletic efforts.

If you merge with your children, you will assume roles that are outside of your purview as a parent, such as doing all scheduling without your child's input, talking too much about their sport, attending all practices and competitions, and coaching your children (even if you don't really know much about the sport). An early sign that you might be merging with your children is that you take responsibility away from them, such as constantly asking them whether they have maintained their equipment properly or are adequately prepared for an upcoming competition.

The clearest and scariest signs that you might be merging with your child is if you enter the "we" zone, meaning you begin talking about your children's sports participation in terms of how "we" did, for example, "We had a great game today" or "We qualified for Junior Nationals."

Red Flag #2: Living Vicariously Through Your Children 

One of the great joys of being a parent is sharing in your children's achievements. Your excitement for their successes and your disappointment for their failures are a normal and healthy part of parenting. But sharing your children's sports participation doesn't mean living through them.

Sharing their experiences places the focus on them. The emphasis is on what the experience means to your children, the emotions they are feeling, the lessons they learn, and the benefits they gain from their sport. When your children perform well, you are thrilled for them. When they perform poorly, you feel their sadness. With sharing, it is all about your children.

When you are living vicariously through your children, the focus is on you: your emotions, what the experience means to you, what you gain from it. When your children have good competitions, you feel that you have succeeded. When your children have bad competitions, you feel that you have failed. With living vicariously through your children, it is all about you.

Red Flag #3: Placing Your Happiness on Your Children's Shoulders

It's tough being a kid these days. Your children have so many responsibilities including school, family, social life, and their sports participation. These challenges alone are sufficient to burden your children. Yet when you become overly invested in your children's sport, you may also place on them the additional responsibility of making you happy. If you do not gain sufficient meaning and satisfaction from your own life and look to their sport involvement as the primary source of ego-gratification, your self-esteem becomes dependent on how your children perform in their sport.

Imagine the burden. Every time your children compete, your happiness is squarely on their shoulders. If they succeed, you will be happy. If they do poorly, you will be unhappy. Imagine the pressure your children will feel when they walk onto the field, course, or court. Your happiness is on the line and it is entirely on their shoulders!

The first red flag that might signal that you are placing your happiness on your children's shoulders relates to the strength of your emotions compared to theirs. Are you more nervous before competitions than your children are, more excited when they succeed, and more disappointed when they don't perform up to expectations?

Another red flag is if you're more concerned with results, points, and rankings than the developmental benefits of your children's sports participation. What is the first thing you ask your children after a competition-"How did you do?" If the results of your children's competitions take precedence over the fun and life lessons learned, then you may be placing your happiness on your child's shoulders.

Red Flag #4: Losing Perspective 

Sports are seductive. Fame and fortune resulting from athletic success appear to be waiting for your children if only they have the talent and determination to reach that level. They could be the next Olympic champion or multi-million dollar "bonus baby." This dream can cause them to lose perspective on sports' intrinsic value of fun, life lessons, and life-long health.

If you also buy into this unrealistic perspective and direct your energy based on this illusion, you may be setting your children up for failure and you for disappointment. If you are seduced by the same naive perspective and encourage this view in your children to the exclusion of anything else, you are inflicting potentially long-term and irreparable harm to your children's personal development.

The odds of your children becoming great athletes are also infinitesimally small. How many Nadals, Wies, and Bradys emerge in any generation? I'm not saying that your children's shouldn't dream big (if they don't aim for the sky, they won't even get to the top of the mountain), but that shouldn't be your focus as sports parents. And you definitely shouldn't expect a financial return on your investment from your children's athletic lives.

Red Flag #5: Overmatching Your Child

In your zealousness to encourage your children's athletic development, you are in danger of pushing them harder and harder, even when they may not be prepared for the increased demands. For example, you might commit your children to training camps all summer when they would benefit more from a few weeks of camps along with fun and activities unrelated to the sport. Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, the author of What Every Baby Knows, observes that "parents today seem to be anxiously concerned with early learning. With a [child] who has a slow start, parents' anxiety to prove she's OK may lead them to push her to do things before she's ready...An environment full of pressure is likely to become a strained, joyless one...Eventually they have trouble coping with the demands of our complicated society." By placing your children in practice and competitive situations in which they are overmatched, you may be inadvertently inhibiting, rather than facilitating, their interest, achievement, and enjoyment in their sport.

The essential question: Why would you put your children in situations in which they are overmatched? One reason may be that you might overstate your children's capabilities. You  may not have a realistic understanding of their athletic abilities. You may use peer comparisons in your judgments. You may think, "My Stephanie is a better athlete than her friend Jenny, so she's ready move up to the next level of training." Your own ego and achievement needs can cause you to overmatch your children. Because of your emotional investment in their sport, you may have difficulty admitting that they are anything but the most talented athlete out there.

Wanting to "fast-forward" their development is another reason for overmatching your children. In our society where achievement is so highly revered and rewarded, you may feel pressure to give your children every advantage by putting them on what you believe is the fast track to success. This urgency shows itself in the need to get your children involved with personal trainers, private coaches, and too much competition at too early an age. You may also feel the need to "keep up with the Joneses." Unfortunately, you may not realize that development can't be rushed; the necessary time and effort has to be put in and your children have to be allowed to develop at their own pace.

Dr. Benjamin Bloom, the author of Developing Talent in Young People, believes that pushing children too quickly up the development ladder will actually slow their progress. He describes the initial romance stage of development as emphasizing play, fun, and exploration. During this stage, children learn fundamental skills and develop a love for the achievement activity. Dr. Bloom found that rushing children through their development interfered with the emergence of these areas and left them with inadequate motivation and skills to be successful later in their development in their sport.

Note: This article is adapted from my first parenting book, Positive Pushing: How to Raise a Successful and Happy Child.

Jim Taylor, Ph.D., teaches at the University of San Francisco.

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