Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Parents Who Are “Frustrated Jocks” Can Harm Young Athletes

How to deal with the over-identification syndrome.

Ford Video/Mastery Approach to Parenting in Sports
Source: Ford Video/Mastery Approach to Parenting in Sports

How do parents unintentionally become a source of stress for young athletes?

All parents identify with their children to some extent and thus want them to do well. This is a natural and healthy part of the parent-child love bond. Unfortunately, in some cases, the degree of identification gets excessive, and the child essentially becomes part of the parent. In sports, it’s no longer “Johnny” or “Mary” who’s out there competing. But rather, the youngster becomes an extension of the parent’s ego. And when parents over-identify with their child’s performance, they begin to define their own self-worth in terms of their son’s or daughter’s successes or failures.

A father who’s a “frustrated jock” may seek to experience through his child the success he never knew as an athlete. A parent who was a star may be resentful and rejecting if the child does not attain a similar level of achievement. Some parents thus become “winners” or “losers” through their children, and the pressure placed on the children can be extreme. The child must succeed, or the parent’s self-image is threatened. When parental love and approval depend on how well their children perform, sports are bound to be stressful.

The problem of over-identification isn’t restricted to sports. It also can happen for other achievement areas, such as academics, music, and dance.

What can be done to counteract the “frustrated jock syndrome”?

When youth sport coaches observe signs of this phenomenon, they may choose to do friendly intervention. In other words, coaches can possibly minimize the problem by diplomatically explaining the over-identification process to parents. They can tell parents that if they place excessive pressure on children, they can decrease the potential benefit that sports can have for enjoyment and personal growth. Further, kids who experience high levels of stress are more likely to drop out of sports. The important message for parents is: Don’t define your own self-worth in terms of how good your children are.

What else can adults do to help combat performance anxiety?

Coaches and parents are in an ideal position to teach young athletes healthy attitudes about achievement and an ability to tolerate setbacks when they occur. The starting point is the philosophy of winning described in my Psychology Today post titled “How to Be a Winner.” The core of the philosophy emphasizes the following points:

  • Doing the very best one can at any moment should always be the focus and the goal.
  • Winning will take care of itself; the only thing that can be directly controlled is effort.

In addition, some specific attitudes can be communicated to young athletes. The following stress reduction mind-sets are covered in detail in my Psychology Today post titled “How to Develop Mentally Tough Young Athletes”:

  • Sports should be fun.
  • Anything worth achieving is rarely easy.
  • Mistakes are a necessary part of learning anything well.
  • Effort is what counts.
  • Don’t confuse worth with performance.
  • Pressure is something you put on yourself.
  • Try to like and respect sport opponents.

When young athletes learn to enjoy sports for their own sake; when their goal becomes to do their best rather than be the best; and when they avoid the trap of defining their self-worth in terms of their performance or the approval of others, then their way of viewing themselves and their world is one that helps prevent stress. Such youngsters are success-oriented rather than failure-avoidant.


The Mastery Approach Coaching and Mastery Approach to Parenting in Sports videos, accessed through

More from Frank L. Smoll Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today