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Sport Parents - Are We THINKING BIG?

This blog was originally published in Chema's personal blog on 6th Dec 2016. It is reprinted here with his kind permission.

Sport Parents – Are We Thinking Big?

Last week there was a symposium organised by the School Basketball Foundation on the topic of School Basketball and its value as an educational tool. As expected, the more or less 100 people that enjoyed this wonderful event all agree with the idea of ‘Basketball is Education’. The foundation is totally committed with the educational values developed through sport and promotes them via many different activities.

One of the topics covered during the symposium was Sport Parents and specifically their motivations. Here, and in other environments, when parents are asked what their motivation is to bring their kids to sport sessions, the answer is normally around the lines of enjoyment, learning positive values or the adoption of a healthy lifestyle. However, this does not mean that other ‘secondary motives’ sometimes ‘hidden’ may also be present and actually heavily influence their behaviour. As part of my newly released book “My son is the best; and if that wasn’t enough he is my son” (available in Spanish here) we completed a study with 259 parents from Spain and Mexico in which they answered a specifically designed motivational questionnaire (the questionnaire and the findings can be found in the book)

These other motives we saw, have more to do with “sporting success”, “sharing something with my child”, and satisfying “mum and dad’s ego”. So, even though many parents stress that they want their kids to enjoy sport, be healthy, socialise and develop as a person through taking part, they also acknowledge that they are also driven by the chances of their child winning, standing out or making it to the elite level. Additional drivers are the fact that they can vicariously take part, that their child may reach levels they were not able to, be proud of their sons and daughters and even boast about them.

On that note, one of the parents attending the round table discussion at the symposium commented: “perhaps parents really want to win, but the kids maybe are not that bothered”. An honest dad who verbalised what many others feel but are too afraid to say out loud. Obviously, even if sporting success may not be the main motivation, it is still a very strong driver and will have a notable impact on what parents say and do. For instance, the child loses a game and the parents get angry, blame them for not working hard enough or find all kinds of external excuses; and when things are not going well, they pressure the child to work harder, criticise the coach, etc.

On the other hand, the motivation to “share with your child” can be very beneficial if parents make sure they just enjoy a common interest and support and help their kid in whatever they may need, but without going above the limit of what is their responsibility. When this motivation is not kept under control, it is very likely that parents will start interfering with the job of the coach and start to play a much more important role, always having an opinion, coaching from the sidelines and generally pressurising and controlling the child in excess. These are the parents that meticulously track their kid’s diet, sleep patterns, etc. They also establish objectives for each match, video everything, keep performance records, provides tons of advice, etc.

There is a very fine line between being supportive and wanting to share an amazing experience like sport with your child and letting your own engagement become the main driver eclipsing all other motivations.

Something similar happens when the parental ego is one of the main drivers. They tend not to be present from the beginning or be very influential, but in many cases, sometimes without the parents realising it, parents can have a massive influence. We all know the parent that enjoys boasting about their kid’s sporting prowess. They are constantly feeding unrealistic expectations to their child that sooner or later may come back to haunt them in the shape of frustration, guilt, low self-esteem, etc.

In many cases, parents can’t see, or don’t want to see, these additional drivers which, in simple terms, are related to the will of these parents to live their children’s sport in the first person as the main protagonist. There is no question in my mind that sensitising parents to these issues so they can do a little bit of self-reflection about what it is they seek in their kids’ participation in sport is paramount. In this way, they would be more aware of those ‘hidden motives’ and would more likely be able to control them (yes, sometimes with the help of sport psychology professionals)

As well as negative motivation, uncontrolled emotions bear a great influence in youth sport. In fact, in a survey of 1500 people we talk about in our book, the most agreed point was that “parents must learn to control their emotions”. Sport, due to its own nature, is a very emotional activity. If on top of that, it is your own child playing, things get even harder. And if you are motivated strongly by success or massaging your own ego, it’s even worse. Most parents suffer watching their kids compete and this suffering is another ingredient we must take into account.

Similarly, parents lack of knowledge of sport, the consequences of delivering a better or worse sporting experience, the impact of their own behaviour and what to do contribute positively and not take anything away from it need careful consideration. A lack of information can explain many negative parental behaviours and in fact, when parents receive this information, many of these behaviours disappear or become less frequent. If parents learn to control their motives and emotions, results are even better.

Unfortunately, many clubs and sport schools still ignore their responsibility as educators of the parents of their athletes. They believe that ignoring them, keeping them away, they can lead an easy live and “solve the problem” of having parents that want to know more but understand little. Parents can be a “pain in the neck”. Children continue to “endure” their uninformed parents.

Many young athletes state that the “post-game in-car talk” their parents deliver to them on the way home is a very negative experience. Parents do it with the best of intentions, but has anyone explain to them how ineffective and counterproductive this “heat of the moment” talks can be? Because it happens in the car, away from the club venue, coaches and directors prefer to believe it doesn’t happen or that it is nothing to do with them.

But this and other “inappropriate monologues” can have a very negative influence in the performance of an athlete. Ignoring this issue and complaining about parents is the easy way out; much easier than accepting the responsibility to integrate and educate parents within the club. This is the solution of those who “think small”. But if we really “THINK BIG”, in the belief that sport can be a tool for personal development we wish to maximise, we must acknowledge the importance of the parents and bring them into the fold; help them understand the key issues and helping them contribute and not take away. This implies organising suitable activities for the parents like just another element of the kids’ sporting experience. We also have to maintain positive and regular communication channels, not to be confused with those ridiculous and threatening  “10 commandments” style “what not to do” leaflets.

Parents are a fundamental piece to ensure sport can deliver its goals as an educational tool during childhood and adolescence. Are we THINKING BIG?

You can follow Chema @chemabuceta



Chema is a Doctor in Psychology and a very experienced basketball coach. He is a Professor of Psychology at the National University of Distance Education of Spain (UNED) and Director of the Master in Sport Psychology. He has been the Women's Basketball National Coach of Spain (1985-1992), Bulgaria (2009-12) and Great Britain (since 2015). He has also participated in three Olympic Games (Barcelona-92 as a coach, Atlanta-96 as Psychologist of the Spanish women's hockey, and Sidney, 2000, as a Psychologist of Mexico Olympic team in different sports) and been the Director of the Sport Psychology Department of Real Madrid (football and basketball) (2001-2007). He is also a Professor of Psychology at the Spanish Football Federation (since 1999) and an internationally renowned speaker that has worked in 26 countries in Europe, America, Asia and África. He has authored eight books on Sports Psychology, as well as numerous book chapters, and scientific papers. Among his books: "Psychology and sports injuries " (1996), "Psychology of sports training" (1998), "Psychological Strategies for coaches of young athletes" (2004) and "My son is the best, and moreover it is my son" (2015), published in Spanish by Dykinson.