What Sports Parents Get Wrong

As it turns out, some academic research is accessible and relevant to people’s daily lives. For instance, recent work on how best to parent young athletes.

Some of the findings. Travis Dorsch, sports psychologist, “When parental sports spending goes up, it increases the likelihood either that the child will feel pressure or that the parent will exert it.”

Daniel Gould, director of Michigan State University’s Institute for the Study of Youth Sports, “The more parents do, the more they expect a return on their investment.”

Kevin Helliker in the Wall Street Journal:

This finding is likely to baffle parents who view Tiger Woods and the Williams sisters as star-studded products of heavy parental investment. It also calls into question the validity, at least in sporting arenas, of the so-called tiger style of parenting that spares no expense in the pursuit of top-notch results. Many sports parents struggle to strike a balance between supportive and pushy. A parent in the stands can help a child feel proud about doing well, as well as withstand the disappointments inherent in competition. And without parental help, most children couldn’t afford basic registration fees. But recent research suggests that large amounts of money can transform support into pressure.

Helliker adds:

How deeply Mom and Dad ought to invest in a child’s athletic activities is controversial. Jay Coakley, a University of Colorado professor emeritus of sports sociology, argues that the less the better. Greater parental spending tends to weaken a child’s sense of ownership of his athletic career, sometimes destroying his will to succeed, he says. “Kids are being labeled as burnouts when actually they’re just angry at having no options in their lives,” says Dr. Coakley.

I’ve written before about Richard Williams’ genius. As the story goes, Williams, the father and childhood coach of Venus and Serena, would hide their racquets once a year as a check on their motivation. The first day they’d celebrate a break from his rigorous practices, but by day two they would empty every closet to find the tools of their trade. That was all Williams needed to continue pushing.

Hard to imagine, but Lucy Li, an 11 year-old sixth grader, has qualified for the Women’s US Open this June at Pinehurst No. 2. Ten years ago, I watched 14 year old Michelle Wie play in the Women’s US Open at Pumpkin Ridge, west of Portland. Here’s hoping Li’s parents learn from Wie’s. Wie was considered a once in a generation talent—exquisite swing, athletic, and much longer than the other women. Everyone assumed she’d rewrite the record books. The only record she set was for unfulfilled potential. Most people who cover the LPGA blame her dad for his over involvement in her life and career. Only recently, since graduating from Stanford and establishing her own home in Florida, has she had success on the LPGA tour.

I hope Li’s parents don’t push her too hard. Obviously, the talent is already there. Odds are, her success will hinge on how much she enjoys the game. I have some unsolicited advice for mom and dad Li. Hide her sticks on occasion.

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One thought on “What Sports Parents Get Wrong

  1. Sports like golf and tennis emphasize the individual effort. There is no real shared responsibility for a win as there is in a team sport. For me the love of playing baseball or football, which I was only mediocre in, was being part of a team. Sure I wanted to excel in my personal play but a lot of that is achieved with the aid of others. In solo performance games like golf and tennis, the pressure is is always focused on a single individual

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