Pretty much the day your kid was born you starting dreaming big. You noticed how his hand-eye coordination seemed a little more advanced than the other babies his age. When you put that mini hockey stick in his toddler hand, his grip was almost perfect. Clearly he was meant for the big leagues. So, how do you nurture a future pro athlete? You make him practise in the backyard, you cheer louder than anyone else in the stands, and you dissect every detail of the play on the way home as if reviewing game tape—or so many moms and dads think. But what if we told you that the way many well-intentioned parents cheer on their kids in sports can actually undermine their love for it — and burn them out early?
In the world of sports parenting, there’s a fine line between supporting and smothering. Nudging your couch potato kid to pick a sport is a good thing. Insisting he run on the treadmill four times a week to train for game day, sprinting onto the soccer field mid-match, hissing at the opposing team? Not so much.
“Make no mistake: All of the drama goes on in the stands,” says mom-of-three Marie Sharpton*. Her boys—ages 10, eight and six—play hockey (one at select level), and she has seen many misbehaving parents at the rink. In her eldest son’s league, there’s one mom who constantly screams at her kid while he’s on the ice. “She’ll shriek, ‘Hurry up, Thomas!’ or ‘Wrong way, Thomas!’ One time he stopped mid-play and yelled ‘Shut up!’ into the stands. It was fantastic.”
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Sharpton’s middle son was once put in goal during the playoffs and no one—neither she, nor her child—knew just how good he was in that position. “He stopped a ton of shots,” she recalls. “One dad ran up to the box mid-game and demanded to see his birth certificate—they thought he was a ringer! He said, ‘Nobody can stop my son, and this kid is like a brick wall. They must have brought him in from somewhere, I don’t believe that he’s seven.’ He was yelling and screaming at the ref, mostly in disbelief.”
Chris Duchene, mom of NHLer Matt Duchene, a centreman for the Colorado Avalanche and Team Canada gold medal winner at the 2014 Winter Olympics, has witnessed all kinds of hockey parents. Matt’s schedule as a young player was rigorous—driving two hours each way from their home in Haliburton, Ont., to his AAA games, getting home at 1 a.m., and doing it over again the next day—but through it all, she and husband, Vince, always followed their son’s lead, she says. “If your kid’s equipment isn’t packed and by the door, if he hasn’t done his homework or is making excuses, then you need to seriously look at what he’s trying to tell you.”
“The first question to ask yourself is, ‘What’s my motivation for my child’s sports participation?’” says Jim Taylor, a San Francisco-based psychologist and author of Positive Pushing: How to Raise a Successful and Happy Child. “Is it so he’ll make the NHL? Statistically speaking, it’s highly unlikely—the chances that a varsity high school athlete will go pro are six in a million,” he says. “Or is it for fun, health, life skills and camaraderie? Those are clearly the good ones.” Taylor recommends focusing on process rather than the outcome. “Kids don’t need to be told they’ve had a good result—it’s self-evident. If you want them to repeat that behaviour, identify what skills enabled them to do that. For instance, instead of saying, ‘All right! You had the winning goal,’ try, ‘You were really focused when you took that shot.’”
Women’s hockey legend and five-time Olympic medallist Hayley Wickenheiser says that the best thing her parents did as she was growing up in the sport was stay silent. “My dad wouldn’t ‘pump my tires’ unnecessarily. They wouldn’t praise or criticize me, really,” says Wickenheiser. “They listened and encouraged, but it wasn’t over the top and they weren’t unrealistic. Even at the gold medal game, my dad just said, ‘Go out there and do your best.’”
Read more: How does she do it?: Hayley Wickenheiser>
Sadly, a whopping 70 percent of kids will drop out of organized sports by age 13, according to the National Alliance for Youth Sports in the US (no Canadian stats chart this rate). The top reason for quitting? It’s no longer fun. All too often grown-ups are to blame. To remedy this, Taylor counsels sports parents on how to behave at the sidelines. “I tell them to shut up. Stay seated. Clap when there’s a good play on either side. And if you can’t handle your emotions, don’t go,” he says. “Kids are emotional creatures, they pick up on the subtle stuff like grimacing faces. Emotional messages are way more powerful than what’s ever said.”
As a father of three sports-obsessed boys, Ian Jones* has watched many parents overstep their boundaries. But the most jarring thing he ever heard was, “You want it more than I do.” That came from his son at age 15, following seven years of competitive hockey.
“I was heavily involved from the beginning,” recalls Jones. “He could really skate, and he garnered a lot of interest from other teams.” Jones, who volunteered as a coach for years, encouraged his son to stay fit by doing push-ups and sit-ups, eating healthily and reading up on how athletes improve their performance. “In retrospect, it was a little unrealistic and harsh,” he says, adding he can still remember the moment his son uttered those words. “I felt hurt that he saw my efforts as controlling and not as helpful, friendly, positive advice. It made me realize I had to step back.” With his youngest son, age 10, Jones does things differently. “It all comes from him, and I follow his lead.”
Read more: Confessions of a reluctant hockey mom>
Jones’s new tactic is a smart one, says Joe Flanders, a Montreal child psychologist and motivational coach. The key is to give kids lots of space to explore a sport, he says, then respond to their initiative. “When your son says he wishes he could skate like that other guy, tell him, ‘Any time you want to go to the rink, I’m available.’” It gets complicated, he says, when parents confuse their own agenda with what’s best for their kid.
Duchene agrees, recalling that she would always check in to make sure her son was having fun. “Kids can be pretty honest if you open the lines of communication,” she says. “With anything in life—school, music, sports—try not to live vicariously through your child. That’s a bit of a trap parents get caught up in.”
Grown-ups often need a reminder to back off a little. At Jones’s son’s soccer games, coaches were asked by the league before the last six games of the season not to yell at the kids anymore. “They’ve trained all year and now’s the time to show what they’ve learned. It’s an interesting comment on how we don’t just let kids play.”
Wickenheiser passionately agrees. “Parents’ micromanaging really backfires in the end,” she says. “If your child is going to be an athlete it has nothing to do with you—it has to come from within. I think my own son feels added pressure because of what I do and seeing the anxiety I’ve experienced at the Olympic level, so he’s more sensitive to that. At the same time, I think he knows we don’t care what he does, we just want him to be happy.”
*Name has been changed
Parents behaving badly OMG! our Facebook fans share tales from the sidelines.
“Last year at my son’s peewee hockey games, a group of three moms would always sit together and scream at the refs, the coaches and even the kids when they felt someone was doing something wrong. One day they yelled at my kid and I saw he was upset by it. I gave them a dirty look from across the stands and they settled down. After, two of the women approached me to apologize. They both said they couldn’t help themselves. I calmly reminded them that these were 11-year-old kids playing house-league hockey and they were adults who needed to grow up and set a better example for their kids.” —Jodie Whitley
“At my three-year-old daughter’s soccer game, I saw a mom run onto the field yelling at a boy who accidentally knocked her daughter down. It was so pathetic. She showed up to another game in her work uniform—she was a cop! You’d think she would know better than to behave that!” —Juanita Le Blanc
“At a peewee soccer game I saw a father pull his son from the field (without telling the coach). The dad then proceeded to yell at his son, curse, and pull and jerk his child. The boy just stood there in shame.” —Hannah Hamilton
“I saw a parent actually running onto the field at a house-league soccer game for seven- and eight-year-olds and asking the ref (who was just a teenager) if he was a ‘****ing idiot’ and ‘How the **** could he miss that call.’ It was appalling to witness him attack a teenager over a fun game for kids.” — Alyssa Welch
A version of this article appeared in our November 2014 issue with the headline “How to raise the next Sidney Crosby: What you say (or don't say) to kid athletes can make all the difference,” pp. 88-90.