The overeager sports parent

Posted on Posted in Parents & Coaches

Originally published by Los Angeles Sports & Fitness, October 2014.

Early on a beautiful Saturday morning, I walked to the park to watch my friend’s six-year-old son play his Little League teeball game. Nobody kept score, and every player played in the field, changing positions in the field and the batting order in every inning. Half of the team batted in every inning regardless of the number of players who reached base or the outs recorded. The coach emphasized fun, and nobody yelled at the children. When the energy seemed low, the coaches led their teams in a call-and-response cheer. As long as children this young were going to play baseball, this appeared to be a league that kept everything in its proper perspective. 

Despite the proper emphasis from the league and the coaches, something seemed to be amiss. Some parents, while not the stereotypical Little League parents, interfered with the otherwise positive environment, although I imagine that their interference did not register on their consciousness. In their minds, they were helping their sons. In reality, the opposite likely was true.

At one point, one child sprinted out to first base, and a mother told her son to play first. The coach moved the first child, his child, to another position and allowed the other player the opportunity to play first base. During the inning, the mother stood next to her son. When the ball was thrown in his direction, she told him what to do. When he picked up the ball, she told him where to throw it.

In today’s world, nobody blinked an eye. Her behavior was almost normal, whereas 20 years ago, the mother would not have been allowed anywhere near the field. I remember one father of a teammate who I played with for several years in elementary school; to this day, when I see my childhood friends, and the subject of Little Leagues comes up, we make fun of this one father and his obsessive coaching of his son from the stands. These days, everyone is a backstop coach.

What does it tell the child when his mother practically holds his hand as he plays a baseball game? What do we tell these children subconsciously when we hover over them and try to prevent their failures? How does that feel for a child? What does he learn?

According to Amy Chua, professor at the Yale University Law School and author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, we are showing these children that we do not believe in them; we are showing that we have low expectations for their success. “First, I’ve noticed that Western parents are extremely anxious about their children’s self-esteem,” Chua (2011) wrote in an article published by the Wall Street Journal. Whereas I cannot get inside the mother’s head, it appeared that she feared for his self-esteem and wanted to ensure his success. She seemed to assume that he did not know what to do at first base, although he gave every indication of being as competent as any of the other players.

As Chua continued:

“They worry about how their children will feel if they fail at something, and they constantly try to reassure their children about how good they are notwithstanding a mediocre performance on a test or at a recital. In other words, Western parents are concerned about their children’s psyches.”

This was clearly on display. When I played teeball, for better or worse, we kept score, played positions, knew who won and lost, tried to record outs, and more. In this league, none of this happened. When a player hit the ball, he ran to first base and stayed on first base whether the ball was hit over the outfielder’s head, and he could have scored a home run, or the defense recorded an out. The players were given as many opportunities to hit the ball as necessary – nobody struck out. The league, coaches, and parents appeared overly concerned about failure and the manner in which a child would react to failure. Therefore, they ensured that nobody failed.

There are some positives to this approach, as development is more important than winning and losing at this age group, and children may quit sports before they have had a real opportunity to learn and improve if they have too many negative experiences. Retaining players and creating positive experiences are important outcomes of youth leagues, especially with six-year-olds.

However, there have to be negatives to these changes in the leagues, and not in terms of skills or competitiveness. As Chua wrote, in comparison to Western parents’ concern for their child’s psyches, “Chinese parents aren’t. They assume strength, not fragility, and as a result they behave very differently.” Whereas some of Chua’s stories seem extreme – she admitted to calling her daughter “garbage” – the assumption of strength rather than fragility sends a much different message to children. What does it tell a child when his mother hovers over him as he tries to play a game? What does it tell the child when his parents tell him that he played well even though he clearly never hit the ball further than three feet or caught a single ball? Yes, positive reinforcement has value and is important to young children, but at what cost?

The expectations that parents have for their children influence their children’s expectations and achievement, and early expectations tend to persist throughout childhood (Entwisle et al., 2005). When a parent hovers over her child as he plays, she demonstrates low expectations for his performance. Rather than helping her child, she inhibits his development and learning. He did not think for himself because she told him what to do, which inhibits his learning, and she showed her low expectations and her fear of his failure, which showed him that making mistakes is bad and that his mother does not believe that he is good.

The parents who ignored their children, the ones who often are derided for their poor parenting skills, are the ones who gave their child a chance to develop the skills and traits necessary to succeed in sports and life. In an article by Hara Estroff Marano, author of A Nation of Wimps, child psychologist David Elkind said, “Kids need to feel badly sometimes. We learn through experience, and we learn through bad experiences. Through failure we learn how to cope.”

More and more, research has suggested that success in life and sports depends upon grit, defined by University of Pennsylvania psychology professor Angela Duckworth as “the tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward very long-term goals.” When parents prevent their child from failing in a noncompetitive, non-stressful environment like Little League teeball, how do they develop coping skills and grit to sustain their interest and effort in more competitive and stressful situations that they will face in their lifetimes?

The child may have failed without his mother’s constant instruction. It is possible that he could have been hit in the face by a baseball that he was unable to catch or that he would miss a ball and have to chase after it. It is possible that a teammate could have been mean to him or teased him if he had missed a ball (though I saw nothing to indicate that that could or would happen). It is possible that he could have performed as the worst baseball player in history. However, he’s six. He’s not supposed to be any good. He’s not supposed to know what to do. Rather than worrying about his potential mistakes, and limiting his learning and development, allowing him to make mistakes and learn actually could lead to better confidence and self-esteem. Chua wrote, “There’s nothing better for building confidence than learning you can do something you thought you couldn’t.”

The child who succeeds in sports and life is not the child who matures in an environment absent of mistakes, but the one who develops the coping skills, resiliency, and grit to persist through mistakes and failures. Unfortunately, we’re creating environments for children through or words and actions that do not allow for the development of these important skills.

By Brian McCormick, PhD
Coach/Clinician, Brian McCormick Basketball
Author, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

One thought on “The overeager sports parent

  1. Brian,

    Another terrific article by you.

    I see the coaches of these youngsters acting like they think college and pro coaches go about their role.

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