Feeling the Parent Pressure

By Linda Sterling, CMPC, LPC

Sport parenting isn’t for the weak. Sport parents get a lot of blame. Did you hear the latest “crazy sport parent” story? Can you believe sport parents these days? They’re just living through their kids. While of course this happens, the majority of sport parents want what’s best for their athletes, they just don’t always know how to go about it. 

As a sport parent watching your child on the field, you see an extension of you. A person you’ve loved since day one. When something happens to your athlete on the field, it’s almost like it happens to you. Actually, it often feels worse. As a sport parent, you want to see your athlete achieve their goals. When they’re disappointed about an error or a missed shot, you feel that too. When they fall short of the potential you know they have, you want so bad for them to realize it.

If you’re a sporty sport parent (you played at a competitive level), you often have an extra level to navigate. You’ve had success in sport and you’re likely to classify yourself as competitive. You like to win. No shame in that, but it can complicate things. Sport parents who describe themselves as competitive are more likely to get “sideline rage” or just plain fired up before, during, and after the contest.

Sport parents (even sporty sport parents) can have difficulty knowing how to navigate the competitive youth sports world. Advice changes frequently and varies dramatically. Parents are left with uncertainty. When do we switch from recreational leagues to competitive travel ball? How about recruiting? How do I help my athlete get noticed and earn a college scholarship? When should I push them and when should I let them figure it out on their own?

We know sport parenting is challenging. In our sport psychology practice, we do see some parents struggling to separate their own athletic career from that of their athlete, but we mostly notice sport parents who want their kids to enjoy sport while achieving goals. Many sport parents recognize the pressure of competitive sport participation and are actively seeking strategies to reduce the pressure influencing their athletes. While parents don’t ask us how to put more pressure on their athletes, that doesn’t mean they aren’t adding it unintentionally. Unintentional pressure is still pressure.

Possible Parent Pressure Situations

Your athlete feels the pressure, whether it was or wasn’t intentional. Here are a few common scenarios we see in our practice.

The “you have so much potential” pressure. This seems so innocent, supportive even. You see how much your athlete is capable of and you want them to see it too.

What your athlete internalizes: “I’m not good enough. They expect more from me.”

The “feeling the financial burden” pressure. Casual comments about or overheard conversations about the financial or time investment you’ve made for your athlete to play their sport. This might include talking with other parents about giving up every weekend to be at the ballpark or joking about how “they better get a scholarship with all of the money we’ve spent on lessons, gear, and travel.” You may be saying them in jest, but athletes often take this to heart.

What your athlete internalizes: “I have to make this happen. Mistakes are unacceptable. I’m letting them down.”

The “my parent was a great athlete” pressure. Athletes of sporty sport parents have some advantages in that their parents often understand more about how sport works and can provide early opportunities and coaching. This can be undone though when the pressure to carry on the legacy becomes too much. As the parent, you may not be reliving the glory days, but they’ve for sure heard the stories about how great you were.

What your athlete internalizes: “There is no room for error. I have to prove my family proud. Everyone expects me to be an all-star. There’s something wrong with me if I don’t make it happen.”

The “parent coaching from the sidelines” pressure. You’re trying to give them tips. It’s possible you see something that will help them. Maybe you doubt the coach’s ability or disagree with their style. You may view it as helpful, additional information.

What your athlete internalizes: “I wish he wouldn’t scream. It’s embarrassing. My coach is going to be mad. Who am I supposed to listen to? This could affect my playing time. My dad doesn’t think I know what I’m doing.”

The “we expect to win” pressure. You might recognize these mottos. We put in the work in this family. We expect results from that work. We don’t make a big deal about it when we achieve goals. Act like you’ve been there.

What your athlete internalizes: “I can’t ever be satisfied. It won’t ever be enough. I don’t deserve to celebrate. There’s always more to achieve.

How Internalized Pressure Plays Out

  • Unrealistic idea of perfection
  • Negative self-talk
  • Low self-confidence
  • Performance anxiety
  • Frustration/angry outbursts
  • Confusion
  • Looking for external validation
  • Low motivation to play

What Parents Can Do to Prevent the Pressure

Do your own thought work. You can’t take the emotion out of sport. You’re going to have thoughts about the game, your athlete’s performance, the coach, the spectators, etc. Thinking you can just remove yourself from that won’t work. Since you’re going to have thoughts, you need to become aware of them and how they influence your emotions and actions.

Think of a scenario that either stresses you out or has you fired up. Write down your thought. Then write the feeling/emotion caused by that thought. When you think that thought and feel that way, write down how you show up. Then evaluate if that action is getting the results you hoped for. If it’s not, then work to become aware of and change those thoughts to something more helpful for you and your athlete.

Take a moment before you speak or act. We’re not always going to think the most positive or helpful thoughts, even when we work on it. It’s important to take a quick pause before giving feedback to your athlete. Ask why you want to say what you’re thinking. Is it for you? Is it for them? Will it be received as intended?

Distract yourself as needed. Sport parenting is challenging because you care so much about your athlete. Know that it’s okay to put some space between yourself and their athletic performance. Sit a little farther from the field. Take something to read between innings. Put in headphones so you’re not taking in the game through all of your senses. Choose music you love or something that helps keep you calm.

Find someone you can talk to. Don’t put it on your athlete. Speak with a counselor or a friend about what you’re experiencing. I don’t suggest talking with another parent from the team, that can have unintended negative effects for your athlete.

Have your athlete work with a sport psychologist or mental performance coach. It can be really tough to support your athlete through their sport experience, especially if they’re having mindset challenges and may be feeling pressure to not let you down. Providing a qualified source of support for your athlete can be a game changer. Sport psychologists serve as an outlet for athletes and have techniques specifically designed to help your athletes with the pressure of sport. This lets you focus on being the parent and helps to maintain a positive sport family dynamic.

Sport can have everyone in the family feeling the pressure. Understanding how parent pressure plays out for athletes and implementing the techniques can change the game for the better. Sport parenting for the win!

LINDA STERLING, PHD, CMPC, a former collegiate softball player, has masters and doctoral degrees in Counseling Psychology and Sport Psychology and is a licensed professional counselor and Certified Mental Performance Consultant. To learn more about her approach, visit drlindasterling.com.

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