Play is a fundamental human right for children. It is even recognised in article 31 of the UN Convention of Rights of the Child. So, why is it that adults feel the need to interfere with this? John Haime from New Edge Performance discusses the impact of parents and coaches living vicariously through young players and outlines a few steps to make positive change.

In my work, I see a lot of games, a lot of athletes and a lot of interesting coach and parent behaviour. Parent behaviour is a critical piece in how much young players enjoy the game…and whether they eventually keep playing.

The sad reality is that the majority of young athletes, including young football players, drop out of competitive sports by the time they are 14-years of age. A study from the National Alliance of Sports tells us that over 70% of young athletes leave competitive sports by that age. The fun goes away and they lose interest. Why? It has nothing to do with the game. It likely isn’t the the competition, the work involved or the effort required. Instead, it is the young people’s greatest fans, their parents (and sometimes their coaches) who take the fun away and make the experience of football too complicated and too pressurized for the child to enjoy.

Instead of the pure joy of playing and achieving, young footballers-in-the-making get bogged down by heavy expectations, the pressure to win and other complications introduced by the very adults who are most invested in them playing the sport.

Coaches and parents can have a major impact on the motivation and desire of kids to “love the game” and want to keep playing. They can also have a major impact on turning kids off the game and never coming back. This may not be you, but if you think it may be, read on.

Egos Run Amok

I’ve run a number of sessions on high performance for young footballers recently and one of the hot topics is always pressure and how a young player handles it. Part of the complication of this is that Mom and/or Dad are often the biggest source of the pressure – creating expectations that might be difficult to reach, and over time, sucking the fun out of the game.

Is it really about the kids or the parents’ ego? The kids, enrolled in high-end private academies with their new, $300 boots move toward mini-professional status, one step from the Premier League. What seems to start out as a desire to want the kids to be active and play a game they love, can sometimes shift into something else. Motives change, and often not for the better.

Do You Have a Frustration Gap?

Many parents see their child on the pitch or the training ground for what they’d like their child to be and not what the child truly is. The gap between what we would like to see from the young player, and what the young player is at this moment, is what I call the Frustration Gap. Parents watch their kids perform and the frustration builds … and builds … and builds, as the parent waits for the child to reach the performance level the parent hopes to see. While this frustration is not much fun for the parent, it is less fun for the child who is constantly trying to live up to the parent’s expectations. Usually, those expectations are unrealistic and not in line with the child’s abilities or motivations. This tension is both a performance crusher and can send the young footballer to the land of video games.

The Mini-Van Football Prison

Is your vehicle a “mini-van football prison?” Is your child trapped in the vehicle as you express your frustration? While your intentions are good, your budding professional becomes the target for all sorts of emotions you felt while watching and expecting more. Your son or daughter is conveniently trapped in the vehicle and must listen to your frustration.

“What happened out there today?”
“You looked tired out there. Was that it?”
“Why don’t you try harder?”
“I’m surprised you didn’t shoot when you had the chance…”

These questions all begin a spiral of frustration between a young athlete and parent. Unfortunately, these opening lines often lead to deeper criticisms and questions all resulting from the parent’s frustration as the child doesn’t quite reach the expectations created by … the parent! I really wish I could measure how much confidence the mini-van prison syndrome has destroyed in young players. All I know is that it’s a problem and awareness of your own car rides after the match is something to consider.

Some Ideas to Help

To help you and your young footballer avoid the frustration gap and the min-van prison, and keep them in the game playing for a lifetime, here are a few ideas to consider:

  • Step back emotionally. Don’t forget this is your child’s life and experience.
    It’s a joy of being a parent to live through our kids but this can be taken too far. If you become obsessed with your child succeeding in the game and living up to expectations you set, you may need to re-evaluate and step back.
  • Make the car rides positive experiences. Don’t talk about the match or training in the car.
    The only game talk should focus on effort and not result. Let the child know you are their biggest supporter and will be whether they play well or make mistakes, win or lose.
  • Praise achievement. Don’t be critical or instructive.
    Learn to praise achievement and not focus on your child’s limitations. Make sure the child knows you are proud of a great play/match etc.
  • Focus on process and effort. Don’t be too results-oriented.
    Your priority for your child needs to be that they feel good about themselves and happy so that they are motivated to play again tomorrow.
  • Let your young footballer do what is right for them now. Don’t push the child based on your desires.
    Encouraging your child is great, but don’t cross the line and push your child further than he or she wants to go right now.
  • Let coaches coach! Don’t be both the parent and coach.
    Getting coaching and instruction both from parents and coaches confuses the child and has little positive impact.
  • Adjust your expectations. Don’t allow your frustration to build.
    Letting your Frustration Gap build is not helpful for both you and the child. A parent who bottles up frustration becomes a ticking time bomb waiting for an opportunity for the frustration to become uncorked.
  • Every child makes mistakes! Don’t hyper-focus on your child.
    Parents put their own children under a microscope and live and die by each movement the child makes. This hyper-focus on your own child, watching their every move, creates a lack of perspective relative to the other kids on the pitch and the game in general.

So, keep this in mind when your son or daughter is playing. If they are one of the chosen few that do go on to college scholarships, big academies or professional football, great. But, 99% of kids won’t go on to reach these levels. The important thing is set the table for these young players to go and enjoy what is the most beautiful game of all…for a lifetime.


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