In this article, Founder of Working With Parents in Sport, Gordon MacLelland shares a challenging article on the dangers of adults hijacking the youth sport experience, and how parents can ensure their children own the experience.

Whose game is it anyway? In many ways a simple question to answer, but one that despite what we may say as parents and sometimes as coaches, is not always backed up by the behaviours that we display on a regular basis.

In the cold light of day we would probably acknowledge as parents that the sporting experience of our children is to be owned and enjoyed more  by them or as coaches that our environments should be child centred and our motivations in the best interests of the young players.

That does not mean we should not be on hand as parents with a really positive dose of practical and emotional support at the right time.

At a young age, there is nothing wrong with us as parents nudging our children in a direction and path that we would like them to take.

They need us to help show them the way, so we can’t just take a back seat, get the deck chair out and do nothing but say they will sort it out for themselves. That would be like putting them into a maths class, give them no support, try to sort it out for themselves and then expect them to pass their maths exams in 10 years time.

Many great and wonderful parent and child bonds have grown through a shared love of a particular sport, leading to active participation in sport and physical activity for the entire family.

However, we just need to take a moment and reflect on this…

Are we as parents giving plenty of different opportunities to our children?  Some children are given the same dose of the sport that we played and enjoyed, which is fine as long as a couple of things can be acknowledged along the way.

Firstly, is that there may come a point that our child may not enjoy that particularly sport and may find a far greater love of another sport that perhaps suits them, their physical attributes and their personality.  That is why providing our young children with the opportunity to sample lots of different sports at a younger age is vital in helping them find something that they truly love and helps intrinsic motivation flourish.

Secondly, is that there is always the opportunity for our children to have the discussion that they no longer wish to participate in a particular sport.  This conversation must always remain on the table.  It does not mean as parents that we should allow our children to drop their commitments to frivolously, but once a commitment or season has run its course then there is an opportunity for them to call it a day.

This can be a most difficult for parents who may have committed huge amounts of time and expense in providing their young children with the sporting experience.  This is where it is really vital as parents that we see sport for what it truly is and that is the opportunity to use it as the vehicle to equip our children with life skills that can be transferred into any walk of life.  This means that despite any initial disappointment you feel that your child is no longer playing a specific sport you can rationalise it in your own mind that it has all been worth it.  You can read more on this here.

Our children are not commodities and it can be a real danger if we see their sporting experience as an investment.  If we do, that means we expect to see some form of return on our time and expense which is more appropriate to the world of business than it may be to sports parenting.

It also potentially leads to us piling on the pressure as we need to justify to ourselves as parents that it has all been worth it yet we know excessive pressure is one of the main reasons that children quit playing sport.  I am sure that none of us would want to be responsible for this.

Much of our social life and weekends may also hinge on our child’s sporting experience and it can be a big loss to us personally, if that is ever taken away.  I know my own parents found it extremely difficult the moment I left school and they were no longer watching me play sport every weekend.  This was due to moving further away from home and it certainly created a huge void for them.

Children need to gain ownership of their participation in the sport or activity they’re involved in. They need to feel that it is their thing.  The difficult thing for us as parents is that we do not have a crystal ball.  However, what we do know is that there are a large number of children quitting sport both before and during their teenage years as sport is no longer fun for them.

My questions to you:

  • Are you putting  your own needs ahead of those of your children?
  • Are you making it your game rather than theirs?

If you are unsure, here are some things to look out for:

Is the sport more important to you than your child? 

Do you talk about it more than them and initiate the extra practise or play in the back garden? This overzealous interest on your part, instead of promoting their participation, undermines their interest by taking away ‘their’ ownership of ‘their’ sport.

Do you use ‘we’ a lot?

Do you use statements such as we won or we had a good performance today.

How do you feel during their matches and competitions?

Are you worked up and nervous, potentially even more excited than them?  Is it all about them winning or scoring or are you still finding time to focus and celebrate some of their key character skills and the processes they are using?

Do you keep things in perspective?

My own child is in a football academy in the UK of a category one club.  I know the odds of him representing that side in the premiership are probably the equivalent of me being hit by a meteorite.  Does that mean I can’t dream or do I stop him from dreaming?

Of course not, but we are the adults in the process and need to take a much wider perspective and view so that this outcome does not become the entire focus.  Keeping perspective is key and the sporting development journey is a long one.

Are you asking too much of your child, too soon?

Are you pushing your child harder and harder in the pursuit of excellence?  Are you stopping them from trying to play multiple sports to focus on just the one in the hope that you create a champion?

Have a read of the following blogs on ‘The 10,000 hour myth’ and ‘Multi sport participation is the golden ticket’ – it may change your thinking as this approach has no guarantees.

Children who are put through this demanding approach often end up injured and burnt out, dropping out of the sport long before they should have done.

Is your child playing only to please you?

Check in once in a while and check they are still really enjoying it.  Ask questions that allow your child to reflect on the experience?

Look for signs that they are/aren’t passionate about the sport?  Would they go and practise or play the sport if you were not around?

Some children may also just pay you lip service and give you the answers that they feel you would like to hear, so it is really important that we are focussing on our child’s behaviours and actions to give a more realistic picture.

Do you become overly involved on the sidelines?

When we speak to children or get parents to ask their child how they would like them to behave on match day, we often get answers such as be supportive, applaud but please don’t get carried away and start shouting at other people?

This is really important to children and we should be able to take a step back as parents on the sidelines.  If you are unable to do this and get carried away then perhaps you need to have a plan in place to help you.  You can read more about that here.

At the end of the day, we have to remember that this whole sports parenting journey is not about us, it is their game and their experiences, we are just privileged to be a part of it for a short period of our lives, perhaps even shorter if we do not create the right environment for them to find it fun.

Our role is surely to help equip our children to thrive in whichever direction their life may take them.  It is now over to you.

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