You may well have heard this phrase at your child’s sporting organisation or school, not generally from other parents but more likely from coaches who are perhaps struggling with the perceived approach of sports parents.
So, does the phrase apply to you and does this phenomenon actually exist?
We thought we would dig a little deeper and see what research we could find.
A 2013 study was one of the first to provide experimental evidence that parents do indeed attempt to redeem broken dreams through their children. The researchers found that parents can feel pride in their children’s achievements and even heal old wounds. When taken to extremes, however, living vicariously through a child can damage both the child and the parent.
However, there is very limited research when it comes to the specifics of sport parenting in this way.
Author Tim Elmore in 12 Huge Mistakes Parents Can Avoid explains: ‘Our children are ultimately a reflection on us. They represent our second chance to get it right. Through them we may get to do our childhood over again….For hundreds of thousands of parents, this issue remains the number one problem in raising healthy kids.’
It is natural for us to do things that we have enjoyed and take our children to sports that we have had some experience of. This will always happen, but we also need to ensure that they have a choice and be open to the idea of them finding their own passions and interests, perhaps in sports that we have no understanding of.
I know many parents in performance programmes who admit they know very little about the sport their children are involved in and whilst they are learning on the go, in many ways they feel less pressure for their child to succeed and have to hand over ownership of the sporting experience to their children and coaches.
There are pros and cons as there are with most things around this as having parents who have been involved in the sport can be extremely beneficial as well.
Every parent wants their children to have enjoyable and fulfilling lives. For many, this means encouraging children not to make the same mistakes they did. There can also be this feeling of pressure to give their children certain advantages (again totally understandable) but when combined with a parent who has their own regrets about their own sporting journeys it is easy to see why some parents can project their own dreams on to their children.
The reality is that children are very different people to their parents. Their interests, dreams and journeys will make them different people. However, we all know that our children will carry some of our thoughts, beliefs or personality traits with them. Whilst we often think our children are not listening to us, you can guarantee that they will never fail to imitate us. The pressure if not managed correctly can be huge on our children when it is us that is driving the sporting journey and the motivation is not coming from them.
We have had a few conversations with young athletes involved in high performance sport who have told us that they are only playing, ‘not to let mum and dad down, as their parents have given and committed so much.’
I know as parents if our children told us this, many of us would be mortified and upset that we had allowed things to get to this stage. The importance of making sure our children understand that the conversation when they tell us, ‘I no longer want to do this anymore,’ is always on the table.
That does not mean we react instantly and allow them just to stop. We need to spend time finding out why as it may be that they have reached this decision and investigate if this is something that has just been caused by a specific incident or series of things that may have gone wrong.
We must also try to stress the importance of seeing through a particular block of training or a season so children understand the importance of commitment being aware that children can often be fickle, change their mind frequently and creating some breathing space allows everyone to think through their choices and next stages.
Giving our children some form of autonomy is critical – simply put giving them ‘choice and a voice.’ Providing unconditional love and support is a hallmark of great sports parenting and indeed parenting.
As our children get older, they begin to establish their own identity and pursue their own dreams, if this is quashed by parents it can often hinder a child’s growth and their ability to make healthy decisions without parental input.
We all have good intentions. We might think we are giving our children a boost or giving our children opportunities we never had. However, we may be doing more harm than good.
There are times when sharing our experiences can be really powerful and helpful to our children, but it is a fine line between being helpful and trying to heal ourselves.
I know when I say, ‘When I played…..’ my children will say ‘boring…..life story.’
It acts as a really good prompt for me. If I believe the story has significant meaning for them, I will persevere in sharing how I felt about certain situations that they may be going through but if not, I will accept what they are saying!
Reliving your old glory days through your children is just one way to heal your emotional wounds. There are many other ways you can deal with your past regrets or disappointments without potentially having a negative impact on your them.
Researchers from Utrecht University in the Netherlands examined what happens to parents who push their kids to live out the dreams they were never able to achieve.
They found that parents who experience unresolved disappointment from the past, feel pride and fulfilment when they can bask in their children’s glory. Watching their child succeed actually helps heal their emotional wounds.
Many parents see their kids as extensions of themselves. And watching their child do something they couldn’t do reduces their regrets about the past.
However, supporting our children in this way has far more negative than positive connotations.
So, what are some of the negatives of sports parenting in this way:
• Our children may never feel satisfied or feel that they are achieving. They can often be overburdened by the
perceived levels of pressure and expectation.
• They find it difficult to form their own identity and find the passions and interests that will allow them to flourish and thrive as human beings.
• They may be at a higher risk of mental health issues such as anxiety, depression and eating disorders.
Most parents do not intend to harm their children and truly believe they are doing what is in a child’s best interests. It’s important to look beyond your motives and consider the role your emotions and experiences might play in your sports parenting decisions.
Here are a few ways that you can stay on the right side of the line:
• Communicate that your love for your child has nothing to do with their performance and help them find their passions.
• Your child should not be defined by their sporting prowess nor should your unconditional love waver for them based on their sporting
performances and achievements.
• Let them be their own people – you can still have high expectations of their character traits and behaviours,
but your expectations are on things that align with theirs, that our children are in control of and in sport specifically those performance and process goals that hopefully may lead to positive outcomes for them. Just remember they are their own people.
• Ensure the conversation around not pursuing a certain endeavour is always on the table and your children
• As we mentioned earlier there can be no worse situation than a child playing sport at whatever level with their only motivation being, ‘I don’t want to let mum or dad down.’
• Involve yourself and learn more about their interests and motivations
This can be really difficult particularly if we have no interest ourselves. Ask them questions about it, try and gain a greater understanding of what makes them excited about it. You never know, you may start something new yourself and roll with it.
We hope we have created an article that allows plenty of self-reflection and offers some thoughts and suggestions that you may find useful.
This is a great opportunity just to check and challenge yourself in ensuring that for the most part your children are not living through our own sporting careers for a second time.
• Gordon MacLelland is the CEO and founder of Working with Parents in Sport, which supports parents and coaches in working together to provide children with the best possible sporting experiences. To find out more about their work please visit www.parentsinsport.co.uk.