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How to Stop Being a Terrible Sports Parent

Hint: Quit trying to relive your glory days through your kids.

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The following story was submitted by a Fatherly reader. Opinions expressed in the story do not reflect the opinions of Fatherly as a publication. The fact that we’re printing the story does, however, reflect a belief that it is an interesting and worthwhile read.

My 7-year-old son loves golf. He watches it. He plays it. He wants to be on the course every chance he gets. And while he’s a good golfer, like most, he has his bad days. It is golf after all ⏤ the toughest sport out there. One day during a recent tournament, though, he was having a rough go at it. I was caddying for him and felt bad.

Now, I care about my kids more than anything else in the world, and I want them to succeed and do well. But there is something I value more important than results: It’s effort! He can control his effort and when I could see he wasn’t making it that day, I struggled to watch. He was off. He would be over the ball to hit and would stop and look at me and ask, “Is it my turn?” My frustration built as the round went on. On the eighth hole of our 9-hole round, he did it again. I didn’t yell, but I was stern with him and he started to tear up and said: “Quit yelling at me, daddy.”

Frankly, it didn’t matter if I was or wasn’t yelling, he thought I was yelling and that’s all that matters. During these instances, it’s much easier to destroy our kids’ confidence than it is to build it up. I immediately felt horrible. I broke my own rules. I thought, “Oh, no, I’m a terrible sports parent!” I’m the exact parent I’m usually trying to help. See, I’m a Sports Psychology coach. I work with kids and parents all the time to improve athletic performance. I’ve even written a book on Mental Toughness for sports parents entitled, Don’t “Should” On Your Kids: Build Their Mental Toughness. And even though I know and preach the utter importance of staying positive, not riding the emotional roller coaster, and focusing on the shot in front of you, here I was yelling at my own flesh and blood.

And I realized that no matter how hard we try, just as our kids make mistakes playing sports, we also make errors as parents watching them. And that’s okay. But if we realize we’re being a terrible sports parent, we need to stop. Here are three ways how:

Quit Coaching During the Game

I became too emotionally involved in the outcome of my son’s golf match. We all do at times. I was frustrated with his lack of effort and as my buddy, Joe Skovron, caddy for Rickie Fowler says, “coaching is all about timing!” During the match, game, or round is not the time to correct our kids play. In fact, we shouldn’t even do on the car ride home ⏤ it’s too soon. They’ll be plenty of time later on when practicing to correct their mistakes without being overly critical. Remember, we need to commend our kids, not condemn them.

Our message and nonverbal communication as parents during times of competition need to remain positive and upbeat, no matter the circumstance or results. In this case, my side of the street needed to be cleaned up. I apologized to him. I commended him on how proud I was of him and his ability to compete. I also owned my mistake and let him know that I’d do better.

Don’t Live Vicariously Through Your Kids

If I played in my son’s golf tournament, I would have kicked ass ⏤ I’m just saying. But, I wasn’t. I can’t live my own life through my kid successes and setbacks. Nor can I judge myself as a parent based on how my kid performs on the course or field. Unfortunately, more parents than not treat their kids’ games as they would the hometown professional team. We live and die off of each play. We feel great when they do well and lousy when they don’t perform.

Terrible sports parents ride the emotional roller coaster of being a fan when they need to ride the carousel of being a parent! We put the highest expectations and are hardest on the people that we love the most? We treat them as if they’re being paid $15 million a year to play a sport and they need to perform. We want the best for them in life, but it’s a long-term play, not a short-term win or loss. Our kids will grow and learn how to overcome adversity when they take ownership and deal with their own setbacks. Our role is to guide them through those setbacks, not chastise them because we think their play reflects poorly on us.

Have A Game Plan Going In

There is an electricity and energy to sports. That’s what makes it so much fun! But, as parents, we sit in the lion’s den, and it takes only one negative play or parent to rile up the den. Here’s how it often goes down: One person yells at their kid to grab a rebound or hustle or jeers the team for running a certain play or not executing. Once a ref makes a questionable call, all of the parents’ roar in unison. The energy is now collectively directed as a collective unit toward a ref or an opposing player. Once the cheering turns into shouting, the lion’s den is in a frenzy, and they are ready to devour anyone that crosses them. It’s almost impossible to control parents’ emotions in the stands because the energy and environment are so emotionally charged.

Unless we have a plan of how we are going to act and communicate before we arrive at the game, then we are at the mercy of the pride. To avoid becoming a terrible sports parent, we need to have our own pre-game pep talk and discuss what our own behavior will be for the game or match. Kids in youth sports thrive off of positive reinforcement, but they’re often adamant that they don’t want to hear their own parents voice during the games. Talk with your kid before the game about what type of cheering they’re comfortable with, and keep that in mind when the den starts roaring.

Dr. Rob Bell is a mental toughness coach who works with professional athletes and executives. He’s also a father of two and an Ironman athlete. He’s written six books, including Don’t “Should” On Your Kids: Build Their Mental Toughness, ” and his website is drrobbell.com