- Bess T
I want to talk about my experience with parents who believe their child is going to become a professional athlete. This is something that I experienced as a child; I experience it now as a coach; and I have also experienced the complete opposite. I have always found the topic of parents living vicariously through their children interesting because that was my childhood.
I had a very unique upbringing where both of my parents had been professional athletes. I was never even given the option to not be an athlete. I was skiing as soon as I could walk and I was on horses as soon as I could sit up. My father was a very successful ski racer, racing on the US Ski Team from 1976 to 1978 and then raced and coach at the University of Vermont until 1998. My mother was a horseback rider competing in horse show circuits all over the US until she met my father in 1991. My mother did not have as successful of a career as she had hoped for, while my father accomplished more than he ever dreamed of accomplishing and retired from competing by choice.
My mother, from a very young age, tried to push me into horseback riding. I never really had a choice. She put me into lessons. She would get upset at an instructor and then she would become my coach. I would get upset with her as my coach, so I would go back to working with someone else and the cycle would repeat itself. My mother always thought she could teach me better, but I never wanted to be taught by my mother because I felt this intense pressure from her that she needed me to succeed more than I ever cared to. My whole relationship with my mother and horseback riding became about pleasing my mother and not about having fun with my horse. I remember when I was 12 and I was riding my horse back to the barn and mom was walking beside me talking about how someday I’ll be riding in the Florida horse show circuit and we won’t have to spend winters in Canada anymore (her dream). I just couldn’t take it anymore. I didn’t want that. I wasn’t having fun. I resented my mother so much at that point that our relationship had totally disintegrated. So in a moment of rage, I jumped off my horse, told my mother I hated riding and just walked into the house. I quit horseback riding that day and I have only been on my horse once ever since. Mom had a really hard time accepting that I wasn’t going to ride anymore. She would bring it up all the time making comments about how good I was at it every chance she could or comments about how we could be in Florida riding every time I said I was cold in the winter (my mom really hates Canadian winters). It used to cause a lot of fights between us. We were still fighting over it during my senior year of high school! I quit when I was 12! It is now something we just don’t talk about. Mom now focuses her energy into training other riders who actually want to ride.
My father on the other hand, never pushed me to ski race even though it had been such a big part of his life. I had to fight with him to be allowed to race. I had to prove I was dedicated enough to earn new race gear. I had to earn the right to be a ski racer. I didn’t start racing until I was in grade 6 when he finally let me join the Crabbe Mountain Race Club. He was my coach for a few years, but he never treated me any different than all the other athletes he coached. He never treated me like he was using me to complete some unfinished dream of his or push me to act as if my goals were bigger than they were. I only got praised from him when I earned it and when I was told “good run” it meant more to me than the constant praise my mother gave me in riding. He pushed me to succeed but never more than I needed. I loved it, ski racing was completely under my control and my father’s expectations were always realistic and in line with my own expectations of myself.
I think this difference in how my father handled my ski racing career verses how my mother treated my horseback riding career is what has made me a ski racer today and not a horseback rider. My mother’s over bearing approach caused me to have anxiety about performing well and burnt me out at such a young age. I never felt pressure from my father which allowed me to make my own choice about how much effort I was going to put into the sport and how far I was going to go with it. The result was me going much farther in ski racing than I ever did in horseback riding and being happy the whole time I was participating in skiing.
As a coach now, I see parents that expect more from their child than the child is capable of, all the time. I see kids crack under this pressure, have melt downs on the side of a course, cry when they don’t win and just give up. In my five years of coaching, I have never met a kid that has had a break down or that cried over a performance who didn’t have an overly pushy parent. This type of parent is a lot more common than you would think. 26% of parents believe that their child will become professional or Olympic athletes (Taylor, 2016; Kelto, 2015; Richard, 2015). That’s one in four parents. That is crazy especially when the stats for how many athletes ever get to that level are only a minuscule fraction of 1% (Richard, 2015). So why do parents put this kind of expectation on their child? According to Dr. Jim Taylor (2012), the pursuit of athletic stardom is an addiction when it’s about the parents, not the athletes; when children’s physical and mental health and development suffer for it.
This type of behaviour is unhealthy for parents and their children. So how do we stop this? Dr. Jim Taylor, my favourite sports psychologist, addresses this topic in this video and he discusses the proper way to push your child to succeed. This video is a bit lengthy, but worth the watch.
Sport Nova Scotia has also addressed this issue in a new video.
Kelto, A. (2015, Sepember 4). how likely is it really that your athletic kid will turn pro. Retrieved Novemeber 8, 2016, from http://www.npr.org: http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2015/09/04/432795481/how-likely-is-it-really-that-your-athletic-kid-will-turn-pro
Richard, J. (2015, October 18). hitching your hopes to an athletes career. Retrieved from http://www.torontosun.com: http://www.torontosun.com/2015/10/15/hitching-your-hopes-to-an-athletes-career
Taylor, D. J. (2016, October 18). five ways get coaches parents side. Retrieved Novemeber 8, 2016, from http://www.drjimtaylor.com: http://www.drjimtaylor.com/4.0/five-ways-get-coaches-parents-side/