Participation in sports is one of the healthiest, most beneficial activities children can experience. Through athletics, children learn and hone much needed social skills. Athletes must learn how to strategize to manage anxiety, stress, injury and failure. Children learn how practice and hard work can lead directly to success. Team sports foster the development of leadership, while teaching how to care for one’s body. Athletes learn they are not entitled to success and that the world does not revolve around them personally. As the years pass, the lessons learned and relationships built through participation in sports far outlast the polish on any trophy.


However, over recent years, there has been an increase in the number of student athletes being treated at adolescent psychiatric units for suicidal ideation. These adolescents are intelligent kids with good grades and bright futures. They come from upper middle class families and have two parents involved in their lives. Many of the patients receive letters of interest and scholarship offers from Division One schools all over the country. With all of those positives, you might wonder what could possibly be causing these young people contemplate suicide? These students often cite parental pressure as their foremost stressor.


We have all been to a sporting event that has fallen apart at the seams—not because of what happened on the field—but because of what occurred on the sidelines. A fun learning experience can quickly turn into an emotionally damaging event in a child’s development. Children profit immensely when parents adhere to a standard of appropriate conduct. Always remember that you are (or should be) putting your children in sports to benefit their development and to give them joy and not to fill some need in your own life.  How parents approach sports, school, practice time, and even failure can impact both our child’s athletic performance and their personal character. Parents that complain openly about coaches in front of their children set up an adversarial mindset and damage the integrity of the player-coach relationship.


When parents take it upon themselves to approach coaches, they rob their child of many important learning opportunities. The first is how to effectively approach adults about what they want or feel they deserve. Children will almost certainly have bosses in the future and they need the experience of negotiating as a subordinate. Second, pressuring authority figures for a child sends a message of entitlement: telling children that they deserve more playing time without learning and understanding why the child is not playing as much as he or she would like despite what the coach says they must improve upon. Third, when a parent repeatedly steps in for a child, those actions may damage the child’s self-image of independence. Without meaning to do so, parents behaving badly with respect to their child and sports may be messaging the child subconsciously, “You are not capable of handling your own business.”


Children today are often not allowed to learn about failure. Competition for scholarships and desirable jobs is at an all-time high. Successful families fear that failure on the field or in the pool or on the mat will have great negative effects on their child’s future. Athletics can be a way to fail without long-term implications. Parents do not help their children if they protect them from all failure. Failure is a part of life, and it draws many similarities to chicken pox. As a child, the infection is irritating and may put them down for a few days. Ultimately, the child overcomes the infection and carries immunity for the rest of their life. When exposure to the virus is postponed until adulthood, the consequences can be much more severe. A child who fears failure will grow to be an adult who faces paralysis when there is even a chance of failure.  A boxer with a perfect record enters the ring with much more pressure than the challenger with a few prior losses and less to lose. All children should be encouraged to diversify their athletic experiences. The first question college recruiters ask about high school athletes is about the other sports they are involved in. Players involved in one sport year round have three main problems: one, they show increased frequency of sport-specific injuries; two, they are more inclined to burnout in college athletics, and three, they show a decrease in the amount of possible athletic gains after high school.


Recruiting college coaches are not looking for a finished product. They want enthusiastic kids who can grow in their programs. Parents play a large part in promoting the physical and mental well-being of their child. They should allow children to encounter failure in sports and encourage them to navigate through embarrassment, discouragement, and other emotions that come with a loss or failure to meet (perhaps unrealistic) expectations. Parents should allow children to see the need for self-evaluation, change and growth with the belief that they can be more effective in the future. A parent’s job is to provide the resources for children to meet obstacles and to provide encouragement so children to continue to face those obstacles to completion. Parents do not need to help their children overcome all impediments.


Parents should never aim to assist by lowering the bar for their children, and should remain mindful that they do not themselves become the hurdle. Parents must always check to see whether their actions are that of a spectator or that of a distraction. Parents cannot force the love of the game, but they can definitely foster contempt for it. Parents are the wallet that buys the gear, the car that transports to every event, the consistent example of support, the hands that clap for a strong effort and the shoulder to cry on in defeat. Let the players play, coaches coach and the officials officiate – parents have enough responsibilities off the field.


Eric Stein, MA, LPC offers counseling for adolescents and adults facing emotional concerns, anger and disruptive behavior, academic issues, athletic challenges, developmental disabilities and persistent mental illness. He has extensive experience working with individuals navigating through disabilities. Eric is an athlete himself and frequently provides counseling support to athletes and their families to promote mental wellness, peak performance, and good choice-making. He practices with West County Psychology Services and may be reached at (314) 275-8599.


First published September 8, 2017