In many respects, working with parents is almost as important as working with athletes. Parents exert greater influence over their children than anyone else — so helping them to have a positive impact on their children’s sporting experiences is essential to creating great youth sport environments. Consequently, helping to alleviate parental anxiety, and limit the harmful behaviours in which it sometimes results, is an important role of all coaches.
In this article, we discuss the potential impact of parental anxiety, consider some of its common causes, and outline strategies to help parents overcome their concerns and become positive participants in their children’s sporting journeys.
The Impact of Parental Anxiety on Athletes
When parents feel anxious about our coaching environments or their child’s performance, it can have a profound impact on their child’s overall sporting experience. Parental anxiety can often manifest itself in the form of interference or pushiness, and even impact the relationships between parents and children away from the playing field.
Overbearing parents are a challenge coaches face across all sports and levels of participation. Parents with the best intentions may offer advice to their children, or potentially insert themselves further and act like additional coaches from the sidelines. Though parents are only trying to help, this kind of interference can confuse their children — perhaps their guidance contradicts the coach’s message — and make it hard for them to learn or act with conviction.
Worse still, parents can sometimes pass their anxiety to their children. Kids are often more perceptive than we appreciate, and will frequently detect signs of nervousness, disappointment, or anger in the adults around them. This, in turn, can cause them to question themselves and the outcomes they achieve at practice or on gameday, and potentially engender a desire to impress that places undue pressure on their sporting experiences, inhibits their enjoyment, and, ultimately, hinders their performance. This effect is even more pronounced when anxiety causes parents to be hard on children over their perceived mistakes or shortcomings.
Thus, it’s vital that we understand the causes of parental anxiety and help parents to overcome it — both for their own benefit, and, more importantly, for the good of their children.
Understanding Parents’ Concerns
As coaches, we should always be receptive to parents’ concerns. By understanding the root causes, we can work with parents to overcome their anxieties and take a positive view of their child’s sporting journey.
A common cause of parental anxiety is the fear that their child will be deselected or released from a programme. This is particularly pronounced in programmes that feed into high-performance environments, but can be seen at all levels of participation. In such instances, parents may place excessive importance on so-called performance outcomes, and even perceive their child’s performances more harshly than coaches or selectors (especially if they are unaware of the developmental outcomes that their child is pursuing).
Another notable cause of parental stress is the prominence of competitions. In sports such as gymnastics or figure skating, where the peak age of professional athletes is relatively young, parents may feel that their child must succeed in competitive environments early in order to ‘make it’ in the long run. Similarly, in sports that are primarily competition-based — such as motocross and other motorsports — parents, with few other obvious metrics against which to gauge their child’s learning, are naturally more inclined to fixate on results.
However, when we know the source of parental anxiety, there are a number of strategies we can employ to put parents’ minds at ease, and give them confidence in our coaching approach.
Strategies for Addressing Parental Anxiety
Learn Parents’ Stories
By learning parents’ stories — how they grew up, their involvement in sport as a child, and the lives they live now — we can gain an appreciation of their relationship with sports, how they believe youth sport environments operate, and what aspects of sport they value.
For example, did they grow up enduring parental pressure, or in sporting environments where winning was everything? Are they high-powered professionals who see success only in results, not the learning process?
When we work with parents to understand them as people, we can provide alternative narratives to the ones that they have developed or grown up with — opening a dialogue and helping them to appreciate the values and processes in our coaching environments (and how they benefit their children).
Make Them Feel Included
Unsurprisingly, treating parents with respect and informing them about our approach is a great way to earn their confidence in our coaching environment and their child’s development.
It starts by listening to parents and asking them about their concerns. Often, we’ll find that parents feel disconcerted or seek to insert themselves into our environment because we haven’t given them a role to play or included them in the experience.
Uncertainty about what we’re doing can become anxiety, and parents who are dismissed will often seek other forms of involvement. We can combat this by connecting with parents, building positive relationships, and inviting them to participate meaningfully in their child’s sporting journey.
Help Parents to Understand Their Impact
One of the simplest ways to address parental interference is to let parents know the impact that their actions have on their kids. As mentioned, parental interventions from the sidelines can confuse children and obstruct their learning, or place undue pressure on them to impress or ‘succeed’ that actually impedes their overall performance. No parent wants this — but many don’t realise that it could be a consequence of their own interventions.
Again, an honest, respectful conversation can be incredibly beneficial. Just explaining the difference it makes for their child when they are watching and supporting, rather than trying to coach or play the sport for them, can be illuminating for many parents.
It’s All About Communication
Parental anxiety often comes down to uncertainty about what is happening, or the lack of a shared vision about the optimal way to help their child. After all, parents just want the best for their children. So working with them to address the sources of their apprehension, make them feel heard, and assure them that we want the best for their children too can go a long way to alleviating their concerns.
Simple conversations to emphasise that we’re pulling in the same direction, for the good of their child, can have a huge impact, and hopefully mollify some of the less desirable behaviours of pushy or overbearing parents.
And that can yield massive benefits for our young athletes.
- Parental anxiety can negatively impact the sporting experiences of young athletes.
- Fears of their children being deselected or released from programmes, or excessive focus on competitions, are common causes of parental anxiety.
- To help anxious parents, we must listen to them and learn the source of their concerns.
- We can usually reduce parental anxiety by informing them of our processes and including them in our coaching environments.
- Where possible, we should help overbearing parents understand the negative impacts that their interference can have on their children.
- It’s all about communication: creating constructive, respectful relationships with parents will often help them to feel positive about their child’s development.
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