Sideline Superheroes

Sideline Superheroes

How supporting your child’s athletics might not mean what you think it does

Written by Michael Richardson|

The championship game is over. The reporter holds the mic up to your son, the star of the game.

“I owe it all to my mom,” he says, his words awakening an inexpressible sense of pride.

Now wake up. Your son is currently 7 years old, far from that championship moment of your dreams, that imaginary moment full of flawed notions and time bombs of disappointment. As researchers learn more about our 21.5 million youth athletes, it is becoming clear that parents need to take a time out and assess what they’re doing, because in many cases, they’re doing it wrong.

Bruce E. Brown and Rob Miller of Proactive Coaching LLC interviewed hundreds of college athletes, asking “What is your worst memory from playing youth and high school sports?” The overwhelming response was “The ride home from games with my parents.”

It wasn’t the exhaustion, the cuts, the bruises, or the trash talk. It was their biggest fan that created the worst memories.

Research finds that there seems to be a disconnect between what parents want from their children’s athletics, versus what the kids themselves want. According to research from the Minnesota Amateur Sports Commission, Athletic Footwear Association and USA Today, here are some prevalent attitudes among our young ball players, ages 5-18.

•           90 percent would rather lose than not play

•           71 percent wouldn’t care if nobody kept score.

•           65 percent play sports to be with friends

So, to parentsscreaming about bad calls, lecturing about ball control and complaining about playing time: your kids probably don’t care.

That doesn’t mean sons and daughters don’t think sports are important; in fact a third of girls and more than 60 percent of boys ages 8-17 say sports are a big part of who they are, according to recent surveys. It’s just that scholarships and winning don’t always top their priorities.

And that’s fine. Parents of the 21.5 million kids playing team sports should align their own goals with their child’s when it comes to sports, researchers say.

Furthermore, parents need to focus on the many benefits of athletics, not just those they deem most important. Truthfully, with how much we glorify sports for building teamwork, trust and the ability to work hard, parents too often let those priorities fall into oblivion.

Lisa Endlich Heffernan, a writer for The Atlantic, makes the point that parents have lost sight of sports as a vehicle for learning. For example, kids can learn:

  • There is always someone better than you, at everything.
  • Those who enforce rules can sometimes be mistaken or biased. You have to deal with it.
  • You can do your best and still not succeed.
  • Cheaters sometimes do prosper.
  • It’s important to continue trying even after you know success won’t happen.
  • Be someone your team can rely on.
  • Nobody likes a sore loser.
  • Find contentment in playing your role, without glory.
  • Practice makes you better, more confident.
Source:, “Parents Ruin Sports for Their Kids by Obsessing About Winning”

Perhaps more importantly (especially for children of our generation), sports teach us about failure in a healthy way.

“Between the very permanent record created by social media and the Internet to the hyper competitive college process, kids have few places they can safely fail,” Heffernan writes.

Parents obsessed with saving their child from failure are doing their offspring a disservice, and this is especially true when the failure happens in a sport, a game, where a child can feel disappointment without any real life consequence.

And don’t forget that if sports do nothing else for your child, they’ll probably help them do better in school and help them avoid terrible decisions. Female athletes in high school sports are much less likely to become pregnant, studies show. In general, kids who participate in sports in high school are less likely to do drugs, and are much more likely to graduate.

Agassi’s Dad: Terrible Sports Parent

Tennis great Andre Agassi had a terrible sports parent, his dad. He recalls in his autobiography that once, at nine years old, he beat former NFL great Jim Brown in a tennis match to win $500 for his father. The father initially wagered his own house, versus Jim Brown’s $10,000, but the club owner convinced Brown not to.

In another instance, his father did something more typical to the average bad sports parent, though still extreme in nature. Agassi had just won the Grand Slam title in 1992, at Wimbledon, and his father’s initial reaction was “You had no business losing that fourth set.”

Ironically, parents sometimes inadvertently push their kids away from sports and their benefits. Nearly 75 percent of kids who play organized sports quit by age 13, according to Bruce E. Brown, who is a travelling speaker about sports parents. About a third of kids quit because it isn’t fun anymore (nobody is saying kids must like sports, or even play them). But Brown finds that kids often quit sports to get back at their parents.

Are you the parent who will drive your child from the true benefit of organized sports, even though he or she actually likes them? Brown characterizes the good and bad sports parent.


  • Overemphasizes sports at the expense of sportsmanship.
  • Treats the child differently after a loss versus a win.
  • Undermines the coach. Kids paying attention to yelling parents perform worse.
  • Lives athletic dream through your child. For example, you take credit when the child does well, and care more about winning than your child.

  • Cheers on every member of the team.
  • Remains poised and controlled. Child will follow suit.
  • Doesn’t discuss playing time, team strategy and other team members with the coach.
  • Listens when child talks, and remains positive.
  • Gives child some distance directly after the game.
 Source:, “What Makes a Nightmare Sports Parent”

Parents should take a lesson from grandparents, who are the more preferable fans in a young athlete’s eyes, according to Brown.”Overall, grandparents are more content than parents to simply enjoy watching the child participate,” he says. “Kids recognize that.”

Brown, an experienced coach as well as researcher, says young athletes don’t respond well to the overbearing parent.

“Good athletes learn better when they seek their own answers,” Brown says.

Bombarding the child with unwanted, pressuring advice comes from parent’s inability to place athletics within the scope of an entire life. The development of character must trump the triumph of a trophy.


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