sportsvirtual children by Scott Warnock

Parents, remove yourselves from the equation

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You know that old equation that goes something like this: hard work + dedication + dreams = success. An updated version has emerged: hard work + dedication + dreams + parents = success. Really, that version is hard work + dedication + dreams + parents = success + parents. Parents have gotten into this thing on both sides! You don’t have to be Poincaré to notice, though, that if you minus [parents] from both sides of the equation, you still get the original formulation.

Too many parents are too involved with their kids’ athletic success, thus undermining core benefits that people, kids or otherwise, derive from athletics.

Oh, I’ve seen ’em. These over-invested parents of phenom five-year-olds who wilt with disappointment when the other kids catch up (at the ripe old age of 11). Their crestfallen faces. I’ve seen the knowing nod of the playground kickball champ, feeding off a compliment. “Oh, thank you. Yeah, heheh, she’s pretty good…” The word “scholarship” dances in their brains and drips from their lips.

This parental over-investment has led to a bizarre arms race at the youngest levels of competition. I watch coaches war over eight-year-olds, fighting for that territory. Company coaches — you know, those guys charging an arm and a leg to train your kid — try to poach players from other teams. They know their audience, and it ain’t the kids: They know they can make parents feel good about themselves. (Show up once, and they will gladly use your kid to promote their clubs – leaving me to wonder if they should be paying the kids instead of the other way ‘round.)

This dynamic works because there is a broad audience of over involved parents who want to put their kids on a kind of training conveyor belt. Wrestler Donnie DeFilippis wrote “Building Your Child Into a Wrestler Should Not Happen in a Factory.” He writes,

I have seen the promise of great talent in an 8 year old get used and drained and thrown to the wayside by the time he is 13.  I have seen the 13 year old who was all but disregarded from other programs blossom into a champion with the right coaching… Nothing brings more of a black eye to the sport then those coaches and specialists who are into profit more than the wellbeing of their athletes. These “coaches” chase down young wrestlers and their parents promising gold only to walk away when that wrestler fails to deliver for them and their club.

The real lesson and value of athletics is when a person pushes themselves to surpass their mental, emotional, and physical (and sometimes social) limits. In much of youth sports, this isn’t being served. Sports is not, at its core, about winning or even competitive success. In my experience, some of the lowest-skilled and least decorated athletes got the most out of their sporting experiences. I think we deprive kids of much of the personal development of athletics by forcing them to want it — or wanting it more than them.

Sure, your parents have to help you and encourage you. It can be a beautiful thing. But parents now are not only over involved in the process but in the product. The success is more a shine on them than the kid. This is beyond the pride you feel when your athlete gives a “Hi mom” to the camera. This is about having your identity wrapped up with your five-year-old’s weekend goal count.

Kids with a modicum of talent are put on that conveyor belt that propels them toward some level of success, but many children never have the opportunity to make a commitment themselves. They’ve never done a pull-up without someone else counting, never sprinted without someone urging them on, never caught or thrown or kicked without being evaluated by an adult. At every practice, they look over, and there are mom and dad, sitting in chairs… watching.

Parents, go back to school, to simple mathematics. Minus yourself out of the equation. Otherwise, you may get your champion, but she could have a pile of medals and trophies yet no idea what they even mean.

Scott Warnock is a writer and teacher who lives in South Jersey. He is a professor of English at Drexel University, where he directs the University Writing Program. Father of three and husband of one, Scott is on two local school boards and coaches all kinds of youth sports.
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4 Responses to “Parents, remove yourselves from the equation”

  1. So true! My parents NEVER watched me at practice. EVER! I wouldn’t want them there. My daughter dances so I rarely watch her practices. I pulled my son from the most popular sports because I hate the parents that WATCH their kids (at practice and games) and make them cry if they don’t perform to their expectations or bribe them to do well…. sick world!!!

  2. Scott, you nailed it !!
    My favorite words to Jamie…..”I love to watch you play!” It doesn’t matter if she has had a good game or a bad game (softball).
    We will take SOME of the credit for her success; getting her to practice and games, financial responsibilities for travel ball and such. But the rest is all her; the love of the game, her commitment, the desire to learn and be coached.
    She has created her own identity on and off the field.

  3. Not to mention the newly lucrative physical therapy for kids still in single digit ages. I am repeatedly shocked that parents push their kids to train to stress injury or to train to any Injury. That is a child and that really is just a sport.

  4. Scott, this article is spot on! I love when you write about this topic. Trainers, two a days, privates, bribery, travel teams, injuries, physical therapy, operations, injuries, more physical therapy, and $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$! I agree, “Parents, remove yourselves from the equation!”

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