Parents and the Development of Elite Talent
- Many children who become experts have already had hundreds of hours of deliberate play and practice before the age of eight. It seems like parents have a tremendous influence on the child’s social and sport development experiences. The roles, beliefs, values, skills, and behavior of the family create a psychosocial context in which the child develops, greatly influencing the outcome.
- In the early or so-called sampling years, parents introduce the child to various activities, with the emphasis on play and fun. At this stage, parents value the activity and communicate this to the child. Looking at interviews with world-class performers in sport, music, art, math, and science, researchers found that these parents tried to ensure higher-quality coaching and supported the coach in creating a learning climate with process-oriented training and an absence of competitive pressure on the child. Parents believe their child may have a gift and begin to invest in it.
- Competence is an essential ingredient in motivation, so acknowledging improvement and achievement after hard work is critical in a young athlete’s development. Parents can negatively affect motivation by getting angry or using rewards to try to control behavior. Parents can also hurt growth by only providing rewards based on results; instead, reward behaviors they can execute to give them the best shot at winning.
- The transition period in the middle years, from ages 12 or 13 to about 15, is characterized by a shift to greater sport specialization and higher levels of training and competition—up to about 12 to 19 hours per week over 75 percent of the year.
- Parents increase their support, accept, and adjust to the increasingly challenging sports environment's greater demands. The teen's investment and pressure increases, and so does the parents'. The parents make sacrifices, give up other social opportunities, provide transportation, and provide financial support while continuing to be a good role model under more challenging situations.
- This is when kids start to become more autonomous in their training and dance progression. One thing to remember is that you aren't the coach. Your child's performance is not your responsibility. The developing athlete relies more on feedback from perceived experts, such as coaches and dance friends. Parents are not seen as the best source for competence-based information or feedback anymore.
- Parents model the role of close, proactive guardians within the support team. As part of this, parents may shift family activities to center on the talented athlete’s training and competition schedule, affecting siblings. This family focus can be central to an athlete’s success.
- School is still valued at this point, encouraging balance within sport achievement. Older siblings will often serve as role models for work ethic at this stage, in either direction.
- The intensity of demands increases significantly at this stage. Know what you’re getting into. Interviews with tennis and soccer parents at this stage identified a few specific challenges: conflicts between their role in tennis support and their real jobs, lack of family and partner time, organizational and administrative roles, and the financial impact.
- Then there's the stress of watching competitions, dealing with the emotions of the results, and interacting with the other dance parents. There are also challenges you have to face and overcome trying to ensure your child's best interest while everyone else is doing the same for their kids, often creating competition and conflict between parents. During this stage, athletes do best when supported by parents who show more directive behavior with situational advice and emotional support.
- Unfortunately, it seems that negative behaviors are also more prominent during this stage. Too much pressure, too much involvement, poor emotional reactions to outcomes, and embarrassing behaviors show up here. And dancers could experience too much dance talk, a restricted social life, and parental approval tied to results.
- You can ask kids at a young age about what they want, what works, what makes them feel supported, and what makes them feel bad, and they'll tell you. Parents and kids should ask each other what they want and listen to the responses. Your child- athlete is the expert on what he or she needs—partner with them to find the best way to support them.
- The dancers continue to grow, and in the later years of mastery and investment, ages 15 through 18, the dancer is probably training 19 to 22 hours per week. He or she is moving from elite junior to elite amateur category and working toward professional status. As the athlete grows and continues to become more independent, the parent role is mostly emotional support.
- Home becomes a refuge from the ups and downs of athletic life. Parents become unconditional providers of social support, a valuable but often under-appreciated role. But parents are the only ones who can do this because everyone else has some investment in the child’s performance. The disappointments and setbacks can be more emotionally intense, requiring even more parental emotional support.
- In some cases, tangible support can be increased, too. Sacrifices to ensure optimal training conditions may be greater, such as travel for elite coaching or relocating the family. Parents have to navigate the strained relationships with siblings who may be jealous of the achievements and differential behavior toward the elite athlete.
Best Sport Parenting Practices
For children at any age and at any level, the best sport parenting practices consist of three specifically defined behaviors. These roles are unique to parents, and while they may not be as fun or exciting as sideline coaching and feeling like you're truly part of the team, they are roles that only you as a sports parent can play. And they are essential.
- Parents are providers of a young athlete’s sports experience.
In the early years, this translates to introducing kids to various sports, supporting them financially and logistically, and giving them informational support in training and competition. Often, this translates to the more challenging role as the provider of emotional support, admiration, and reinforcement of positive behaviors.
- Parents serve as interpreters of their child’s sports experience.
What you believe in as a parent—the priorities you set and what you value—gets transmitted to your kids. If you think their talent is a natural gift or product of hard work, this will influence their motivation, how they respond to adversity, and what they think about themselves. Parental values regarding competitive sports benefits and the necessary psychological characteristics for improving can fast-track a young athlete's development and positive coping responses. Negative beliefs, doubts, and criticisms do the opposite.
- Parents are role models.
- Kids are always watching and listening. They see how you talk about coaches and how you respond to your mistakes as well as theirs. Be what you want them to be, in and out of the sport. Demonstrate work ethic by training for your own road race, setting, and committing to training goals. Be calm when watching sports, and respect the judges and coaches. Be honest in all things. Model sportsmanship and don't cheer when other dancers don't dance well; compliment good dancers always. Let kids solve adversity themselves; ask their opinion of challenging situations to develop their sense of competence and independence.
Questions to Consider
- In what ways do the natural instincts of parents hurt their child-athletes?
- What performance skills discussed in this course would help sport parents embrace their unique role and leave coaches to coach without interference?
- Eddie, O’Connor, Ph.D.
- The Psychology of Performance, How to be Your Best in Life