Parents of Athletes: Pushing Through Fear and Expectations or Backing Off?

Posted on: February 19th, 2013 by Laura No Comments

IMG_4482My daughter, Ava performed in her first competition this weekend at Best Gymnastics. You should have seen me, I was so nervous for her, but also walking around so proud of all the hard work Ava has put in for the last several months. We went through all the steps.. a good night sleep, great breakfast, getting the perfect gymnastic “bun”, putting on her new leotard… you know the drill. I could tell she was extremely nervous.

Ava has struggled with getting her right leg splits. She asked me if she would be kicked out of the competition if she couldn’t get her split. I explained to her that it was o.k., that she would get it in time. But she was so fearful that the judges and her peers would make fun of her and that she couldn’t compete.

So what did we do? We stretched for 30 minutes… HARD! She cried and said she couldn’t do it so I said, it’s o.k. we have lots of years to get this. She came back to me 10 minutes later and said, “Mom, let’s do this!” And guess what, she got her right leg split one hour before her competition! I couldn’t have been more proud of my little girl, having the will to overcome the pain and conquer her fear.

Which brings me to this article written by Dr. Andrew Jacobs on Fear and Expectations. I want to make sure I’m not pushing Ava too hard, but I also want to be there when she is ready to push forward. It’s a fine line. I hope this article helps and remember, you can read more from Dr. Jacobs on his blog!


How often as a parent or coach have you wondered, “Am I putting too much pressure on my child or athlete?” Do you as an adult feel that sometimes you are making too many demands on your athlete to do everything correctly? What happens when this young athlete tells you they don’t want to do it anymore? They show it emotionally and in their actions that they are not interested in their sport anymore. What do you do when they try as hard as they can to please you as a coach or parent, but they can’t? How do you react to that? Are you critical and condescending or supportive and understanding?

Recently, I have had several conversations with a variety of amateur and professional athletes about their relationships with their parents. A few of the professional athletes, who have become very successful, still are struggling with the desire to please their parents, (specifically their fathers). Several of the high school athletes are suffering from different forms of anxiety disorders because in part of an internal fear that they cannot please their dads with their athletic performance. One high school basketball player said that his dad is always at his practices and is quick to tell him each day what he had been doing wrong and what he needed to do to correct it, or he would not get a college scholarship. This young man is only a freshman.

Most kids begin sports around age 6 or 7 by joining a soccer, football, baseball, or softball team, or by beginning tennis, gymnastics or swimming lessons. No matter what the sport, usually it is because their parent wants them to join a team or get involved in an activity. That is great from a health and a social perspective. Kids will probably have fun initially and enjoy being part of an activity. But, eventually, by around age 12 or 13, kids will usually either want to keep playing and get better with a dream of playing in high school or beyond, or they will lose interest and want to quit. Obviously as a parent, this can be a difficult time. Do you support them if they want to stop playing, or do you push them to stay involved and keep playing? I have found that this is an age where either a child has genuinely lost interest and wants to do something else, or they want to quit because of the pressure they feel is coming from their parents. I believe the best way to handle this is to have a discussion with your child after their season has ended and find out the reasons they want to quit. Is it because they are no longer having fun, don’t feel they are as good as their teammates, or do they feel too much pressure from you as a parent? They will probably share the first two points, but will usually be reluctant to mention the pressure they may feel from you, because they will not want to let you down. This is where you need to put on your psychologist hat and ask yourself they question, “How much pressure am I putting on them to participate and continue?” If you feel you are putting too much pressure on them, you need to back off and tell them you want what is best for them, not for you. Even if you have the best intentions, putting too much pressure on them to play will more than likely make them want to quit even more, and probably not give them a chance of ever wanting to play again.

Most of the professional athletes I have consulted with over the years who have had this problem, have told me that they have played for many years out of fear of letting their parents down. Even though all of them have told me that their part of their success came from their parents pushing them, most have shared with me that they wished they could have been able to talk with their parents about their feelings about wanting to take some time off once in a while and be able to have taken a break. None of them have shared with me they thought this would have deterred their progress.

So if you are a coach or a parent who may be pushing your athlete, sometimes a little bit too hard, ask yourself the question, “How does this young athlete feel about playing and about how hard I am motivating them?” Ask yourself if you should back off a little and let them have a little more fun and figure out if they are playing for you or for themselves.

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