Dr. Jennifer Naparstek Klein: Intersection of Sports and Child Psychology

Dr. Jennifer Naparstek Klein: Intersection of Sports and Child Psychology

By Jennifer Naparstek Klein, PsyD, The Counseling Center

Oct. 4, 2017:  As parents, we are wired with protective instincts embedded deep within our brains and dating way back to prehistory. This is not just true of humans, it is a feature of the animal kingdom, to protect their young. When we perceive danger or potential harm aimed at our children, we have an urge to fight and to protect.

So, then, how does this play out on an athletic field? Well, any of us who have watched parents watching their own children participate in sports know that our animal emotions run high. Parents are usually some mixture of anxious, elated, and furious, depending on the events on the field, the court, the pool, the gymnastics equipment, and so on.

If you have not already seen the video of 2012 Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman’s parents in the stands watching their daughter perform her floor routine, stop reading and Google it now. The YouTube video is actually called, “Crazy Olympic Parents.”

As one watches these squirming, anxious parents, perhaps slightly too identified with their child, one can relate to them. If you have had a child compete in sports, you have likely had those feelings–the powerful desire for them to, well, win. Personally, I have had one child dive competitively and one child fence competitively, and both have been an emotional roller coaster. I have, admittedly as a psychologist, felt enraged, proud, disappointed, frustrated, and jealous, and it has not always been easy to maintain a cool exterior.

Full disclosure: when I have internally felt anger, it has been toward my own children, whom I love dearly, and I have occasionally felt angry at the coaches and most certainly at the judges and referees–the people scoring and assessing my children. The coaches also have, over the years, evidenced a range of emotions and behaviors toward my children, from proud–hugging them, smiling, laughing at their successes–to scolding, angry, sometimes even saying things I would rather they did not, to my children.

The third critical player in this game of emotions is the child athlete. It hurts to the core to see one’s child crushed by a loss or a failure–the pain can be profound, especially in the moment. It starts feeling better on the ride home and better still by practice the next day. And then, when your child succeeds, it is transcendent to see your child prevail after long struggles and after hours, days, and years of commitment to a sport. It is a wild ride. So, buckle your five-point harness as we discuss the parent’s perspective on their children in sports.

Parent’s Perspective:  Let us begin by asking what gets triggered when parents witness their child athlete scolded or reprimanded by a coach? It goes back to those deeply embedded animal protective instincts. We are meant to keep our offspring from harm, and for humans, that includes both physical and emotional harm. Parental antennae go up when parents witness or hear about second-hand an interaction in which the child receives negative feedback from an adult. The factors that likely guide parental responses are whether that individual is permitted by the parents to have authority over the child and the level of appropriateness or aggression within the reprimand. In other words, by choosing coaches, teams, schools, and nannies, parents implicitly authorize those individuals to impart discipline and knowledge to their children. However, they should still make assessments about the potential harm inflicted upon their child.

Parents will vary in the levels of protest they issue toward authority figures, and some of these differences are cultural. Some parents have an “it takes a village” approach to parenting, and so they appreciate the input, even occasionally harsh input, to assist in rearing their children. Other parents dislike the interference and take offense when their children are criticized harshly. American parents, more than those in some other cultures, tend toward the latter style, although this is not always true by a long shot. This is merely a difference in parenting style, and it can be difficult to say which style is best, but, ultimately, some forms of harm are universal and therefore should not be ignored.

In certain circumstances, when an authority figure carries too much clout or is given too much leeway by the institution within which the activity is housed, supervision decreases and abuses may occur. Therefore, it is essential, in the case of minors, that parents attend to these trusted relationships and hear their children if they complain of maltreatment.

On the other hand, one must also impart the authority figure with trust. In the case of sports, and in the case of a successful coach, the parent hands some amount of power over to the coach to “work their magic.”

Back to the examples of my own children. I do not know how to dive and I do not know how to fence. Therefore, I do not know what special ingredients go into creating a successful diver or a successful fencer, and I assume that the coach does know the formula. Therefore, I loosen the reins, to some extent, and allow him to build within my child a desire to succeed and also to please the coach. The coach creates that dynamic by showing happiness sometimes, and disappointment at other times, with the child athlete. Some coaches keep it positive at all times, and some develop different dynamics with their teams and athletes, letting their players know what went wrong–and sometimes in what may be a caustic way, such as yelling.

Let us now explore the idea of appropriateness and aggression within negative feedback. Herein lies the nuance. When coaches give negative feedback, it is vital to assess whether it stays within the appropriate realm or becomes too aggressive and therefore potentially damaging. The more elevated the level of performance, the higher the stakes, and sometimes the more aggressive the coaching. Bela and Martha Karolyi are certainly a more extreme example, with former gymnasts having reported physical abuses such as slapping, pinching, food restriction, and water restriction, among other behaviors. This is a good example of parents likely relinquishing all control for the sake of the child’s athletic success. One must ask, is the success worth the abuses?

As a psychologist, I must emphatically say no. From a psychological standpoint, there must be a red line drawn. Hateful or profane criticism, and most certainly physical or sexual abuses or physically harmful strategies that could result in injury, nutritional issues, growth issues, eating disorders, or the use of performance-enhancement medications, are considered to be over the red line.

What about more subtle criticisms, such as “you don’t have the drive” or “you are the weak link on the team”? To some extent, the parent must assess individually what makes sense. The child is often like a barometer, evidencing levels of pressure and showing signs of distress. Some children are, as I like to call it, more “spongy” and therefore absorbent of harsh criticism and hurt by it, and some are more “Teflon-y” and criticisms slide off of them more easily. Open lines of communication between parent and child are recommended to assess emotional well-being. And parents should keep their eyes open–the desire for their child to win must not obscure the view.

Emotional Experience of Parent:  Let us now take a closer look at the emotional experience of the parent. As we alluded to with the Raismans, acting as parent spectator is a challenge–eliciting at times joy, and at other times anger and sorrow. What seems very clear across types of sport is that the parents’ emotions should be kept off the field, off the court, and away from the child athlete. Easier said than done, of course. Nevertheless, it is essential–not an option. We as parents are not perfect, so we may falter on this front, but calm should be the goal. Coaches universally want parents out of the emotional mix. Often rules are set keeping parents off of fields, away from poolside, up in the bleachers or stands, but some parents have very loud voices and very strong emotions! Children will often glance to the stands to seek their parents’ reactions, either approval or disapproval, and to share the emotions of the moment.

As hard as it may be, it is always best for the parent to stay cool, positive, and supportive. Child athletes must find their own way through the sport, their own way to deal with disappointment. Elation is easy to share, and all parents should clap for their children–there is certainly no damage in that. However, modeling good sportsmanship is also strongly advisable. In fact, clapping and cheering for other people’s children is good modeling for one’s own children, to demonstrate perspective and humility and an appreciation for the sport. Participation in sports is not always a gateway to the Olympics or professional or even college-level sports, but it is definitely a gateway to understanding fair play, team mentality, personal fortitude, decorum, and a myriad of other character traits. It is also a template to learn about winning and losing and how to do both well. Parents should model this for their children from the stands and in the car ride home.

Parents certainly play an active role in helping children to understand certain psychological dynamics that play out through participation in sports. In the therapy room, it is remarkable how often the concept of “being benched,” or perhaps better termed, “not starting,” is raised by child athletes.

It is important in helping one’s child cope with this sometimes painful experience to consider the age and performance level of the child and the goals of the league or team. For younger children, where the level of seriousness is low, coaches and parents should endeavor to give every child a chance to participate. The goal of such teams ideally is to give children a very positive experience of athletic participation, team membership, and personal accomplishment, or personal improvement. With younger athletes, it seems acceptable for parents to advocate for the children–to speak to the coach, in a polite and civil manner, to ask for balance regarding levels of participation among team players. Often the coaches are parent volunteers and are not trained as educators. Therefore, some amount of polite advocacy is permissible if the coach or coaches do not seem to allow for playtime for all participants.

This concept changes drastically for early and late teens. Once there are “try-outs” for teams, the goals, and therefore the concept of fairness, change. Once a coach is charged with creating a successful team, he or she must have the discretion to select who “starts” and who plays. For the child athlete who feels sidelined, it is advisable to explain that coaches need depth of talent on teams, and since the child was selected, it can be assumed that the coach appreciates his or her talent but needs to make choices. In an ideal world, this “benched” child’s turn will arise in any given season. Also in an ideal world, the coach would preemptively address the possibility for such disappointments with the team and describe to the players how they should interpret such situations.

However, coaches are not psychologists and do not always instinctively help players toward better understanding. They are experts in the sport and are oriented toward winning, and, hopefully, the athletes will see it this way. As a parent, advocating with a coach for a child or teen athlete is less encouraged in these circumstances. Instead, focusing with the child on personal skills development and team success is the better approach. If the child is truly unhappy, the best approach is self-advocacy with a coach. This is a learning opportunity for the child or teen to speak up, to voice one’s own perspective and wishes. The desired outcome may not come to fruition, but, nevertheless, a lesson is learned by speaking for oneself.

If the primary goal of the child athlete is participation, exercise, and social interaction, less geared toward success, it may be wise to consider what teams are best. For example, for some, it is better psychologically to feel like a bigger fish in a small pond so that participation and success for that child are the dominant experiences. However, for those who are serious about their sport, aiming high, then participating on the most competitive teams possible is likely the right choice. Team choice is something parents and children engage in together, and this deliberation can often result in the best outcome.

Guidance from coaches on this matter is also constructive, especially toward the end of a season, when athletes are making choices about the following season. Coaches, of course, want to be successful and want depth of talent, but they likely do not want disgruntled or unhappy team members. A final point on this idea of team selection is that children mature throughout childhood, so if a child struggles with disappointment when younger, it is entirely possible that the child will better handle the stresses of competition when older.

Parents identify with their children’s successes and failures; this is a simple truth. For some, that identification runs quite deep and is difficult to suppress. Hopefully, some of the above ideas will help parents to manage their varied feelings as they act as spectators for their children, not only in the world of sports.

In all things, as children mature, it is ideal to develop a “spectator mentality,” watching in amazement as they grow into their own versions of champions. This allows the child to be his or her own agent in the world and to feel his or her own disappointments and accomplishments.

Pictured here:  Jennifer Naparstek Klein, PsyD.