There are a number of stories about parents who obsessed over developing their kids into a future elite athletes. Some of the more famous dads known for uber-sports parenting include Earl Woods (Tiger), Emmanuel Agassi (Andre), and Marv Marinovich (Todd), but are these isolated and extreme examples, or instead proof that dedicated parenting really can lead to future professional athletes? While all three of these dads can take credit for playing important roles in the end result, should they are assume responsibility for the negative issues, problems, and stress their kids have reported during their respective paths to professional sports? When studying these families, two big questions quickly emerge: First, are there proven ways to create a future star athlete, and if so, can it be done in a way that doesn’t lead to other developmental problems?
When it comes to child development, some experts believe that nature (genetics) play a much smaller role than nurture (socialization). Famous behavioral psychologist John Watson once said that with the proper conditions he could nurture and develop a child into becoming just about anything as an adult (i.e. teacher, musician, attorney, etc.). Watson argued that through reinforcement and repeated exposure you can teach a human being to be good at just about anything, and we can assume he would have included sports on his list if he were alive today. While Watson’s development philosophies might hold up on some measures, what he didn’t discuss were the negative consequences that potentially increase as you create a paradigm around a child that essentially forces him or her to excel in a specific life skill. What would Watson, or other behavioral psychologists today, have to say if by “creating” a future star athlete the child experienced unnecessary anxiety, depression, and other psychological issues because of the dedication needed to create an elite athlete?
Factors influencing athletic development
Lets assume for a moment that parenting your child to develop into an elite athlete came with few, if any, negative consequences. Even without any concerns to worry about, you still need to know exactly what variables are the most influential toward athletic development, and the degree in which you can adequately expose and train your child using those considerations. A few of the more important factors include:
- Interest and motivation. How interested is your child in becoming an elite athlete? Is he or she self-motivated (intrinsic motivation), or instead only “motivated” to please you (extrinsic motivation). Generally speaking, people who are the best at what they do have a high degree of intrinsic motivation, and this type of motivation may not be something you can simply create through repeated exposure to a stimuli (like sports).
- Natural talent. While this comment will likely make behaviorists cringe, there really are individual differences that play into the likelihood for future success. For example, if your child is unusually tall and naturally coordinated, he or she will have very distinct advantages in sports like basketball and volleyball. The reality is that all the coaching, support, and encouragement you provide won’t make your child 7 feet tall.
- Coaching. Even when you have a child with natural physical advantages and high intrinsic motivation for future sport success, coaching will still play a big role in athletic skill acquisition and mastery. What this means is that even if you are a big believer in behaviorism, you still need to have outstanding coaches in order for the best outcomes to occur.
- Burnout. When we push kids to excel in a particular task (i.e. sports), and limit all other activities and interests outside of that task we run a much greater likelihood that the kid will eventually become burned out at some point. When kids experience burnout, they lose focus, motivation, and resiliency — all instrumental qualities that impact the ways in which kids develop in sports.
- Injury. No matter how interested your child is in excelling in a sport, he or she can never control for the chances of injuries occurring. Unlike other life endeavors (i.e. earning a college degree, mastering a musical instrument, or earning a job promotion) sport success is unique in that it relies on physical health and being free from injuries. The reality, as sad as it might sound, is that even the most motivated and talented athletes are only one play away from a potential career-ending injury.
Can you create a future star athlete? While there are a few isolated examples of families that have successfully employed such a strategy, there are countless more families that have not witnessed a high degree of sport success, but instead dealt with frustration, anger, anxiety, depression, injuries, burnout, and substance abuse instead. In fact, even with the families who appear to have been successful raising a champion, there are many very candid stories from the kids who grew into athletic stars talking about how miserable their upbringing was because of the sport intensity they experienced. Forcing your child’s development and future choices are potentially dangerous ways to parent, and likely won’t lead to desired end-goal without a lot of big potential problems.