One of the most common questions I receive from sports parents is to help them understand if they are being overbearing with their sport goals for their kid, including the amount of time they expect their child to devote to his or her sports training. Put another way, these parents want to know when to push, relax, or allow their child to quit sports altogether? While the answer to this question is unique to each family, there is the idea of learned helplessness that parents may want to understand as they examine their situation.
Understanding learned helplessness as it applies to sports parenting
The theory of learned helplessness suggests that a person, by route of repeated aversive stimuli beyond their control, can over time become “helpless” to their situation and consequently become powerless. When we strip the psychobabble away, an easier way to interpret the definition might be to think about it in these terms: When a kid needs a break from sports but learns over time that mom and dad have no interest in having that conversation, the child may withdraw from even trying to speak up about their distress. Using the learned helplessness model, why would a kid voice his or her concerns when it becomes clear that nobody is listening?
Unfortunately for overzealous sports parents, when the requests to take a break from their child subside, the message can be interpreted as “everything is good,” when in fact the child has simply hit a place where it simply doesn’t matter anymore to speak up. These missed messages can lead to much bigger problems for kids, including susceptibility to depression, anxiety, and poor stress coping.
How to avoid learned helplessness in youth sports
Remember, just because your child stops asking for a sports break doesn’t mean everything is going well. Now that you know about learned helplessness, the following tips can help you avoid this hurdle and instead create a healthy and productive youth sport experience:
- Understand the seriousness of listening to your child. Kids see how much time, energy, and money parents put toward their youth sport experience, and many fear speaking up and disappointing their parents as a result. When kids feel like they have no say in their own sports career, they often experience elevated levels of stress that they aren’t always equipped to handle. Feeling “helpless” can leave people vulnerable to drugs, alcohol, and various reckless behaviors as a means of coping with their high levels of stress.
- Ask your child open-ended questions – AND LISTEN! The best way to get a feel for how your child is experiencing youth sports is to ask him or her directly – and then listen to the answers provided. Ask open-ended questions like “how do you feel about your experiences in sports?” and then provide a warm and accepting climate, regardless of how he or she responds. Thank your child for being honest, and remind him or her that you are not disappointed as their health and well-being is far more important than any life activity — including sports.
- Take appropriate action. When your child provides feedback that suggests a break is necessary, consider doing just that! Sports burnout is very real, but it can be avoided when healthy communication is in place between parents and their kids, and kids are accepted regardless of their experiences in sports.
It’s well established in the psychology literature that when people feel as though their actions don’t matter, they often resort to quitting. For kids involved in sports, this kind of learned helplessness happens when they feel their parents simply don’t listen to them — so why even try to talk? Pay attention to your kids, listen to them, and create an environment of unconditional love and support so that you and your kids can have a positive, fun, and safe youth sport experience.