For most sport parents, the primary goals for the youth sport experience include creating an environment for their kids to have fun, learn sport skills, develop new friendships, and grow holistically through athletic involvement. When sport opportunities for kids are set up in healthy ways, kids benefit by learning skills they can transfer to other areas of their life (also known as athletic transferable skills), improve physical fitness, and develop emotional intelligence by learning how to work through challenging sport situations. Unfortunately, some sport parents fall short of keeping these objectives in focus, and instead use their child in an attempt to work through their own unmet sport dreams. In these instances, parents vicariously live through their child and push their child to work harder and reach higher levels of sport success than they did themselves. Sadly, when youth sport expectations are set up in this fashion the sport experience becomes less than optimal, and in worst-case scenarios can even contribute to emotional wounds that remain present for years to come.
Understanding parents living through their children
Believe it or not, it’s actually quite normal to sometimes get caught up hoping to see your child do better than you did in school, sports, art, music, or just about anything else you did as a child. The problem occurs when we stop encouraging them to do their best, and begin to expect them to pick up where our talents left off years ago. There is a fine line between healthy encouragement and unhealthy pushing when it comes to parenting — encouragement is supportive, while being pushy disregards your child’s interests and instead demands that he or she continue to drive toward success, regardless the cost.
Fortunately, there are some questions and tips below to help you work through any concerns you might have around pushing too hard and potentially vicariously living through your children with your unmet sport dreams:
- Examine your own unfinished business. Since your playing days ended have you regularly thought about “what could have been?” Parents who have unmet sport goals tend to ruminate about how things could have gone, and often think and talk to others about it. If you see your son or daughter as an extension of your sports career, you might be vulnerable to living through your child’s sport experience.
- Are you vulnerable because of your own unexpected exit from sports? If your athletic career ended suddenly because of a career-ending injury or an academic dismissal, you may find yourself viewing your own sports career as incomplete, leaving you vulnerable to living through your child’s sport experience.
- Set fair and reasonable expectations congruent to your child’s interests and abilities. When it comes to your child’s sport experience, it should be just that — your child’s experience! Take note of what sports your son/daughter enjoys, even if that is different from your interests. Also, look for your child’s unique abilities and help line those qualities up with potential sports that may be a good fit (again, these sports may be different than the sports you played).
- Ask your child lots of questions, and LISTEN. One of the easiest ways to learn if you are pushing your child too hard is to create a warm and unconditionally accepting environment, ask questions without negative recourse, and listen closely to what your child says without consequence. In fact, if you have even the slightest worry that your child’s sport experience is really an extension of yours, have these conversations on a regular basis and allow your child to speak freely about his/her experience.
- Consider professional assistance. If you are an adult and still hung up on your previous unmet sport goals, you may want to consider speaking to a professional to help you remedy your issues. If you think your unfinished sport goals have caused distress for your child, you may want to consider professional support for your son/daughter, or possibly the family as a whole if the issue has become a sticking point in your home.
Letting go of unmet dreams can be tough, and some people never overcome the fact that they came up short and can’t ever go back. At the same time, when kids are exposed to parents who only see them as a second chance to make it in sports, the potential outcomes of this paradigm can be devastating for kids. A better approach is to view your child as a unique person capable of discovering his or her own interests and future goals — which may or may not be the same as yours — and then support your child’s efforts as through unconditional love and support.