One of the more surprising things I have learned working with athletes throughout my career is something every sports parent should know — specifically, not every athletically talented kid is actually motivated to maximize his or her athletic talents. As parents, we often fall trap to assuming that if our kids are good at something, then they must love doing the activity. Parents who enjoy sports are especially vulnerable to this way of thinking when they see their child outperforming the competition, and then immediately assume he/she must want to eventually play at the next level. What’s lost in this way of thinking, however, is that just because a kid is good at something, it doesn’t mean that he or she likes doing it.
Your child’s motivations may not match yours
While it can be tempting for parents to make the automatic assumption that if their child is good at something, he must also love doing that activity, it is important to refrain from this way of thinking. While it is true that for some people their personal talents and interests/motivations are a exact overlay of one another, there are countless more people who are good at things they don’t necessarily like doing. For example, your daughter might be a terrific painter, but also not find much interest in dedicating time to sit down and paint. Similarly, some kids are really good at sports, but their talents come naturally – not because they love the sport enough to practice to get better.
With youth sports, it is not uncommon for parents to “buy the hype” about how athletically talented their kid is from listening to coaches and other parents talk, and then quickly increase their motivation for securing future athletic opportunities to bump up the chances for an eventual college scholarship. Their kids, consequently, tend to go with the flow and continue to compete, but this is also the time in which we see a clear divide begin to develop — mom and dad become super-motivated about their kid’s sport success, while the kid becomes indifferent, or even burned out because he/she simply isn’t that interested to play sports.
Talents, interests, & motivations should be examined independent of one another
Your child might display sport talents, but not have any interest or motivation to play sports. Similarly, some kids really love to play sports, but aren’t very good. The point is that kids, like adults, often have talents that don’t necessarily match up with interests and motivations, prompting us to exercise caution when we notice that our child seems to play sports better than most kids. The big point here, and one that cannot be understated, is that it is really important that we refrain from what seems like it should be true — if someone is good at something, they must love doing it.
When kids are disinterested in doing something, they often give less effort. When this occurs in sports, it can frustrate parents to the point where they become angry with their child. The end result is a broken relationship, caused almost exclusively because of a parent oversight in assuming their talented athletic child loves to play sports.
Steer clear of unnecessary stress and anxiety
When parents falsely assume their child’s athletic talents are a reflection of what their child loves doing, it positions the kid to potentially (and unnecessarily) experience high levels of stress and anxiety. For example, lets say your child is a great soccer player, but is indifferent about playing soccer. Assuming the parent misses this important discrepancy, it’s very likely the parent will continue to sign the child up for soccer leagues, and possibly dispense resources toward travel leagues, individual coaching, and soccer showcase camps. Most kids in this situation simply go along with what their parents say, and in this example that means an enormous amount of time and energy toward doing something the child simply doesn’t want to do. An additional, often unseen issue that accompanies this paradigm is that while the child is consumed by soccer, he or she isn’t doing the things in life that they truly find enjoyable.
When kids are pushed into playing sports they don’t enjoy, many deal with internal struggles that lead to stress and anxiety. How do I tell my parents I don’t want to play? Will my parents be disappointed? And what about all the money mom and dad are putting into my soccer career? And how do I find time to do the things I really enjoy doing when it seems like my schedule is completely full with soccer? If these questions linger and lead to high levels of anxiety, the child is then left exposed to potentially dangerous means of coping, including drugs and alcohol usage, reckless behaviors, and even self-harm.
Pay close attention to your child’s interests, regardless of talent. Ask questions, and listen closely to what he or she says when posed with questions designed to gauge interest. Create a warm, friendly environment when listening, and reassure your child that there is no wrong answer when being asked about how he or she feels. This seemingly simple process can lead to a host of positive outcomes, including better usages of time, less guilt and anxiety, and inevitably a stronger parent-child relationship.