Tracy Chutorian Semler of RAISING FAME SPORTS EDITION spoke with Dr. Thelma Horn, a leading expert on sport psychology at Miami University of Oxford Ohio, and editor of four editions of the widely respected textbook “Advances in Sport and Exercise Psychology.” A developmental psychologist with extensive knowledge on the topic of parenting athletes, Dr. Horn is also the mother of two college athletes, one of whom played NCAA D1 volleyball, and the other NCAA D3 basketball. Here is Dr. Horn’s expert advice on parenting athletes:
RF: What are the most important positive things parents can do to support a budding young athlete?
DR. HORN: The most important big picture recommendation is to remember that your role is to support your child athlete—and with young children, say 8, 9 or 10 years of age, that means you have to be the interpreter of your child’s experience. For example, if a coach yells at a young child athlete, the child doesn’t know how to process that feedback. It’s your job as a parent to explain what that yelling means—for example, that the coach is trying to help you to get better, or to correct a mistake in the moment. Obviously you should not allow a coach to be abusive, but if a coach shouts occasional corrections, you should interpret them for the benefit of young children. The second critical thing is for parents to keep what we call a “malleable” theory of ability – and stay away from a “fixed” theory of ability. A fixed theory of ability says that a child is born to be a great athlete—or not. That they inherit athletic talent — or they don’t. This is simply NOT TRUE. With a malleable theory of ability, you understand that ability is incremental. Young athletes get better over time through hard work and natural physical development. It’s extremely important to remember this as your child grows up and takes part in sports. The fact is, children can acquire the skills to become not only average but even talented athletes if given the right opportunities. We see it all the time.
RF: Please give an example of the “malleable” theory in action.
DR. HORN: Suppose your child wins an MVP award. Don’t say “congratulations, you’re so talented!” Instead, focus on the effort behind it. Say: “congratulations, you worked so hard for that!” or “look where all of that practice got you!” Similarly, if your child is cut from a team, don’t say: “oh well, it’s probably not your thing.” Say: “you can try again next year. Practice between now and then, and let’s see if you make it next time.” The emphasis should always be on the fact that they can get better through effort. Sure, not everyone is born to be 7 feet tall or super-fast, but we can maximize what we have, and it’s important to adopt the attitude that everyone can improve with practice. That’s the message to share with children of all ages.
RF: What are the biggest mistakes you see parents making with child athletes?
DR. HORN: Being overly controlling. Telling kids they have to run x miles or do this many pushups. Parents should be facilitators, they should make opportunities possible for their kids, but they should not push the kid to practice or to play. Kids need to feel control over their lives in order to feel motivated. It’s important to demonstrate to young kids the fun of exercise, including spending time outdoors. Research shows that kids are spending much less time outside than they used to. You want your kids to develop competence in outdoor play such as running and jumping rope, because when they feel competent, they will want more active play time, rather than more video game time. You don’t want to control your child’s athletic experience. Give them as much autonomy as possible.
RF: How can parents encourage kids who show special athletic ability?
DR. HORN: In the beginning, kids generally participate in sports because it’s fun. They like to be with their friends, they like the pre-or post-game meal, the snack at halftime. But to stay in sports and move up, there’s a point where they have to become more motivationally oriented, and see that they’re there not just for fun but to achieve, to develop talent, to see how good they can get. And that requires some sacrifice, some conditioning. And parents have to facilitate that. Parents can say: “if you’re going to play at this select level you have to work hard, but in the long run, working hard and getting better will be fun in itself.” But that doesn’t mean parents should control what the kid does to get to, or stay at, that level. That needs to come from the kid. We see that for the athletes who make it — the NCAA D1 athletes and the ones who go pro — it’s generally THEIR choice to participate, not just because it’s fun but because they come to enjoy seeing how much better they can get. But parents have to be careful, because lots of kids who are very talented don’t make it because they give up and don’t enjoy it anymore. It’s very developmental — kids change a lot over time.
RF: What have you learned about athletic development in kids that parents don’t always understand?
DR. HORN: We see that kids who mature early, kids who grow tall or fast earlier compared to their peers and win all the awards and are very successful when they’re young, may fall back and do poorly when the other kids catch up with them in physical growth. Here’s where parents make a mistake: since their kid is tall early, for example, they have the kid specialize in a sport that favors height, like basketball. When the other kids catch up or surpass their kid in height, and that kid has not had the benefit of experience in other sports such as soccer or baseball, that kid can fall out of athletics entirely, because he or she now has trouble competing in basketball, and has failed to develop the fundamental skills for other sports. The kid then ends up not competitive in ANY sport.
RF: Is the opposite also true? Do small kids get mismanaged in sports by parents and coaches?
DR. HORN: Absolutely. Don’t rule out a kid because he or she is small. We see kids grow a foot between freshman and senior year of high school. Be careful concluding that a kid has potential — or not — based on their size. We see coaches at every level making this mistake. For instance, in volleyball, they don’t give shorter kids a chance to play at the net. They put them in the back row. And then they grow half a foot one summer, but they don’t have the skillset to play at the net. Parents have to advocate for their children to get opportunities in multiple positions despite their size or body type. Short and tall kids should both learn to rebound. Short and tall kids should both learn to dribble. Short and tall kids should both get time playing at the net and in the back row in volleyball. And so on.
RF: What’s the latest on sport specialization for kids?
DR. HORN: It’s not a good idea. And I’m not just talking about the repetitive use injuries that we hear a lot about these days. We hear from college coaches that their players who specialized in one sport in high school tend to be more limited than those who played multiple sports. For example, volleyball players who also played soccer in high school tend to have better agility and footwork than their sport-specialized peers. And by the way, the academic literature shows that many D1 athletes played multiple sports before they got to college. Many played multiple sports all the way through high school. The same goes for many NBA players. It makes sense when you think about it. If you play just volleyball, for example, you don’t get the great leg movement you get from soccer. If you only play baseball or softball you might get a great arm or batting ability but your running might not be as strong as it could be. In the long run you may be better at your chosen sport if you play multiple sports before you specialize. It is recommended that children play multiple sports at least until age 16. Parents need to push back against coaches who insist on specialization early. If the coach says your child can’t be on the team unless he or she specializes, you might have to make a hard decision and find another team with fewer restrictions.
RF: What’s the best way to talk to your child about his or her performance in sports?
DR. HORN: Always focus on the process, not on the player. When you give your child feedback after a bad game in which he or she made errors, start by talking about the things the child did well. Then move into the things that didn’t go so well—asking, for example: “what do you think you did wrong there?” or “what could you do better next time?” If you noticed something amiss, you can say it in a constructive way, such as: “you looked a little distracted when that ball came your way—did you lose your focus out there?” The emphasis should be on the fact that errors are correctable. This brings us back to that idea of seeing ability in sport as malleable. We see too many parents giving their children toxic feedback, laying into their kids on the ride home, saying things like: “you’re never going to get a scholarship if you play like that” or “you really messed that up.” This negative focus on the player him or herself is NOT the way to go.
RF: Not everyone will be a D1 athlete, and even fewer will go pro. What’s the best way to help a young person deal with the disappointment of not being good enough?
DR. HORN: First of all you can encourage the athlete to consider other interests—do they love music, or theater as well? But if their main passion is for sports, there are many ways to remain involved without playing. Athletes who play through high school may have a deep understanding of a sport that they can carry to being a team manager in college, which in turn can feed into assistant coaching roles after college. Many former athletes enjoy sport management college programs, or internships in the sports field. There are even professional coaches who stopped playing early but stayed involved because they’re good leaders with a deep understanding of the sport. For them, knowledge of the game is more important than physical skill.
RF: How serious are gender and race bias in sports?
DR. HORN: I continue to be VERY concerned about gender and race-based stereotypes in sports. We see some parents—especially fathers—who want their daughters to focus on sports they consider stereotypically feminine, like gymnastics. This is simple sexism. These dads think soccer or basketball aren’t feminine enough. We need to break through these stereotypes that just don’t seem to go away. And as far as race is concerned, studies show that many coaches stereotype athletes by race. For example, they won’t put athletes of color in leadership positions such as shortstop, catcher or point guard. They make the bigoted and completely unfounded assumption that while African American athletes are fast and physical, they aren’t natural leaders or decision makers. This is purely racist and false. But it happens a lot. Conversely, some coaches believe the stereotype that white athletes aren’t fast enough or can’t jump high enough, but belong in decision-making positions on the court or field. When parents see these bigoted approaches interfering with their kids’ opportunities in sports, they need to speak up and call it out—or better yet, switch to coaches who don’t stereotype, and reward ability.
RF: How big an impact can good or bad parenting have on the development of a child athlete?
DR. HORN: The research to date on the topic of sport parenting indicates that parents can have a very significant effect — particularly in regard to whether a child will continue or discontinue sport participation. This is particularly true for children below the age of 12 or 13 years. Parents appear to be the most important source of support during the childhood years. After that age, however, coaches and peers (friends and teammates) have a larger impact. Of course, parents’ positive and negative behaviors can continue to influence children through the teenage and college years as well.
RF: How should parents deal with a coach who is not providing their child with a good sport experience?
DR. HORN: As a former coach myself, this is a difficult question for me. In general, no matter how good a coach is, there will likely be some parents who are not happy with their child’s playing time or playing position. Furthermore, the coach is generally in the best position to determine playing time and position as he/she has the most opportunity to see how children play in practice. Nevertheless, there are situations where the parents may need to approach the coach with a concern. If this is the case, they should do so in a non-emotional way (and not immediately after a game, when the parent is most upset and angry). At a calmer time, the parent should begin by describing what she/he has observed (e.g., “what I have been seeing in the past several games is that some children get the opportunity to play more, or get to play whatever position they want, while other children do not get the same opportunities”). Then, remind the coach what the league and/or program rules say regarding playing time (e.g., Is this a recreational league or competitive league? Does the league or program state that all children will get to play? Etc.). Then, ask the coach to explain why your child does not play a particular position and/or is not getting much playing time. Often, this process works well, as it encourages the coach to see things from a parent perspective. If nothing changes, and the coach is violating a program/league rule, then the parent may need to inform the program manager/director. In some cases, however, parents need to simply face the fact that other athletes have earned more playing time than their child has.
RF: At what point should parents step back and let the athlete deal with his/her coach directly?
DR. HORN: At the earliest youth sport ages, it may be OK for the parent to approach the coach with a concern. But as children get older (perhaps 10 and above), the parent should encourage/allow the child to “problem-solve” on his/her own. So, if the child is unhappy with her/his role and/or playing time, the parent could help the child formulate questions to ask the coach. If the parent continues over the youth sport cycle to assume control of all issues/problems, then the athlete loses a sense of control over the sport experience. Also, my guess would be that those athletes who have reached the elite level of competition (NCAA D1, professional, Olympic) have had at least one coach who did not do everything the athlete/parent wanted. So parents of older athletes do have to sit back somewhat and let the child earn his/her spot/playing time, and work out other conflicts, without parental interference.