What Are the Effects of Parental and Coaching Pressures?
FROM: LORE OF RUNNING by Tim Noakes MD
Abnormal parental and coaching pressures may be the critical factors determining
whether a child enjoys sport and continues to compete after adolescence. Billie-
Jean King, surely one of the world's most remarkable athletes, has a brother who
was also a professional athlete-a baseball pitcher. When asked whether she
thought that she and her brother had been fortunate in inheriting sporting
ability from their parents, she replied that they had indeed been very fortunate
in the parents they had, but not for that reason. "My parents were very
supportive," stated King, "but they never asked if we won. They asked how we
did, whether we gave 100%, and if we were happy with ourselves. You don't have
to ask children if they won; you can tell by their body language. Just look at
their shoulders" (Caldwell 1983, page 23).lt was this supportive,
non-manipulative attitude that she valued the most.
King's parents understood the basic psychological premise
that children's self-esteem is based on what they believe their parents think of
them. In sport, the parental message can be very subtle, or not, as in the case
of the father who allocates pocket-money according to the number of points his
child scores in a particular sport. Parents who stress the importance of winning
risk raising children who, when they doubt whether they can win, may choose not
to compete rather than risk losing. Rather, children must be taught what King
was taught-that giving 100% is all that matters. In addition, they need to learn
how to lose. After all, at least 50% of people involved in competitive sport
have to lose.
One of the most endearing stories about learning how to lose
properly is related by Roger Kahn (1972) who recounts that Joe Black, formerly a
pitcher with the (New York) Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team, took the high school
team that he coached to watch the Dodgers and to meet his old coach, the
legendary Casey Stengel. Black introduced his team to Stengel with the following
words, "This is my team, Case. They're having troubles. They've lost 16 out of
18 games, and I wondered what the Old Master thought I ought to teach 'em."
"Lost 16 out of 18, you say?" Stengel scratched his chin.
"Well, first you better teach 'em to lose in the right spirit." Children can
cope with losing if their parents can.
In contrast to the exemplary attitude of King's parents,
there are the manipulative parents who use their children's ability to serve
their own ends. Often parents say that their children want to compete, but we
have to ask why a young boy or girl would want to train really hard to run
marathons unless he or she were given such a message by the parents?
An important point that adults overlook is that children
under the age of about 14 do not think abstractly; many do not see a reward
beyond the short term for the effort they put in and so, unlike adults, they do
not have long-term goals. The parents who say that their young child is training
to be a future world champion are, in fact, expressing a parental wish for that
child and, at the same time, very forcefully conveying the parental message.
That parental expectations increase the anxiety experienced by children in
competition has been shown (Lewthwaite and Scanlan 1989).
And then there is the final joker in the pack--the coach or
possibly the school principal who may suffer from the same problem and whose ego
may be so insecure that it depends on the success of the school's athletes. (Of
course, if the athlete lives in a country that also has an ego/identity crisis,
then these problems will be expressed on a national scale.)
Clearly, what the child athlete needs is egoless parents,
egoless coaching, and a mature nation. Where these are found, child athletes
stand a greater chance of becoming an adult world-beaters. In addition, children
should always be allowed to determine their own level of commitment to any
Bruce Ogilvie (1983a; 1983b), the sports psychologist, has
stated that the most important attribute of the coach and, indeed, the parent,
is "the quest to become egoless." He stresses that this must remain a lifelong
goal. The goal should always be to subordinate personal needs to those of the
people we are trying to help. Here are 10 helpful guidelines for parents of
sporting children (adapted from Hellstedt 1988):
1. Make certain
that your children know that your love and approval are not linked to whether
they win or lose.
2. Be realistic
about what your child is capable of achieving physically.
3. Help your
child set realistic goals.
improved performance and skills (rather than winning) by positive
5. Don't use
your child as a means of reliving your own athletic past.
6. Provide a
safe environment, including proper training methods and equipment for sporting
7. Control your
own emotions at competitions and games-don't shout at other competitors,
coaches, or officials.
8. Act as a
cheerleader for your child and any teammates.
9. Respect your
child's coaches. Discuss problems honestly and openly.
10. Be a
positive role model: live healthily, enjoy your own sports, and set your own
Is it really so bad to be a great athlete only at school? If the child superstar
retires prematurely, is it necessarily a failed outcome? In other words, why
should we be so distraught if our child stars suddenly retire? Do we raise the
same concerns when older athletes retire? For example, how many of our adult
elite distance runners continue to compete for more than a handful of years?
Yet, no one seems particularly concerned when they retire.
The problems faced by the child athlete are no different from
those of the adult. Success, it would seem, depends on intense self-motivation,
the acceptance of sacrifice, a supportive environment comprising egoless
coaching and egoless parents, and gradual progress toward carefully delineated
My personal bias is that intensive training for young runners
should be delayed for as long as possible because I believe that the older the
runner is when hard training begins, the better. Such intensive training should,
in my view, start between 18 and 20. The value of running is that it is possible
to start training at that age and still achieve your full potential. The
ultimate performance level of gifted athletes may be determined by psychological
factors; thus, it is best to start training so that peak physical performance
occurs when the mind is strongest.