Your Sports Biography—Does It Hinder or Help?


We’ve all seen it: The ranting parent who stalks the sidelines, fuming at a blown call or a missed shot. Poised to pounce on anyone and everyone in his field of vision, he settles on the most vulnerable of targets, his own son. Out comes a laundry list of perceived mistakes and failures. As the subject of this public humiliation cowers, trying to shrink into his Little League uniform, the rest of us recoil at the sight of a child distressed by the person he most eagerly wishes to please: his dad.

But the truth is that there is likely something of an ogre in all of us. Somewhere in America, on any given day, any one of us can fly into a rage, convinced that our child has been purposefully slighted, injured, or mistreated, or that he isn’t giving it his all on the field, in spite of the fact that we just spent four hours and $300 driving him to a weekend tournament in Sportsville.

In this chapter we examine why parents can become so vested in their children’s athletic success that they dampen their kids’ sports experiences. We’ll answer questions parents have asked us and provide practical psychological techniques we can all use to avoid falling into the trap of identifying too closely with our children’s performance. We’ve found that when parents mine the depth of their personal sports biographies, they can embrace the positive experiences they’ve had and come to terms with the unpleasant ones. We tend to project our anxieties and expectations on our children. If we learn to be more mindful of our influence over them, we can give them the space to experience the joys and challenges of sports in their own unique way.

Your Sports History Influences Your Child

If we want to create a more wholesome sports experience for our children—a time of joy, fun, and learning—the first step is to try to understand our own sports biographies and how they may be influencing our kids’ experiences. In Parenting from the Inside Out, Dr. Dan Siegel points out that when we become parents, “we bring with us issues from our own past that influence the way we parent our children.” So it stands to reason that unresolved issues from our childhood sports experiences can, and often do, trigger some pretty curious, unfortunate, and maybe even outrageous sideline antics.

Let’s not play the blame game. We’ve all done or said things we regret at one time or another. The three of us certainly have, even though we’ve coached kids for decades. What all of us can do is be proactive—work hard to prepare for the next time we are about to lose it. Literally. We can discover what triggers us and why, and in understanding ourselves better we will most certainly take the edge off such moments of “temporary insanity.” What better behavior to model for our kids than our hard-won sideline self-control?

When taken at face value, overblown emotional reactions, distorted perceptions, and unbecoming impulse behaviors make little sense, but they are common at youth sports events. So what if your nine-year-old missed a penalty shot? Did that really give you license to kick the cooler over and toss your cap a dozen feet into the bushes? Each of us can do something to take the sting out of our occasionally outlandish behavior. We can get to know ourselves a little better and take responsibility for our outbursts by trying to identify the root causes of our behavior. Our kids will love us for it, because when we lose control we embarrass them deeply. If they see that we are learning to keep our cool, they will feel intense relief and appreciation, and may even learn to take things in stride themselves. ♦

From Kim John Payne, Luis Fernando Llosa, & Scott Lancaster. Beyond Winnning: Smart Parenting in a Toxic Sports Environment (Lyons Press, Connecticut, 2013).