Friday, February 22, 2013

Sport Parents I: Setting the Frame

In the 1993 movie “Searching for Bobby Fisher” Joe Mantegna plays the father of a chess prodigy who has to learn how to manage the myriad challenges that come with shepherding a very talented child through elite-level competition, the parent-child dynamic being only one facet of this maze.  In one scene, a tournament director summons all of the parents into a room for a pre-tournament meeting.  When they are all gathered, he locks the anxiety-stricken crowd in the room and tells them he’ll be back to liberate them at the end of the tournament.  Anyone involved in youth sport can identify with this fiction.  Parents, so eager to help and do the right thing by their children, often veer from being helpful and supportive to being intrusive, controlling  and destructive of both performance and enjoyment.  Parental involvement in sport so often stems from the most natural of all parental feelings: to protect a child from harm and to celebrate a child’s natural gifts.  But often, the behaviors parents exhibit with respect to their child’s sport involvement are anything but protective or admirable.  In the next several posts, I will share some insights that I gained while doing research on this very problem with an aim toward helping parents avoid some of the understandable pitfalls of being a sport parent, while at the same time steering them towards harnessing some of the great opportunities sport involvement offers for parent and child alike.
The first aspect of this interaction that I will call your attention to is perhaps the most important of all, and what I will call setting the frame.  Parents of middle and high schoolers feel as though their children stopped listening to them a long time ago, lost as they are in their new world of intense and dramatic peer interactions, increased homework pressure and frenzied extra-curricular activities.  But this is not true.  Sport psychologists who study the social milieu of young athletes call the people in that athlete’s life ‘influencers’, and include in that lot peers, coaches and parents.  Furthermore, they add that of all of those influencers, parents are the most, not the least, influential.*  This power comes from the fact that parents often serve in two vital roles with respect to the young athlete: they both provide the experience for their child and, more importantly, interpret its meaning for the child.  It is in this latter function, that of interpreter, that parents have the most power and why I call it “setting the frame.”  The parents’ own meaning and understanding of their child’s sport participation sets the whole cognitive and emotional framework for the child.  You might call it the amniotic air that surrounds the athlete as they engage in their sport.  Parents might not see it, but their children absorb it as they breathe.  Andre Agassi, in his remarkable book, Open, vividly portrays the way a child comes to acquire the socioemotional framework of the parent.  After his first loss ever in a junior tournament, he finds that his self-talk is blisteringly self-loathing.  Lost in his misery, he contemplates quitting.  As he portrays it, it is a revealing moment:
After years of hearing my father rant at my flaws, one loss has caused me to take up his rant.  I’ve internalized my father--his impatience, his perfectionism, his rage--until his voice doesn’t just feel like my own, it is my own.  I no longer need my father to torture me.  From this day on, I can do it by myself.
Agassi is nine years old at the time of this event.
Agassi’s painful vignette speaks to a truth about parents and their children: all children internalize their parents.  That’s just part of the developmental bargain.  So, the question for sport parents is this: what kind of framework with regard to your child’s sport participation do you want them to internalize?  You can set a framework that promotes the kind of socioemotional development that participation in sport is particularly good at offering.  Or, you can set a framework that overlooks those potential gains and that proves corrosive to the kind of enthusiastic engagement, adaptive growth and longevity of participation that encapsulate the promise of healthy sport participation.
In the next post, I will talk in greater detail about how sport psychologists have thought about these two opposing frameworks and how you can cultivate one and try to avoid other.  For now, I will leave you with a quote from golfer Davis Love III’s book about his father, entitled Every Shot I Take.  The title itself should tell you about how powerful the child’s internalization of the parent is.  This quote will also give you a sense of just how opposite a force that internalizing can be than the one Andre Agassi absorbed.  In the introduction, Davis III says of Davis II:
My late father, for whom I am named, is still my hero.  He always was; he always will be....The way he introduced me to golf is the way I plan to introduce my two children to the game.  The way he taught me is the way I plan to teach them.  The he way he raised me is the way I hope to raise them.
Now, needless to say, there are many points along the spectrum between torturing perfectionist and benign tutelary force, but these two views of internalized fathers give clear proof of just what is at stake in setting the frame for your young athlete.

* Fredericks, J., & Eccles, J.  2004.  Parental influences on youth involvement in sports.  In M. R.  Weiss, (Ed.), Developmental Sport and exercise physiology: A lifespan perspective.  Morgantown, NY: Fitness Information Technology, Inc.

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