Sunday, April 14, 2013

Sport Parents IV: Letting Go

In my roles as teacher, coach, and child and family therapist, I have had many interactions with parents.  But, one of my most remarkable experiences with a parent came at the hands of one of my wisest friends.  I visited her several days after she had given birth to her first child.  After many of the expected pleasantries had been exchanged, she said of her new child, “Well, she was inside of me and now she isn’t.  And I see my job as creating the conditions under which she can move ever more safely and securely, step by step, further away from me.”  That was 12 years ago and I think I’m still in the process of recovering from such an insightful and prescient comment from so new a mother.  I say this because it is exactly the opposite of every inclination we must have when entrusted with a new life so utterly and entirely dependent upon us.  All aspects of this reality must move us to hold on tighter, while the socioemotional and developmental truth remains that in order for this new organism to truly thrive and actualize, we must practice letting go again and again and again.  This reality is also true for sport parents.  You want to micromanage every aspect of your child’s sport experience, shield him or her from the slings and arrows of an outrageous bounce/call/seeding, from the pain of losing, that you grasp ever tighter to every aspect of the experience.  But, for your athlete to get the most adaptive growth out of the experience, for them to truly become the athletes they need to be (and this may entail not becoming athletes), you must practice the skill of letting go.  In this post, I will discuss this most crucial and challenging parenting skill, all in the service of your athlete’s better play, richer enjoyment of their sport, healthier relationship with you, and better life.  Yes, the stakes are that high.
Sport psychologists, studying the social milieu of the athlete, have derived a rubric for the levels of involvement by parents and their young athlete.  Basing their work on research conducted in the area of school involvement by parents, they have declared that sport parents fall into three categories: underinvolved, supportive and overinvolved (Hellstedt, 1987; Hellstedt, 1990; Fredericks & Eccles, 2004).*  In the eyes of these researchers, underinvolved parents produced athletes who were apathetic about their sport involvement, while overinvolved parents produced athletes who showed high levels of stress, performance anxiety and burn out (Fredericks & Eccles, 2004).  According to them, overinvolved parents had a deleterious effect on their athletes’ performance because the athlete absorbed a message of perfectionism, a cognitive distortion which has been proven to be corrosive of peak performance (Anshel & Eom, 2002).**  It is also easy to see how laboring under the cloak of perfectionism--explicitly or implicitly communicated--could lead to burn out in the young athlete.  In this post, I will elaborate on the position of the overinvolved parent, since it is the most destructive for the young athlete not only because it is so lethal to peak performance, but also because it interferes with so many of the positive developmental gains sport participation offers.
The Pygmalion Syndrome.  Think about Pygmalion, the sculptor from Greek mythology who created a sculpture of his ideal woman and then prayed to Venus that she come to life.  The myth has been converted to the stage (“Pygmalion” by G.B. Shaw) and the musical theater (“My Fair Lady”).  The myth has become a metaphor not just for the ardent wish of the artist to have his art have a life beyond his or her imaginings, but for the kind of control that the creative power wants to exert over its product.  Thus, the creation becomes more a projection or mirror of the creator than an entity in its own right.  So, too, with overcontrolling sport parents.  The young athlete becomes not just a project but a product, whose athletic prowess will gain a glory (entrance to elite college, college scholarship, lucrative professional career) that will ultimately reflect back on the parent.  While the parent may succeed in creating this product, it is my contention that both parent and athlete lose a great deal in this overcontrolling configuration.  But, no doubt, the wages on the young athlete are more costly.  One price is that the athlete loses track of why they participate in their sport, and a split opens up in the athlete between their true self that would rather quit and a false self that continues on in the sport for the parents’ sake, divorced from the passion and joy of sport participation.  The fallout from this dynamic can be quite severe, from dispirited performance on the low end of the spectrum to frayed parent-child relations and quitting the sport on the further end of the spectrum.  On the furthest end is the kind of dismaying behavior we see in the dysfunctional athlete: performance slumps, terrible conduct problems, and addictive behaviors.  Think here of famous Pygmalion sport parents and the very troubled behavior of the offspring: Stefano Capriati and Jennifer, Mike Agassi and Andre, Earl Woods and Tiger, John McEnroe Sr. and Jr., Richard Williams and Venus and Serena.  It is my contention that Agassi’s descent into methamphetamine addiction and Tiger’s into his sex addiction, were attempts to ford the gap created between the false self created by the parent and the true self languishing inside the athlete,  a self obscured by the parents’ hard-driving control and choreography of the child’s life.
Whose Experience is this?  Connected to this creation of the false self is the idea that the overinvolved parent has blurred the gap between the child’s experience and the parent’s.  That is, in overcontrolling every element of the child’s sporting life, with an extreme ego orientation, the experience comes to mean so much more for the parent than for the child.  The child is slotted into Pygmalion’s master plan in a way that completely overlooks and even overrides the child’s wishes for the experience.  The creator of the plan comes first and the child second.  In my qualitative study comparing American and international elite squash players, one difference between the cohorts was remarkable: for the American squash player, the entire experience was one of being pulled ever closer into the parents’ orbit and plans for the child, while for the international players, the experience of coming through the squash ranks was one of increasing independence and distance from the parents.  American squash players were told who would coach them, how often they would have lessons, which events to play and which colleges to apply to.  International players traveled to events on their own, were coached by people unknown to the parents and created their own goals and aspirations for their squash achievement.  Thus, the international crowd was able to pull important developmental gains in the areas of individuation and self formation, gains that were thus postponed for the American cohort.  Anecdotal evidence strongly suggested that the international group practiced with greater focus, competed with greater fire and spent less time injured than their American counterparts.
Letting Go.  So, what’s to be done?  What does letting go look like?  Well, the first step of letting go involves letting go of the result.  If you have an end result of your child’s sport participation in mind, you will lose sight of the process and you will become ever more anxious when things look as though they are deviating from your plan.  This kind of anxiety, like all forms of the emotion, cause us to grip tighter, become less mindfully present and more rigidly committed to the old plan.  This rigidity can translate to exerting even more force on your young athlete to conform to the plan.  Instead, you can, starting from very early on in the athlete’s encounter with sport, invest the young athlete with increasing agency over practice and play time, coaching and tournament selections.  It’s not that you can’t point out the consequences of the athlete’s choices (less practice time generally results in worse results), but their practice, play and pleasure will always be greater when the choice is theirs.  And you can certainly provide pep talks through motivational troughs, if they communicate that they’re feeling flat.  Such morale boosters will go a long way, and they need to hear from you and everyone in their social milieu that hard works pays off.  But the well attuned parent-athlete dyad will know when the parent is motivating the child into the parent’s plan or helping the child articulate and actualize their own plan.  Clearly, the key element here is an open and honest communication pattern between parent and athlete, one that values both the agency of the athlete as well as the mature and tutelary powers of the parent.
     It is by no means my contention that letting go is easy.  Indeed, it might be the hardest parenting or life skill that we ever hope to acquire.  But our lives and our relationships with the people we love the most depend upon it.  Someone once told me that if you read the creation story in Genesis, God’s hand in creation recedes with each of the passing six days.  It is the writer’s way of suggesting that God is increasingly practicing the letting go skill even as he applies the finishing touches.  “You take it from here,” He seems to be saying to us.   Looking back at the arc of human history, many might wish that He had held on a little tighter.  But, I like to think that the writer of Genesis was using the metaphor of being a parent when he wrote that creation story.  What great insight into the generative process.  If the Old Testament God can let go, you can too.  Create something, love it with all your might, & set it free.

*Hellstedt, J. (1987). The coach-parent-athlete relationship. The Sport Psychologist, 1, 151-160.
Hellstedt, J. (1990). Early adolescent perceptions of parental pressure in the sport environment.  Journal of Sport Behavior, 13, 3.
Fredericks, J., & Eccles, J. (2004). Parental influences on youth involvement in sports. In M.R. Wiess (Ed.), Developmental sport and exercise physiology: A lifespan perspective. Morgantown, NY: Fitness Information Technology, Inc.
**Anshel, M. & Eom, H.J. (2002). Exploring the dimensions of perfectionism in sport.  International Journal of Sports Psychology, 34, 3, 255-271.


  1. This makes me think of the importance of mirroring in parenting: children (and adolescents) know the difference between mirroring and projecting, between the pleasure of recognizing themselves in our responses to them and the alienation of feeling that we have somehow missed them by failing to reflect back to them a self that feels familiar and safe. This means, I think, acknowledging their failures, too, and letting them experience those failures, offering empathy and speaking to their efforts and to their disappointment with all the love we feel.

    1. Thank you for this thoughtful response and please excuse the tardiness of my reply: You have hit the nail on the head. I think there is a way to recognize and "speak empathically" to failures in a way that makes those failures a positive developmental step, rather than a developmental sticking point. Failure avoidance is a major problem in athletes, weened on "everyone wins" sports programming, and parents who seek to arrange their child's world to avoid losing. Thanks for reading and replying.

  2. "One price is that the athlete loses track of why they participate in their sport"

    At the end of the day playing sports has to be something the child wants to do because they love doing it, not just because their mom or dad wants them to. Of course kids want to make their parents happy, but parents can turn youth sports into something that is a have-to and not a love-to. It's not about mom and dad!

    1. Agreed.

    2. Thanks for reading, Jodi. It's so hard to make it not about mom and dad, but that's the work, I think. It's so important to try to get it right, and there is such bad fall out from getting it wrong, or from the lack of mirroring that happens when we get it wrong. Denise (see above) is so right to bring out this mirroring piece. Thanks so much for reading.