10 Ways To Parent Athletes Better

Parents are the most influential adults in an athlete’s life. Let me say that again. PARENTS are the most influential adults in an athlete’s life.

The better the relationship is between athletes and their parents, the better the experience is for everyone. 

Thankfully, building the parent/athlete relationship is not dependent upon a championship season, the right coach, or team chemistry. Here are ten ways to improve and enhance your relationship with your athletic children, no matter the circumstance.

Stay Curious

As the adult in the room, it is easy to assume we have the best insight about our children’s experiences. Adults analyze, make observations, and sometimes have extremely strong opinions. Too often we forget to look at the world through their eyes. Separating our observations from our children’s observations and experiences takes intention.

For the parents who watch practices or study their children playing games, that’s fine, just try to let the kids tell you how they experienced the practice or game. Pretend you didn’t see it, or better yet, don’t go to everything and let them report. If you ask the right questions and then actively listen to their responses, you might be surprised at what they say.

Let Them Become The Expert

Some of the tension I’ve observed between children and their parents happens when the parents are an “expert” in the game being played. It is not uncommon for some kids to gravitate toward sports their parents don’t know simply because they don’t want the constant barrage of parent expertise.

Put the kids in charge. Part of the approach of curiosity is letting the kids be the teacher. You might know the game inside and out, you might have a ridiculous amount of wisdom to share, or the coach might be an idiot and you’re worried your athlete is learning the wrong things, but there are approaches to teaching children that don’t involve you and a monologue. Get really good at asking questions that gently guide them to answers they find on their own. Kids appreciate the adults who are able to get out of their way as they learn.

Guard Sleep and Rest

Fatigue is a death knell of relationship. Physical and emotional exhaustion makes people irritable and unproductive. If you want kids to respond to a single thing they are asked to do in athletics, make sure they are operating with rested minds and bodies.

Too much importance is placed on investing time to attain skill and knowledge and not enough attention is paid to the rest and recovery that makes athletes capable of acquiring what they need to be competent.

There is both daily rest and seasonal rest and parents are the keepers of that time management. If children are over scheduled it will wear on more than their bodies and spirits, it will work to degrade the relationships they have with you too.

Acknowledge and Address Pain

Playing sports is painful. The pains can be physical and/or emotional. Too many parents make the mistake of trying to avoid pain or move past it too quickly. If pains are not adequately acknowledge there can be dysfunction around working through painful emotions. (think fake injuries)

Kids need to know they have the support of adults who will walk through their pain with them. Prepare the child for the path, not the path for the child and then when the pitfalls come, start asking questions again. “How are you feeling?” “How can I help you?”

Creating the language difference between “hurts” and “injuries” can be helpful. Hurts are the tough things that happen that can include dark and negative emotions. Learning to push through the hurts is important. Injuries are the debilitating experiences that require healing before a kid can be back in the game. Teaching kids early on the difference between the two can be really valuable and they’ll trust you enough to bring both pains and injuries to you when they happen.

Let Them Set Goals and Help Them Pack a Second Parachute

The sports story for your children is their sports story. When they are little, they will want to be professional athletes. As they get older, they may foster more realistic goals, and it is important that the conversations you have with them are about their goals, not yours.

If your child stays laser-focused on a goal that you think might not be realistic, continue to honor their efforts and encourage them to pack a back-up parachute. Tell them no skilled sky diver ever jumps out of a plane without two chutes and it’s awesome they have the goal of going to the Olympics, but what parachute are they packing for when the Olympic dream is over?

Become a Why and How Parent (When asked!)

Are you a What Parent?

What parents are reporters. They tell children recaps in soundbite observations: “You missed the net.” “You lost your mark.” “You aren’t passing enough.”

Maybe worse than the What parent is the UNSOLICITED Why and How parent. If your children are not looking for coaching from you, don’t give it.

If your child comes to you looking for advice, you want to carefully step into that conversation. You can help them most by going the curiosity route again and start asking Why and How questions.

“Why do you think those shots you were taking were off target?” “How can you work on it?” “How can I help you get better at that?”

Investigating ways to improve can be a joint parent/athlete venture, but defer to the lead of your child to go there.

Remember It’s a Game, Not a Job

It is true that we have to work at things in order to improve, but what too many adults have forgotten is that children will “work” the hardest when they are playing a game.

In Canada’s Long-Term Development Model, kids will “train to train” about the age of 14. (or during puberty) Before then, kids’ passion about learning sport is practically 100% about fun and games.

If you don’t believe me, put a team of 10-year-olds in a technical acquisition drill and then let them play a game of tag. My bet is the tag game will raise their work rate more than the drill will.

As parents, your job is to foster the fun and games perspective. Instead of telling your kids to go outside and “work on your shot”, go outside and play with them. From my experience, every age kid (and adult) likes playing games.

Model Passionate Pursuit of Dreams

If you want your children to be passionate dream-chasers, become a passionate dream-chaser yourself.

If you are not walking your talk, your kids will not buy what you are selling them. If you tell your kids, “chase your dreams”, “set your sights on big dreams”, “write down your goals” and then you are not doing any of that for yourself, the relationship is not balanced.

Be the kind of person you are trying to raise.

Objectively Observe Their Mistakes/Failures and Their Successes

Just like their goals needing to be their goals, their mistakes and successes are also theirs.

Watching your children play sports is like watching your heart run around. It is a vulnerable experience. The human response of parents watching their children attempt to do something often involves taking their successes and failures personally. When they fail, it feels like we failed. When they succeed it feels like we succeeded.

If you catch yourself “feeling” the experiences of your children too much, you need to step back and work on objectivity. Imagine you are a stranger and not the parent. Can you acknowledge effort? Are you able to be a witness to learning without worrying about achievement?

Kids crave unconditional love and if the most important adults in their lives are too tied up in successes and failures, belief in that unconditional love becomes really difficult.

Make Decisions with Relationship as Your Focus

When push comes to shove, the ultimate goal that you should share with your child is to have a healthy and loving relationship when the craze of youth sports is over. If there is a difficult spot to navigate as parent and child, try to move the lens back enough to see the big picture. What decision will foster good relationship in ten years and what decision might harm the relationship? Choose connection with your kids over any other choice that might be available.


***If you are a parent and a coach of your child, it is important to wear two different hats. (I literally wear a hat when I coach and my daughter once asked me to take it off because she wanted to talk to Mom) Make sure your kids know you are trying to navigate between the two roles and begin your sports-centered conversations with them by asking yet another question: “Do you want me to talk with you about this as a parent or as a coach?”  and then stay curious no matter what role you play.******


Copyright Meagan Frank 2019

The Team Adult Playbook

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