• Aimie Epoch

Raising an Athlete: Parental Pressure vs. Support

Updated: Apr 3

Both the nature and quality of parent-child interactions are critical to understanding how to raise happy, well-rounded, successful athletes. Each generation of skaters is pushing themselves to new levels, breaking countless records set by their predecessors. However, this can contribute to high level of expectation placed on these young individuals by their parents. Certain aspect of parental involvement can be harmful to the development and experiences of the athlete if overlooked.

A moderate amount of parental involvement is important because it communicates interest and support. When a child perceives their parents as supportive, it has been found to facilitate enjoyment, participation in physical action, and continued participation in youth sports (Cumming & Ewing). A parent’s primary role in sports, such as figure skating, is to provide emotional, financial and provisionary support for their children (Rowley). This involves engaging in activities such as helping the child deal with winning and losing, providing verbal encouragement, transportation, security and comfort during stressful times, and helping the child learn valuable lessons. Supportive behaviors are ones of encouragement and occasional performance-contingent feedback (Bremer).

The problem arises when parents are over-involved to a point where the child feels like they need to relinquish control over their decision to skate. Children whose parents are over involved report low levels of enjoyment and satisfaction (Cumming & Ewing). Some parents become so emotionally invested during practices or competition that they feel embarrassment, guilt and stress over their child’s performance. This can be particularly strong during performances or losses. These parents often believe it is their responsibility to push their kid, regardless if the goals are shared by the athlete themselves. When parents live vicariously with their child, they start to see their children as an extension of their own ego (Cumming & Ewing). If the child succeeds, then the parents are happy. If the child doesn’t succeed, then the parent is unhappy. It is no surprise that this leaves many young athletes feeling high degree of pressures.

Pressure is defined as parental behaviors that symbolize high or even unattainable expectations in the mind of the child athlete. Pressure can either be overt behaviors, such as pushing for more practice time, or covert behaviors, such as a parental look of disappointment after skating poorly. The effects of parental pressure can manifest differently for the child. Most often, parental pressure increases negative stress and decreased motivation for the child athlete. The athletes most likely to experience burnout are the talented young athletes who perceived their parents as controlling and having made significant financial and time commitments (Coakley). Athletes that perceive their parents, as being positive role models, supportive, and having positive beliefs about their ability are more likely to enjoy sports, feel more confident about their ability, and are less likely to drop out of sports (Cumming & Ewing).

Parents of athletes should listen to their children’s views and provide unconditional love during both successes and failures. Many parents feel like their child owes it to them to apply themselves, especially regarding the monetary stress figure skating places on the entire family. Some parents will also use guilt to “motivate” their child. Although skating is an incredibly expensive sport and large investment, it is important not to let skating poorly on one competition dictate whether “investing” in your child’s skating is “worth it.” If the child is having fun when they practice and compete, then the investment is always “worth it." For the most part, parents enroll their children in skating to allow their children to develop and adopt skills and competencies that support a healthy, self-directed, responsible and autonomous form of life (Kanters). But, if the reason is or has morphed into making your child a champion and win lots of medals, it would be important to assess your own ego and recognize that your unrealistic expectations may have maladaptive impact your child.

The parent’s job is to provide encouragement and hopeful optimism when needed, not to coach and control. It’s important to help your child understand that the definition of a good performance is giving one’s best effort. The parent’s definition of success may be different than the athlete's definition of success. It is important to let the skater set their own standards of excellence. What it means to be "successful" is largely subjective. It is important that there is open dialogue regarding what the skater's goals are and what being "successful" means to them. One skater's definition of success might be competing at Regionals or Nationals. Another's may to skate for exercise and show genuine disinterest in competing. One is not better or worse than the other, everyone just has different goals.

It is well understood by the child how expensive figure skating is. With the financial commitment in figure skating, many athletes end up feeling guilty of the consequences of the sport: disruption to family life, cost of training and competition, marital stress, monetary stress, travel costs, familial sacrifices. As a result, some figure skaters feel obligated to continue participating due to the prior investment spent on making them a “champion.” The talented young athletes who perceived their parents as “controlling" and having made significant financial and time commitments,” (Coakley) are most likely to experience this burnout.

Coaches need to take the time to explain to parents that although they have the best interests of their children at heart, the chances of their child becoming a professional athlete are small (Cumming & Ewing). It’s important that coaches confront parents who coach on the side of the ice. If it is a consistent problem, then a it is necessary to set up a time to meet and address the issue without the child around.

It may also be beneficial as a coach to get all parents to sign the U.S Figure Skating Parent Code of Conduct. In signing this agreement, the parent is agreeing to create a safe and positive environment for members' physical, emotional and social development and ensuring that it promotes an environment free of misconduct. The U.S Figure Skating Parent Code of Conduct states that parents demonstrate positive support, applaud any effort in both victory and defeat, and refrain from "side line" coaching. For the full pdf, click here.

Most individuals want to see our youth succeed, but sometimes the ways in which we show support is maladaptive. In order to cultivate happy, healthy, well-rounded skaters, we must keep our eyes open and speak out against overt and covert pressure.

Bremer, K. L. (2012). Parental involvement, pressure and support in youth sport: A literature review. Journal of Family Theory & Review, 4(3), 235-248.

Coakley, J. (1992). Burnout among adolescent athletes: A personal failure or social problem? Sociology of Sport Journal, 9, 271-285.

Cumming, S., & Ewing, M.E (2014). Parental involvement in sports: The good, the bad, and the ugly. ResearchGate.

Kanters, M. Aa., & Casper, J. (). Supported or Pressured? An examination of agreement among parent’s and children on parent’s role in youth sports. Journal of Sport Behavior, 31(1).