Paddy Upton

Parents Unwittingly Undermine Kids Sport Participation

36% of parents undermine their kids sport participation.

More than one in three parents undermines their kids sport participation. Most do this unwittingly, despite having best intentions. 

A school sport study1 showed that 70% of the 40 million kids who start playing sport at school quit by the age of 13. 

The two main reasons: coaches or parents – with 36% of kids blaming their parents. 

This is not just America, it’s a global problem. 

Here are the six main mistakes parents make, along with solutions. 

All-boys schools and dads might want to take notes!

Mistake #1. Over-emphasis on winning

Winning is an adult agenda. And an ego agenda. Ego wants success to look and feel good and fears failure and looking bad. It’s about the parent, not the child.

Worse still is when parents make their love and recognition contingent on winning. This (inadvertently) happens when parents get excited and happy when their kid does well – and visibly unhappy when they play badly or lose. 

What almost every kid wants from their parents is love and acknowledgement. If they get more of this when they do well, and less when they do badly, it sends a message, 

“I need to do well to get love. And I really mustn’t play badly because it will upset mom or dad”. 

This creates two of the biggest mental errors to sport, and possibly life – pressure (to do well) and fear (of doing badly).


·      Remain equally loving and supportive of your kid regardless of whether they win or lose, play well or badly. Behave the same way, regardless of result. Whatever affirmation you show when they play exceptionally well – like being happy and taking them for that ice-cream – do that after every game. 

·      Praise their effort, not their results. Acknowledge them for playing sport, for attending training, for turning out and competing. This ingrains invaluable life lessons; to focus on process and let the result look after itself. That life is a journey, not a destination. And that winning and losing happens.

·      Be grateful you have a child, and for them being healthy enough to play a sport. One of the best things a parent can do after a game, regardless of result, is to tell their kid “I loved watching you play.” Better still, is to genuinely just love watching them play

Praise them in person rather than on social media.

Mistake #2. Having unrealistic expectations 

Some parents want their kid to be as good as they wish they were when they were at school. Others somehow think their kid should deliver excellent and blemish-free performances every time they compete. And that they should always do everything they are told to do with with great energy, enthusiasm and positivity.  Bad days and mistakes shouldn’t happen. Really?  

Your kid is unlikely to become the next international superstar. Research did in South Africa schools sport showed that;

a)    amongst all registered cricketers, the chance of making the men’s national cricket team during the 10-year period after leaving school is 0.00018% or 1 in 55,463. 

b)   The chance in rugby was much higher, at a whopping 0.00058% . One in 17,222 schools’ rugby players made the national team in the 10-years after leaving school. 


·      Recalibrate your expectations to be more realistic for a kid who is out there doing what he’/she loves. Do you have your best day at work, everyday? 

·      Focus on enjoyment, learning, growth, health, healthy participation, teamwork, learning to win with humility, losing with courage, learning from losing, getting back up and boxing on, and all the other invaluable life-long lessons that sport offers…. if approached with the right attitude! With this as the focus, success will naturally happen!

Mistake #3. Coaching your child.

Most kids do not want to be coached their parents. Or they don’t want as much unsolicited coaching that their parents (read dads) offer or impose on them.


·      On the way to the game, ask your kid, ‘what do you want from me today?’. And then do exactly that. 

·      The car journey home is NOT the time for a coaching workshop. Let the coaches coach, and the selectors select. 

My 16-year-old daughter Lila started competing in provincial surfing contests from the age of 13. She has never had a coach. And she knows that I have been mental coach to some of the world’s best surfers. Her answer to my question “what do you want from me” has always been, “I want you to turn my wetsuit the right way around.” (wetsuits are stored inside-out). That’s it. I know I can help, but for now, she doesn’t want it. She just wants to surf. 

Mistake #4. Criticising your child (or their teammates or coach)

Kids report really disliking it when their parents criticize them, or others involved in their sport. Duh. Yet it still happens – often without awareness. Very few people like or deliberately do things wrong or make mistakes. And when an adult criticizes them for doing so, it rubs salt into an already open wound. Each word of criticism undermines confidence, and slowly undermines self-esteem.  

Criticising comes from having an unrealistically high expectations of perfection of your kid, and then acting that out in a negative and critical way. It tends to happen with those parents who are overly perfectionistic, who are pessimistic and see what’s wrong more than they see what’s right, or those who are stressed.

Constructive criticism is still criticism. Don’t offer it. 


·      Develop within yourself a healthy relationship with mistakes and failure. These happen. It’s quite normal, OK and are a key part of learning and life. 

·      Focus 80-90% of your eyes and comments on what your kid did well and is good at. 

·      Where they did make a mistake and learning is available, leave this to the coach. If you really must, then a) smile and be ok with the mistake, b) don’t focus on the mistake (in the past) as it will further undermine their confidence, rather c), focus on the solution (in future). Do this by asking, ‘next time you’re in that situation, what would you do differently?’ Confidence is built as your kid imagines and designs solution. This approach, where your kid feels good rather than bad, ends up building your relationship with them way more than when you focus on the mistake or criticize! 

Mistake#5. Pampering kids

One for the moms. Kids do not want a helicopter parent who is constantly hovering over their child, being overinvolved, overcontrolling and/or overprotecting. Nor do they want a lawnmower parent who runs ahead smooth the path to be as soft and easy. 


Let the coach coach and the selectors select. They might not be doing as a great a job as you think you could do, or as you want them to. But this is part of your child’s journey, of them learning how to operate in the world where they will seldom have ideal bosses, perfect political leaders… or perfect parents for that matter.   

Mistake #6. Early specialization in a single sport

Research shows that i) the most successful athletes in the world play three sports up to the age of 15, ii) enter competitions later, iii) achieve milestones later. 

It also shows that specializing in one single sport from too young an age (13-15 depending on the sport), leads to i) impaired learning, ii) boredom, iii) over-use injury, and iv) burn-out. 

Kids who are highly successful by 13-14 years old usually do so because they grow earlier, so become stronger and faster than late-developers. These advantages soon disappear as others catch up. Their early success often leads not learn how to apply themselves. Research in schoolboy rugby in South Africa showed that of those who made their provincial (state) team at under13, only 24% went on to make the same under 19 team. 

In contrast, smaller, less talented and later-maturers learn determination, grit, how to fight back, and have to develop skills and strategy to figure a way. These are important skills for success in all of life. 


·      Have your kid play at least two different sports up to the age of 15. 

·      Do not rush them into competition. And if they do compete up to the age of about 15, know the results do not indicate how good they will be as they get older. Focus on fun. 

·      Avoid over-training, too much coaching, too early at private coaching, or being too serious before they reach about 15 years old. 

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