Winston Churchill High School senior girls soccer player Frannie Phillips has occasionally proclaimed to her parents that she’s decided to hang up her cleats and be done with the sport for good. But those were fleeting moments, likely occurring out of exhaustion or the frustration of having to give up another social event.
The reality is “soccer is a part of me” and any time spent out of the game “eats me up on the inside,” the University of North Carolina, Wilmington recruit said. She said her parents stepped back and let her come to that conclusion on her own.
But that is not always the case.
Most children seek approval from their parents and those parents, for the most part, have their children’s best interests and well-being in mind. But in the current climate of youth sports, especially at the elite level—where specialization runs rampant and college scholarships are too often a main motivating factor behind participation—it’s easy to get too wrapped up in the competitiveness, said Jen Olcott, the mother of Churchill girls soccer players Molly and Jane.
And when it stops being about the athlete and what he or she wants, there’s a problem, parents and athletes agree.
“I’ve seen players who have parents who will yell and swear at games and hover around practices and you can tell they can feel their parents’ eyes on them,” said Morgan Wiese, Walt Whitman girls soccer’s standout defender. “It puts pressure on them. And when the parents yell, sometimes the kids yell back and it’s not a good environment for them, or anyone [playing in the game]. It can really affect everyone. It’s toxic.”
Most parents don’t step over the line, coaches agreed. And their actions are mostly well-intentioned and based on a desire to ensure their kids continue playing the sport they love after high school, Churchill girls soccer coach Haroot Hakopian said. “But when it’s not done right, it can go off the rails very quickly,” he added.
Here are seven ways, according to coaches, parents and athletes, to help make sure that both parents and players maintain a healthy relationship with sports.
1. Make sure it’s still fun
Enjoyment should be the No. 1 reason why athletes compete at a high level. When it stops being fun, it’s time to consider another hobby.
“You need to have your kid jumping out of the car, can’t wait to go play at practice,” Olcott said. “Youth sports can almost be like a job. It’s always important to keep checking in with your kids: ‘Are you happy? Do you want to do this?’ The second there’s any hesitation, you need to dig a little further. Because it’s just not worth it. You never want to put them in an unhealthy environment.”
There’s no hiding the look young athletes wear when they’ve been stripped of their joy in playing. “You can see it in their body language, the way they walk off the field; even the way they walk on the field,” Olcott said.
2. Minimize pressure
As youth sports have become an incredibly lucrative business—and less about recreation— parents are paying more for their children to join club and travel teams and for private lessons and tournaments. The costs add up to thousands of dollars each year and it’s understandable, coaches agreed, for parents to want to see results, especially when it comes to their child being recognized and playing at a higher level. The pressure put on their children is often subconscious, Hakopian said.
It’s no coincidence that many of the county’s top athletes benefit from positive and supportive relationships with their parents, coaches pointed out. It’s also no coincidence that many of those parents were or continue to be elite-level athletes or coaches themselves. Those who have been through the youth sports machine and are familiar with the college recruitment process tend to better understand the weight of expectations—and don’t need to live vicariously through their children.
Kids often put enough pressure on themselves and don’t need more from their parents, Thomas S. Wootton coach Nia Cresham said. Plus, it’s important for parents to remember that athlete development takes time and skills don’t improve at the same rate for everyone.
“My parents have always stressed that there’s no pressure on any of my athletic performances,” said Wiese, whose father coaches the Georgetown University men’s soccer team and whose mother competed in track and field in college. “I think it helps having them understand what it feels like going through all of this. I never feel like they’re pressuring me or are disappointed in me.”
3. Be aware of the effect you have on your child
Every athlete is different. Some kids might like their parents sitting in the front row, others might get nervous. It’s important for parents to be aware of the effect they have on their child, Cresham said.
She noted that the mother of Wootton No. 1 singles player and three-time defending state champion Miranda Deng watches most of her matches, but is never in her daughter’s line of vision.
“She’s got a great attitude and is extremely calm,” Cresham added. “Miranda knows she’s there, but she stays back. …Some parents make their kids super nervous and are completely unaware of it.”
4. Allow for a disconnect from the sport
When a game or competition is over, it’s over. The car ride home is not the place for analysis, Hakopian said. When athletes are ready to talk, they will make the first move and prompt parents with questions.
“My parents are very open and I can talk to them, but they respect when I’m frustrated with a game and know when it’s OK to give their opinion and when I need to just go do my own thing,” said Phillips, whose father played competitive soccer into adulthood.
5. Don’t coach from the sidelines
Parents often believe they know more than their children, but in most cases, there comes a time when high-level athletes exceed their parent’s knowledge of their sport. And it’s vital for parents to acknowledge and accept when this happens. That doesn’t mean they can’t provide advice, but a line needs to be drawn between who is the coach and who is the parent, Olcott said.
Hakopian said he’s decided he won’t coach his 7-year-old son’s youth teams and cherishes moments when he pretends like he knows nothing about soccer and allows his child to explain the sport to him in his own words—even if they’re wrong.
When an athlete gets the ball in a game or a tennis player is in the middle of a point, that’s the only moment that is theirs alone, Hakopian said. Parents screaming advice from the stands are being counterproductive.
“There are times even when coaching the top-level players, when you’re thinking, ‘No, no, no, what are you doing…oh, good shot,’ ” Hakopian said. “They’re creative and sometimes they do things you aren’t thinking about and you have to let them figure it out.”
6. Success and winning are not mutually exclusive
It’s important to emphasize the difference between winning and success, Olcott said, and to remember that it’s not always about the results, but the experience gained. There’s a big difference between winning a game and having a successful experience.
Coaches also agreed that “failure” should not be taboo and that some of the best lessons can be learned through setbacks.
7. Let your children advocate for themselves
Parents by nature want to protect their children. But it’s also important for athletes to learn to advocate for themselves, Melissa Phillips said. Too much parental involvement can actually hinder a child’s relationship with his or her teammates and coaches; there is often a direct correlation between the skill level of athletes and their ability to advocate for themselves, Hakopian said.
“There have been times where there has been conflict, but we don’t ever get involved with coach-player relationships,” Phillips said. “We have [our daughters] figure out a way to resolve them on their own. And it’s really propelled their ability to problem-solve. It carries over to relationships with all adults. We started them off young, learning how to advocate for themselves.”
Morgan Wiese. Credit: Adam Prill