Helicopter parenting is ruining youth sports and harming children

When mother-of-three Heather Behrends’ eldest son Jake, 15, started playing baseball, she got involved. Very implicated.

“I would go out and practice with him and criticize what he was doing – every swing he took,” Behrends, 43, recalled.

Behrends wanted Jake to succeed, and when the Denver-based founder of parenting blog Made In A Pinch saw her son struggle to improve, she paid for private coaching. However, the more she pushed her son to excel, the more Jake’s passion for the sport waned.

“I felt like I was forcing him to go to practice,” Behrends told the Post. “Eventually I felt like he was doing what he didn’t want to do, even though he loved sports. For him, it started to feel like a chore.

A new study by Italian researchers, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, has found that while enrolling children in sports can benefit their development, parents should avoid being overly critical – or hyper involved – in the way they play the game.

Denver’s mother, Heather Behrends, realized that her efforts to help her son Jake excel at baseball had the opposite effect.

“Our results suggest that excessive parental involvement may put pressure on children who would prefer parental involvement characterized by praise and understanding,” the study authors wrote. “A balance is necessary.

Jake Schwartzwald, director of Everything Summer, a New York-based education consultancy, agrees. Parents generally have their children’s best interests at heart, he said, but can run into trouble once they start micromanaging the experience.

“Every parent enrolls their children in sports or activities with good intentions. [But] sometimes there can be a line that is crossed, where suddenly the parent becomes more involved or invested in the outcome, versus the goal of why they enroll their children in the sport in the first place,” Schwartzwald explained. .

“Very rarely will these added levels of pressure have positive effects on mental health,” he added.

There are also physical repercussions. There has been an eruption of overuse injuries in youth sports, spurred in part by overzealous parents. A 2015 survey in the American Journal of Sports Medicine found that 60% of all Tommy John surgeries in the United States are for patients between the ages of 15 and 19.

And lopsided behavior – even threats of violence – from parents at games has led some coaches to quit.

San Francisco mother Luz Helmetjo Johnston, 51, has taken a laid-back approach to her son’s involvement in the sport.

“We just wanted him to have a good time and pursue his passions,” said Casquejo Johnston, a former homeroom and assistant professor at Saint Mary’s College of California.

Parents should be careful not to get too involved in the game, experts say.
Parents should be careful not to get too involved in the game, experts say.
Getty Images/iStockphoto

And so, when he didn’t end up making his high school baseball team, he was able to pursue another sport — soccer — without feeling like he’d failed.

“At some point their sporting career is going to be over, and they have to be well balanced to define themselves,” said Casquejo Johnston. “Many parents have unrealistic expectations of what is possible for their athletes and what happens is that they derive life from a childhood passion, which then becomes a source of friction, stress and can end in a strained relationship.”

Jason Sacks, president of the Positive Coaching Alliance, a national nonprofit aimed at building character in youth sports, tells parents it’s not their job to worry about winning or losing. Instead, he advises that they be supportive – not hovering.

“Youth sports have become a ‘win at all costs’ mentality, [but] no one wins when parents are too involved,” Sacks said, noting that parents can become increasingly competitive when athletic scholarships are on the line.

Johnson's teenage son transitioned from baseball to football without feeling like a failure, she said.
A hands-off approach helped Luz Helmetjo Johnston’s teenage son transition from baseball to football without feeling like a failure, she said.
Courtesy of Casquejo Johnston

If a child sees that a parent is visibly upset when a coach makes comments to them, they may feel like they have let the parent down.

“It’s bad enough when kids make a mistake on the pitch – they look down, they look at the coach and they look at their parents in the stands and when they feel that pressure from the parents it takes them out of the game. “, he said.

Another potentially damaging parenting game? Speak up for their children – rather than letting them voice their own concerns. Parents often ask for their children to have more playing time, when they should encourage one-on-one conversations between children and their coaches to ask, “What can I do to improve myself?” “Sacks explained.

Expert Jason Sacks says that when children see their parents disappointed in their performance, it can damage the child's self-esteem.
Expert Jason Sacks explains that if a child senses a parent’s disappointment in their athletic performance, it can hurt their self-esteem.
Getty Images/Cavan Images RF

“When a kid leaves high school, maybe he’s heading to college or entering the workforce where his parents won’t be there, so he’ll have to get used to standing up for himself,” Sacks continued.

Meanwhile, Behrends has finally found a more appropriate distance to cheer on her son.

“I realized he just needed to struggle,” she said. “When he started doing this on his own, when I let go, it became more fun for him. He actually improved more than when I was spending time with him.


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