Mum or Manager? Getting it Right as a Sporting Parent

pushy parents

Parents in Sport Week – 2nd – 8th October 2017

For many young sportspeople, their parent(s) are the most significant influence on the early part of their sports career. While I’m a little way from watching any of my own sprogs run around a sports field, my coaching and playing experiences mean that I see and hear behaviour at both ends of the weird and wonderful spectrum when it comes to ‘hockey parents’.

There’s a fine line between being supportive and being ‘pushy’. When integrated in a healthy and positive way, sport can create a powerful bond, a weekly routine, a topic of conversation and a sense of purpose in the wider fabric of family life. However, when a parent projects expectations or ambitions for sporting success onto a child in the wrong way, this can be detrimental or even damaging.

My immediate family has always been very supportive of my hockey career, but I feel fortunate that this never transmitted itself as a pressure to play or achieve something. My parents watched games, provided a taxi service and took an interest, but never made decisions for me, and didn’t make me feel bad or externalise blame when something didn’t go my way.

I think of this approach as being interested rather than involved. For me, interested means creating an environment where a child has the space and (where possible) the means to develop and prosper in their own time and way. Involved is the overbearing, highly opinionated adult who seems to ‘want it’ more than their child does.

Talented juniors usually have a packed schedule, but self-sufficiency is a learned skill. A little help is allowable, but if Mum or Dad is constantly making decisions or communicating with coaches, teachers or mentors on their child’s behalf, this doesn’t encourage them to develop into a responsible and accountable individual on the field (or in life).

There’s obviously nothing wrong with having dreams and working extremely hard to achieve them, but the pushy parent often forgets (or even actively ignores) the importance of having a balanced life outside sport alongside this work ethic. Study, spending time with friends, making mistakes and learning from them… just being a kid every now and then is vital.

Incidentally, the pushy parent rarely goes unnoticed. As a coach, it can take considerable time and patience to manage the demands and expectations of this type of parent and ultimately this only reduces the intellectual and emotional energy we can invest in developing our players and teams.

Of course, this requires a bit of trust on the part of a parent. Most of us coach for the right reasons – we are passionate about helping every single one of our players reach their potential… **including your child! A friend of mine recently attended a Q&A session with ten-time Paralympic medalist David Weir. When asked the biggest piece of advice he would give the parents of a promising 14-year old sportsperson, his answer was, “Just let the coach do his/her job”…

In hockey, there now appears to be a sense that a player’s ultimate success will hinge on doing as many 1-to-1 training sessions as possible and being fast-tracked or playing 1X1/adult hockey as a teenager. These may play a role in the performance pathway, but I don’t believe there is such thing as a perfect route to the top and every player has their own story.

To illustrate this point, I didn’t play National League Hockey until I went to university and I know several GB Olympians, including Rio hockey gold medalists, who didn’t represent England at junior level or play Premier League hockey until they were in their 20s. If a player isn’t involved in first team hockey aged 15 or misses out on a selection, it doesn’t always mean drastic action is needed. With a supportive and nurturing background response, it might actually be the best thing that ever happens to them in terms of development.

Setbacks – whether an injury, disappointing result or missed selection – are an inevitable part of sport at any level. This might sound a bit weird, but I believe resilience is part grit and part love. Grit is what you do (crack on when it would be easier to stop) and love – of what you do, your team and yourself – is the reason why you manage to keep going. If you don’t love or at least value these things, it’s a hell of a lot harder to keep doing it when the going gets tough.

Ultimately, pushing kids might be a factor in propelling them to a certain level of success, but it doesn’t tend to make them mentally tough or self-sufficient, and most importantly it might mean they aren’t fostering a love of the sport for their own reasons.

Why is this important? I believe that loving the game has motivated, protected and strengthened me during my hockey career. Some of the setbacks I’ve had have hit me pretty hard mentally and emotionally, but I am convinced that I was able to play under some tough circumstances (and even enjoyed playing during these times) because the drive came from within me.

Clearly some players with pushy parents will “make it”, but is this what it’s really about? Wearing an England shirt doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve actually reached your potential and standing on a podium doesn’t automatically mean you’ll be happy beyond that moment. Grit and love can be just as powerful and important as ambition and hard work in the grand scheme of things on and off the field.

Perhaps the hardest part of being a sporting parent is figuring out whether your hopes and dreams for your child are the same as their own. Maybe one day I’ll learn that this isn’t as easy as it looks, but I hope I’ll remember to try and be more like a mum than a manager.




If you’re interested in finding out more about this topic, I’d highly recommend the following:

‘Parent Power: In Support of Parents in Sport Week’

‘How to Raise Successful Kids – Without Over Parenting’ [TED Talk]

Parents in Sport Week 2017