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When parents put too much pressure on their young athletes to succeed
Greg Mutchler still remembers the mother who sat alone in the grandstands.
Nobody wanted to be near her.
“She would get very frustrated during the meets,” said Mutchler, a longtime coach at the Olympic Gymnastics Center in Silverdale. “The mom was so serious, they didn’t want to sit next to her.”
She was a former gymnast whose daughter belonged to Silverdale’s club, a training center for young athletes who compete at the state level. Some of the gymnasts are as young as 7 or 8.
As Mutchler remembers, the mother wanted her daughter to succeed. But she often took her support too far, yelling at officials and disputing calls when her child was on the short end of the scoresheet.
The result: A young athlete feeling pressured to succeed in sports as a result of an overbearing parent.
It’s been 40 years since Hall of Fame center fielder Mickey Mantle confessed on the Dick Cavett Show that he wet the bed up to the age of 16, stemming from the pressure he felt from his father to become an elite player.
Those close to Mantle suggested his father’s overbearing personality led to emotional problems and alcoholism later in Mantle’s life.
“The early pressure on Mickey to play ball and his self-imposed drive to play it better than anyone, caused real emotional problems for him,” wrote his wife, Merlyn, in “A Hero All His Life: A Memoir by the Mantle Family.” “A lot of the conflicts in him later had their roots in those years.”
Late in life Mantle underwent surgery to have his liver replaced, and following the operation, he spoke to the children for whom he was a role model:
“Don’t be like me. God gave me a body and the ability to play baseball. I had everything and I just ...”
Now, more and more attention is being given to the relationship between parents, coaches and young athletes — and how the actions of adults affect children.
Frank Smoll, a professor at the University of Washington who dedicated his adult life to studying sports psychology, believes over-involved parents are one of the biggest problems in youth sports.
And there are many reasons why.
In what Smoll called the “frustrated jock syndrome,” some parents live vicariously through their children because they want to relive their own glory years or feel the joy of success. But instead of providing support and encouragement and knowing when to draw the line, they push and push and push.
Often times, parents don’t realize the problems they create.
“It can be very difficult to recognize when you’re in it,” Smoll said. “They are in a state of perpetual denial.”
That’s not to say parents shouldn’t be involved in their children’s activities, but they must know when enough is enough.
Young people rely on positive feedback from their parents to build self-esteem, Smoll said, and since there is a natural bond between a parent and child, feedback can be quite powerful.
“Kids almost naturally gravitate to that,” Smoll said.
Some parents falsely assume their child will earn a college scholarship if they are good enough at their sport.
Those parents dream of their student-athlete earning a full-ride scholarship, hoping to save money and avoid going into debt for a good education.
“The parents feel they have invested and they are looking for a return,” Smoll said. “Parents don’t understand the chances of their athlete getting a scholarship, or going pro, is very small. Their involvement with their kids in sports is sometimes for the wrong reason.”
The numbers don’t lie.
According to the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the governing body of college sports, about 3 percent of male high school basketball players go on to play college ball at the Division I level, and less than .05 percent make it pro. The numbers are similar for women, too, at 3.3 and .02 percent.
There are athletes from Central Kitsap and Bremerton who will play college ball next season at the D-I level, but not many.
Bremerton High School senior Jarell Flora will play basketball at Seattle University, the first Bremerton player to go D-I since Marvin Williams went to the University of North Carolina in 2005; Olympic High School senior Larry Dixon will play football at Army; and Central Kitsap High School’s Drew Vettleson (baseball), Christian Wesley (basketball), Hannah Anderson (soccer), Shane Moskowitz (cross-country) and Shannon Moskowitz (cross-county) will play D-I in their respective sports.
“Not everyone is going to make it,” Smoll said.
Dustyn Brim, 26, a goalkeeper for the Kitsap Pumas, did make it.
Although Brim never felt pressured by his parents, saying they were supportive throughout his childhood and asked only that he try his best, he knows players who have struggled to meet their parents’ expectations.
The professional player has instructed youth soccer camps in Kitsap County and witnessed parent-child conflicts first-hand, though he said most of it “happens behind the scenes.”
“Instead of looking at their coach after a play, they look over to their parents,” Brim said of a sign that could mean a child is feeling pressured.
Brim is an athlete who is paid to play the games he loves and reached the pinnacle of his sport, or at least close to it, but he acknowledged the real reason he plays is because it’s fun.
Sports should be enjoyable, he said, and when parents pressure their kids into performing above and beyond, it takes that joy away.
“You always want to do well for your parents,” he said. “But if there’s a conflict like that, it sort of ruins it.”
Kitsap Lake resident Bob Theal, a longtime umpire and father of two, may have the most unique perspective of all.
Theal once ejected his own daughter from a soccer game after she broke a rule on the field at the age of 13. Today, it’s a running joke between the family.
When it happened in the 1990s, it was no laughing matter.
“I told her, ‘Listen, I’m not your dad right now. I’m an umpire,’” Theal said.
In 33 years of officiating — 21 in Kitsap — Theal has witnessed everything from fathers being kicked out of games, to mothers consoling their child after a called strike three.
He used those experiences to teach his kids lessons about sports — and life.
“As a parent, I reinforce to kids that you don’t bad-mouth officials because it’s just not courteous ,” Theal said. “As an umpire, I don’t put up with any crap from the crowd.”
Parents aren’t the only people who pressure young athletes to succeed. Coaches do it too.
For that reason, many organizations and schools require coaches to complete training and education programs.
Smoll and Ronald Smith, the director of the clinical psychology program at the University of Washington, created training videos for parents and coaches as part of a large project called Youth Enrichment in Sports, or “YES.”
The 66-minute coaching video provides an overview of the objectives of youth sports, or at least what they should be. The self-instruction manual also offers behavioral guidelines for coaches to follow — how to react to good plays and mistakes, how to maintain order and discipline, how to foster a positive learning atmosphere and how to handle the violation of team rules or polices, among others.
With training and awareness, Smoll and Smith believe coaches are less likely to pressure their players. Smoll hosts workshops for parents and coaches as well.
“The objective is to create training programs that get coaches, players and parents on the same page,” Smoll said.
Mutchler, the gymnastics coach, went through training programs similar to the one created by Smoll and Smith. His message to parents, especially to the overbearing ones, is simple:
“Support your kids at home and let the coaches coach,” he said. “Mellow out, cool it and let us do our job.”