Parents and motivation in youth soccer

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by Dr. Alan Goldberg, sports psychologist and consultant

Two weeks ago I was in the middle of a tennis match when I was distracted by a rather loud, incredibly annoying voice coming from 10 courts away. When I looked over, I saw a father giving his 12-year old son what looked to be a tennis lesson. The boy was up for a tennis camp for the entire week and it seems that Dad decided to also make the trip so he could spend some quality time with his son and give him a little extra “instruction.” I guess the 7 plus hours a day the boy was already getting at the camp wasn’t quite enough. Perhaps the boy wasn’t motivated enough.

As I listened and watched this father angrily gesture at his son, I wondered if he had any inkling of the damage that he was doing. His tone was impatient and abusive, as if he couldn’t understand why his son was unable to do exactly what he was asking. I wonder if somehow he thought his frustration would somehow motivate his boy to do better. A minor point here. As a teaching pro with 22 years experience what Dad was saying did not exactly constitute high quality instruction.  To put it quite bluntly, Dad did not know what he was talking about. But even if he did, it wouldn’t have mattered. The way that he was interacting with his boy was more of the issue. He was pushing, prodding, demeaning and bottom line, emotionally abusing his son. Is this motivation? The irony of all this is that dear old Dad probably had no awareness at all of the harm that he was doing. Here he had taken a whole week off from work to have a special bonding experience with little Johnny. He was being a good Dad. And I bet his heart was in the right place too. I’m sure he really wanted his young son to grow up happy, with a passionate love for the sport and some talent as a tennis player. Unfortunately he was going about this completely wrong! I’ve seen this scenario played out too many times before to not see the handwriting on the wall. Little Johnny is going to get so fed up with Dad’s “help” that he’s going to begin to hate both tennis and Dad. Soon he’ll quit tennis and have nothing to do with Dad.

Do you really want to motivate your child to reach his/her potential as an athlete? Do you really want them to go “all the way” or at least as far as possible? If your answer to these questions is a resounding “yes” and you’re truly serious about giving your child as big a motivational boost as possible, then read the following very carefully.

Pushing your child towards certain athletic goals that they may or may not have will backfire in your face! It is not your job to motivate your child-athlete. It is not your job to push or pressure them. Doing this will only kill their love for the sport and cause them to ultimately lose respect for you.

Your children’s motivation to participate and excel in a sport is something that should come from within them, not you. They should compete because they want to. They should practice because they want to. They should have their own reasons and own goals. They should pursue their own dreams. I don’t mean to be harsh here, but when it comes to your child’s sport, your dreams don’t count.