I couldn't imagine not playing sports as a kid growing up in the small town of East Aurora, New York. I loved football, hockey, lacrosse, skiing and golf. All year long we would go from one sport to the next. Playing sports and being athletic was important in our family; both my brothers and sisters participated. Our parents encouraged participation in sports and provided us with the resources to participate.
But 40 years ago, when I was in high school, most every athlete played sports for one reason: it was just fun.
Years ago, athletes participated in sports for different reasons than they do today. We loved to compete and enjoy our friends on a team. We didn't care about the rewards in the way athletes do today. For example, the goal wasn't about obtaining an athletic college scholarship. We didn't worry about pleasing our parents with more wins. Winning awards and trophies was not the end game. As athletes, we got into a "flow" by competing, and that was reward enough.
Fast forward to today... As a former junior, high school and college athlete, and now a sports parent and mental game coach to athletes, I have a unique perspective about why sports mean so much to families today. Here's the good, bad and the ugly:
First the Good: Young athletes reap a lot of character benefits from sports participation. They learn discipline, self-confidence, the ability to focus under pressure and to prevail despite adversity. Kids become physically fit, learn leadership skills and teamwork, improve life skills, and create friendships through sports. But all these positive benefits of sports participation can take a back seat to other objectives for many families today.
Next, the Bad... As a mental coach to athletes, I'm seeing a disturbing trend in my work with families and their athletes. Nine out of ten athletes who request our services are perfectionists. You might think: What's wrong with being a perfectionist? The problem is that these athletes struggle to perform to their ability in competition. Perfectionist athletes worry so much about performing perfectly that they over-think and freeze up in competition. These athletes also worry a lot about disappointing parents, coaches, or teammates, which causes them to be fearful and perform tentatively.
Why is perfectionism such a huge trend for athletes today?
Sports participation has taken on a new meaning for families and their athletes. Parents and their kids place more importance on excelling in sports -- way more than when I was a young athlete. For example, kids are forced to specialize in one sport at an earlier age just to stay competitive with other kids. Does this cause more pressure for young athletes today? You bet.
When parents place their kids in organized sports early on, they start with the right reasons. They hope their kids become more physically fit. They often want their kids to meet friends or learn to be part of a team. But eventually their kids' participation in sports morphs into other motives. "Maybe my athlete can get a college scholarship," parents think after their athlete excels or shows promise. At this point, the game changes for athletes. Athletes adopt their parents' goal of obtaining a college scholarship. Young athletes who started sports for the right reasons are now given a different goal. Once again, this leads to more pressure to excel and be perfect as an athlete.
Being identified as a top athlete in sports today carries a level of social status for some families. The mantra is "success in sports equals success in life." "My son is going to play for Stanford," says the proud parent. It's more evidence for the fact that achievement in sports is a primary driver for athletes and their parents. It's a form of "keeping up with the Jones family."
In addition, society holds top college athletes in high esteem, especially in regions where a particular sport, such as football, is popular. Striving to be a top achiever causes athletes to try to be more perfect -- and with this, they fear not reaching others' expectations. The pressure of striving to meet others' expectations becomes a huge burden for many athletes I work with.
And the Ugly: Parents will contact us because they have young athletes who are struggling with their performance. They call us when their kids freeze up, show signs of fear of failure and feel extreme pressure to excel. Parents notice when their kids under-perform in competition compared to the ability they show in practice. One college recruit I helped had trouble focusing when playing baseball. He was too stressed out about getting a college scholarship and not disappointing his parents. Baseball was fun for him at one point, but it later turned into a source of stress and anxiety. This athlete fell victim to the achievement syndrome: My success and thus self-worth depends on my athletic achievements.
But it can get even worse... Sports parents often confess they are the problem: Their athletes feel too much pressure and want to quit sports altogether. They ask us to help them and help their athletes feel better. Why do these athletes feel so much pressure to excel in sports? Is the reason that they don't want to disappoint parents? Or maybe they feel like a failure because they fall short of others' expectations? When parents attempt to "help" kids excel in sports, they often focus on outcomes, winning, avoiding mistakes, getting more playing time and reaching the next level of competition.
All of this is a mindset focused on achievement in sports and thus in life. Playing sports is a huge part of an athlete's identity. That's why sports mean so much to families today. Despite what I know about youth sports, I wonder if our family has bought into the achievement syndrome. My high school athlete looked confused when she asked me, "What happens after I finish playing college tennis, then what?"
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