Parental influences on an athlete’s development

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In an athlete’s early career, his/her parents are normally strongly-involved in their lives. This is understandable – through teen and early adult years, many live with their parents.

On the tennis tour and in boxing, fathers and mothers often travel with their son/daughter athletes, and it is not uncommon for them to act, officially or unofficially, as coach too.

Whilst the parent-child relationships are fundamental, the dynamics between parent and athlete are key. These dynamics can vary and, in turn, parental influences can be very helpful and useful at one end of the scale, but can also be the complete opposite.

At the French Open (tennis) earlier this year, I was on court at a Junior Girls’ match, where mother, father and coach were all court-side. I witnessed as father’s behaviour became increasingly erratic, from non-ideal to inappropriate.

“Ah that was rubbish!” he exclaimed. “Rubbish…rubbish… she’s capable of so much more!”

Even as the mother shot the father knowing, and embarrassed-looking, glances the father carried on. At the time I remember thinking:

A) Father’s words could well have been audible by the player – the outside courts are small and intimate

B) Even if his words weren’t audible, his body language was – it would take just a glance or a peripheral glance to see what he was doing by the player (his daughter) on court

C) Even if the player had been completely unaware of/unaffected by his behaviour during the match (unlikely), what – I asked myself – went on behind the scenes, off court? e.g. in the car on the way home, on the way to tournaments, and – forgetting tennis completely – just generally in life at home?

Players are usually their harshest critics, with the ‘inner critic’ being a science-researched phenomenon that affects us all. In other words, their own self-imposed pressure and expectation is significant in itself, let alone feeling that pressure and expectation from others – which is felt most intensely coming from those closest to them aka their parents. Parents are primary caregivers, who we are accustomed to want love and approval from, and to want for them to be pleased with us.

That said, the separation of parents from athlete, and athlete becoming their own person, where they grow into themselves, warrants a whole post in and of itself.

I also happened to know that this girl comes from a high-achieving background, which is also conducive to internal (self-imposed) and external (environmental) pressures.

All of which can lead to crippling pressure and self-doubt on the court. This is certainly not conducive to a player feeling good, and playing their optimum game.

All of this leads to certain key follow-up questions, applicable to each individual young sports-person:

-> What influence is the parent having? (at home, on court, etc)

-> Is it a healthy or an unhealthy influence?

-> Is it the best idea for the parent to be so involved in their son/daughter’s sport – or, rather, would they be best served being the best mother/father they can without the added complications of acting as coach/supporter?

-> What does the player want?

-> Has the player had the opportunity to express themself and be their own person?

The number 1 priority should be the sport-person, no question about it. How they feel about all of the above, what makes them the most comfortable to play their best game and – most crucially of all – how they feel in their life overall.

Parental relationships are a key component of any athlete’s life – whether in the context of their sport, or in the domains outside.

The decision as to the extent of parental involvement can be a challenging one for all involved, and requires open communication and some real looking in the mirror and brutal honesty on everyone’s part.

If parents are unable to make some serious changes re: their behaviour, body language and actions when necessary (and, of course, with habits and patterns being built up over many years, in the context of them as an individual and the nature of their relationship/dynamic with their child), they must ask themselves whether their over-involvement could be detrimental at worst, or unhelpful at best. Again, honest questions to be asked an answered here.

Two of the very best players in the womens’ game, Serena Williams and Sharapova, both had fathers who have played – and continue to play – a strong part in each of their lives (in and out of tennis), but whose roles have changed over time; both fathers are no longer as heavily involved in their daughters’ tennis.

Parents are parents, and it goes without saying that they have a really important role to play IN their son/daughter’s life as a whole. However, the extent of their involvement in the context of their child’s sport is they key question, and ought to be continually re-visited over the course of an athlete’s teen and adult years.

It could well make the difference in how an athlete develops physically and mentally, in terms of personality and character, as they evolve through these crucial developmental years.

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by
Jasraj
Monday 3rd September, 2017