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  • Tracey Hemphill

Sport’s ownership and play. How parents can strip their child of that ownership.

Tracey Hemphill – BA Sport Psychology, HMS, PGCE, SSA & ASCA Level 4 accredited coach, Transformational Life Coach.


“Three out of four American families with school-aged children have at least one playing an organized sport — a total of about 45 million kids. By age 15, as many as 80 percent of these youngsters have quit, according to the “Open Access Journal of Sports Medicine.


Most athletes are quitting, when their interest in the sport should be at its peak. Any investment into a sporting code is only really going to bear fruit at the age of 15 – 25, and yet this is when our athletes are throwing in the towel. In South Africa specifically there is no difference. We are seeing our participation in sports dwindle as kids approach their senior years of high school. Why? There are many reasons for this and some that are out of our control, but there are behaviours and habits we as parents can avoid to contribute to this.


In over ten years of coaching, I can say without reservation, that the number 1 cause of this scary statistic, amongst others, is the negative association created by parents. As a coach, I know how difficult it is to try and not get over excited about a little 11-year-old pocket rocket who seems to display the potential to make it big. It is difficult to hold back and be patient as the process unfolds. However, we MUST! The consequence of the alternative is devastating, not only to the athlete and their potential, but to the relationships, to their socialization and to their ability to become productive contributing adults in the world.


I have been coaching for over 10 years, and I have been fortunate enough to participate in local and international programs. We are working with over 300 children privately, of which 6 are selected for our elite groups per year. That is less than 0.05% of our intake that make it to a high level of participation.


Play and enjoyment are the reasons that kids start a sporting code. They do it because they love it. Sports can create an opportunity for the parent to have a good and healthy activity to participate in with your child. All sports require volunteers and officials, and the parents who get involved for a good cause gain long-term relationships with other like-minded parents and gather an understanding for the sport. It offers the parent the opportunity to have something identifiable with their child, where THE CHILD sets goals and objectives in that sport and THE PARENT SUPPORTS the child.


The life lessons learned in a healthy sporting environment are well documented, and I know many CEO’s who will not hire individuals who did not take part in sports at a high level, and it is mainly due to the following learned skills:


· Accepting ownership

· Taking responsibility

· Goal setting

· Learning how to follow the rules

· Honesty


It is a sad case of affairs, when a child will spend their sporting careers never truly taking ownership of their sporting achievements. Parents often merge their objectives with their child’s performance, which can lead to negative associations for the participant. We hear parents say things like “We have given up too much time,” and We have been working so hard,” and while we recognise that these success stories require a lot of support and sacrifice from the parents we need to remind ourselves that it is the child who has to do the work for themselves.


Success and achievement in sport is a by-product of massive sacrifice and discipline, not only from the child but also from the parent, and when the parent begins to claim ownership or merge their objectives with that of the child, the child is stripped of that ownership. It is no longer theirs to enjoy, but theirs to be lost.


The saddest part of any coach’s career is watching a perfectly talented athlete develop a sense of self-sabotage, or fear of failure due to the demands that are placed on them, and often these demands are a product of their own creation, but there are cases where the negative associations are a result of behaviour by the parents.


Professionalism, bursaries and scholarships have also invaded our sports and have detracted from the purposes they are meant to fill, which is for health, fulfilment and enjoyment. Athletes and parents cling to the prospects that various institutions can offer them, therefore taking away from the thing that makes participation and achievement natural and enjoyable. Scholarship is the buzz word on the side of the pool/sports fields, and there is less talk about the tour the child really enjoyed or the friend they have made in their team.


“If you are doing something for someone else it is work.” So I ask you, how does what your child takes part in, create value to their lives? To be truly fulfilled by an activity or path you have chosen in life it needs to have created value for you. One must be able to reflect back on experiences where they learnt something or it added to their character.

When you are screaming at them for missing the catch – How does this create value to their life?


When you are criticizing the ref for his decision – How does this create value to their life?

While you are undermining the team selectors for their decision – How does this create value to their life?


For an individual to sustain an interest or motivation for any activity they have to have an intrinsic reward from it, and that means that it should not be about the outcome, reward or result. To play is to dedicate oneself cheerfully without obligation to a deed and not for any external goal, simply to the activity itself and not the reward. It is these experiences, which add value to our lives.


Any leadership or self-development book will read – If you want to be successful, you have to model those that are successful. I am not aware of a successful athlete where the parents have not played a supporting, dedicated role in the athlete’s life, leading and guiding their child through the trials and tribulations of success and failure. Dealing with failure is hard and we can all agree a pleasurable experience, but it is necessary for learning and adapting. Athletes need to build character, because they are not going to go through a season flawlessly, and they are going to miss the cut, be beaten and have a bad day. At the end of the day, it is all about how they handle that situation, learn from that experience and get back on the horse.


“Your child’s success or lack of success in sport is not a reflection of you as a parent, but having an athlete that is respectful, mentally tough and able to accept accountability, is.” When you as a parent claim ownership over your child’s experiences and you do not allow them to take responsibility and learn how to fail, you are not giving them the space to develop the character. The environment is going to give them all the tools and experiences to make of it what they will, and we, as parents need to give them that ownership and make it theirs in order for them to get the most value out of the experience.


I am also a parent, living in fear of the fact that I will not do right by my kids. I live in fear of the fact that in knowing what I know about a subject that I may under perform in the supportive role. However, I am mindful of the consequences of not allowing them to have the experience for themselves. I cannot live life for them or through them, but I can ensure the value of each element as it presents itself.


There is a supporters T-shirt in South Africa that reads “Perfect Parents.”, and unfortunately, there is no such thing. We all do the best we can with the tools we have. In all my years of involvement in competitive sport, I see nothing but parents who love and adore their children, and want the best for them. We believe in them and want to do our best by them. Our children will grow up way too fast for our liking, and I hope that the most important message we impart to them is that they should do things for the sake of the activity itself. Take from it what you will, things that will add value to your life and if you are lucky these experiences will be more play than work.




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