Parents: Beware of stepping into the Too Zone
By Greg Bach
Being the parent of a young athlete these days is as challenging as ever, where missteps along the way can drive kids from sports.
And damage those all-important parent-child relationships, too.
“I call it the too zone and it’s one of the most dangerous words in sports,” says internationally recognized sports psychologist Dr. Jim Taylor, author of Raising Young Athletes. “Of course, parents want to care about their kid and their sports, and they want their sports to be important to them – but it shouldn’t be too important. When they enter the too zone that means they start getting overly invested and their self-esteem, their ego and their identity starts being connected with how their kids do.”
When that happens a child’s experience can be sabotaged.
“A metaphor I use is imagine your kid is about to walk on to the field or court and you make them put on a 50-pound weight vest,” says Taylor, who has worked with youth, collegiate, Olympic and professional athletes for more than 30 years. “How are they going to feel? They are going to be weighed down. How are they going to perform? Not well. In a way, when parents enter the too zone they place that metaphorical 50-pound weight vest on their child’s shoulders and it’s a crushing burden on them.”
Are your expectations weighing your child down?
“If the parents are nervous before a game the kids are going to see that and they are going to go ‘wow, this is something to be worried about here,’” Taylor says. “And if a kid doesn’t do well are the parents upset? The kid is going to see that. They’re going to go, ‘oh my gosh, I just lost and I disappointed my mom and dad.’ That’s harsh.”
If that’s the case parents are advised to take a step back. If they’re being consumed by their child’s performance measures must be taken before emotions spiral out of control.
“I tell parents if they can’t be positive and calm and have a good time at games and competitions, then don’t go,” Taylor says. “And I know parents who just don’t go. It is horribly sad because one of the great joys in life should be sharing the athletic experiences that your kids have. So, it’s being super aware of what messages you are sending and what messages you want to send.”
Check out what else Taylor, a former world-ranked alpine ski racer and author of multiple books on sport psychology, child development and parenting, had to say to help you navigate your child’s journey through sports:
SPORTINGKID LIVE: What should parents be doing to help their young athletes who are affected by a fear of failure?
TAYLOR: First of all, don’t talk about results, which obviously is an incredibly hard thing to do. Don’t create expectations because that creates pressure. Emphasize the process. It ties in with overinvestment. When parents are too invested and care too much for how their kids do then they believe their self-esteem, how they feel about themselves and their values as people is on the line. And so when their kids do well they feel better about themselves. And then they pass it on to their kids, so every time the child walks on the field or the court in a way they are putting their life on the line. Not their physical life, but their emotional and their self-esteem life and that’s really threatening. That’s why kids develop a fear of failure because they feel this immense pressure and they get incredibly nervous.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: Are we simply paying more attention to parental behavior these days, or has it always been a factor in youth sports?
TAYLOR: There have always been over-involved parents but no doubt the volume has been turned way up. It used to be that the focus of kids’ sports was about fun, developing life skills, learning to compete and having a good time with their friends. Now, it’s what I call the Youth Sports Industrial Complex in which it’s all about getting kids a college scholarship, playing professionally and being in the Olympics, which of course is statistically nearly impossible. Plus, we live in a culture where it’s all about winning and it’s all about being the best and not everybody can be the best. So what I call the Professionalization of Youth Sports has sent these really unhealthy messages to parents about what their kids should be capable of doing. And so parents are putting in time, money, sacrificing family and sacrificing professional lives to give kids opportunities, and I’m not against parents making some sacrifices as long as they’re for the right reasons. But when parents invest so much of themselves that puts tremendous pressure on kids.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: How should parents balance kids pursuing dreams without pressuring them in the process?
TAYLOR: Make sure that the kids are pursuing it for themselves. If the kid has a tremendous passion for the sport, go for it. Not only is it healthy in so many ways from a physical perspective and in terms of achieving goals, but it’s also armor against an incredibly toxic world that we are living in these days. If it comes from the kid and parents are supporting them then more power to them. They’re going to have amazing experiences if it’s approached the right way and it will have a huge impact on their lives. The problem is when it gets to be about the parents and the kids don’t have that passion. What that does is ultimately at some point most kids will push back and so they’ll stop trying very hard, they’ll start sabotaging their efforts, and their relationship with their parents will deteriorate because they are being forced to do something they don’t enjoy.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: Parents see the success stories of world class athletes, so how can they manage expectations for their child?
TAYLOR: Parents are vulnerable to the messages, too. They’re surrounded by other parents, by coaches, by kids, by just our sports culture saying that you have to win, you have to have early success, and you have to have early specialization and it’s hard to resist those messages – especially if you don’t know. A kid can be a superstar at 12 and not be playing, or not be very good, at 16. A great example is with the Little League World Series. How many players over the entire history of the Little League World Series have gone on to play Major League Baseball? Thirty-three, which says that being really good at that age isn’t that predictive. If parents can not be seduced by that and instead go on to what I call the No Superstar Assumption, which is the assumption that your kid will not be a superstar in anything because statistically that’s the way it is – and that actually increases the chances that they could. We see all these super athletes who made it really far and parents think ‘my kid can be that.’ But kids and parents don’t see the hard work and how difficult it is. Also, for every Serena Williams or Tiger Woods who made it, there are hundreds of thousands of kids who are on the exact same path and didn’t make it because they didn’t have good enough genes, and they didn’t have a passion for it.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: What needs to be done to change the unhealthy outlook that too many parents bring to youth sports?
TAYLOR: Most parents, if you give them good information about how to be good sports parents, they will be a good sports parent. There are always the outliers, the ones who are just over the top and have lost perspective, but if you can create a culture within a team that sends healthy messages then new parents that come in will buy into that because we are also affected by the messages we get and it’s going to make the whole environment for the kids much healthier and much more positive.
Dr. Jim Taylor
Olympian Jonathan Edwards, author of An Athlete’s Guide to Winning in Sports and Life, on crafting plans, dreaming big and focusing on the long-term
Grand Valley State University professor Dr. Jon Coles studied college athletes and the impact of their parents’ behavior on their youth sports experiences. Use these insights to bolster your child’s athletic journey
When young athletes become insecure about their bodies it can send them down a dangerous path, affecting both their physical and mental well-being
Dr. Robert Weil, co-author of #HeySportsParents! and a leading sports podiatrist, on what you need to know when it comes to your young athletes and the shoes they wear to compete