Emma Waterworth’s passion for sports helped her learn how to work through adversity. Unfortunately, the varsity basketball player’s love for the game gradually declined due to team problems that spiraled out of control.
That’s when one set of parents on Waterworth’s basketball squad got so involved in making sure their child was the star that it created a rift in the team.
“This girl was willing to let the team lose a game as long as she was leading scorer and she made the headlines of the paper because of the pressure put on by her parents,” Waterworth says.
The stereotype that the millennial generation is more entitled than previous generations has made its way into youth sports. This culture consists of athletes who believe that participation is an automatic guarantee to playing time, parents who coach from the sidelines, and players who challenge authority and rely on parents to fight their battles.
There are plenty of benefits to joining a sports team. More than physical activity, sports give youth a chance to experience competition and develop skills that they can take with them into adulthood. Participating in sports allows youth to experience failure and grow from it. It teaches them the value of working hard and teamwork. Developing these traits can provide a strong foundation for youth to grow and become successful individuals in a world of harsh realities. Maybe that’s why according to a 2010 study by the Child Study Center, 30 to 45 million kids ages 6 through 18 participate in at least one school or community-based athletic program.
“I think that sport can be a tremendous asset for people to learn those skills, but they have to be put in situations where they are challenged and they can fail,” says Dr. Justin Anderson, a licensed psychologist who specializes in sports psychology at the University of Minnesota.
Anderson, who has worked with athletes, coaches, and teams of all competitive levels, says youth sports today are fixated on the wrong components of athletics.
“The biggest mistake that we have made as a culture is that we are so focused on outcome, that we have lost the ability to work through the conflict or the issues,” Anderson says. “What that does is create people who give up the first time they hit adversity.”
He attributes this shift in attitude to something bigger than sports, explaining that it starts in the family unit.
In general, the Baby Boomers didn’t have to sacrifice the way their parents’ generation did, and they became wealthy pretty quickly, Anderson says. That’s where he believes it started: Because the Baby Boomers had more than their parents, they want their kids to have even more.
“It has created this society that thinks we should always do more and we should always be more successful,” Anderson says. “I think that’s going to be hard to do.”
Jeff Duke, who leads a postgraduate program in coaching at the University of Central Florida, attributes this shift in culture to the breakdown of the American family in the last two generations.
“If you look at the history of civilization, we have now created two generations of entitlement,” Duke says. “We have become absorbed with self and that has migrated to sports.”
Duke believes that many parents are enthralled with their kids doing something great at a young age and being measured by it. Their child’s success in sports gives them a chance to validate themselves as parents, he says.
Dr. Nicole LaVoi, an education specialist at the University of Minnesota, has conducted research that focuses on the effects of adult behaviors in youth sports and the emotional experiences of youth sport parents.
“We definitely know that parental involvement in youth sports has increased over the years,” LaVoi says.
She believes that part of the problem is that parents’ identities often get wrapped up in the athletic success of their children. A lot of parents simply won’t let their kids fail at youth sports, she says.
“They’re coming from a good place, but oftentimes they forget that a team is made up of everyone’s kids, not just theirs,” Lavoi says. “I think the perspective of, ‘I need to do what is good and right for all the kids on the team,’ is lost for this generation of parents.”
“Whether it’s unhealthy or not, I don’t know,” Duke says. “It’s still very young, but we have become such a performance-driven culture, which I don’t think is wrong. But when it becomes how we validate a human being, I think we’re on very dangerous ground.”
Duke tells coaches that they have to coach two generations: the athlete and their parent. He says coaches often have to deal with parents who are caught up in “extrinsic motivation,” such as their child’s playing time or the number of trophies they win.
Jenna Simpson, the head competitive and performance dance coach for Lincoln High School in Sioux Falls, S.D., is no stranger to parent complaints. She receives them in every form, including emails, phone calls, and even social media posts.
She says these complaints come from parents who are angry their child did not make the varsity team, or questioning why their child is not in the front row.
“Don’t get me wrong, I like to win,” says Linda Wharrem, the mother of two children who are involved in sports. “But parents want to win at all costs and youth do not want to disappoint them, which can create conflict.”
Wharrem says she has witnessed parents placing far too much emphasis on winning, but that parents today are also facing tremendous amounts of pressure to constantly be great and produce results. She says in many cases this pressure is ultimately passed on to the children.
As a parent, Wharrem believes that her role is to provide encouragement, help develop goals, and just enjoy watching her children excel or participate at any level.
Duke says an athlete’s development in the sport and their ability to pick themselves up after failing are what both parents and coaches need to focus on developing and evaluating. When the focus strays away from this, a situation like Waterworth’s is likely to occur.
“I try to remember the best about playing sports, but the situation took a sport I loved and made me no longer want to play it,” Waterworth says.
Duke says it is understandable for parents to want to see their children succeed. But even though the intentions are good, the pressure to be the best has surpassed the importance of developing skills and learning to deal with winning and losing.
“We lost what the greatest thing is about playing sports,” Duke says. “We work in sports now. When you no longer play the sport, you lose the essence of what it is to enjoy the journey.”