In the excellent 'The Talent Code' Blog, Daniel Coyle posted the following passage discussing the potential pitfalls of kids specialising early in sports...
"In the glossy heart of the 1980s, in the dimly lit halls of East Anchorage High School there walked a god. He was rangy, blond, and bore the cinematically perfect name of Trace Savage. And Trace Savage was awesome
(Just say it out loud: Trace Savage)
Trace Savage was awesome partly because he was cool, partly because he was nice, but mostly because he was the best all-around athlete any of us had ever seen: quarterback of the football team, starting forward on the basketball team, and track star. He was living our American sports dream, and the dream of everyone we knew.
Then, in the space of a few years, that dream changed.
Maybe it was the rise of superfocused prodigies like Tiger Woods, Andre Agassi, and the Williams sisters. Maybe it was the rise of parenting as a competitive sport. Maybe it was the ESPN-ification of youth sports, which lost its community base and morphed into a free-market bazaar of travel teams, trophies, and tournaments, with each kid (read: parent) seeking the holy grail of success: the college scholarship.
By the time the mid-nineties rolled around Trace Savage had vanished from the landscape like the white rhino. In his place stood a different species: the specialists.
Every sport became a highly organized year-round enterprise: indoor soccer in winter, hockey in summer, baseball all year round. Suddenly kids had to choose before they turned 10 or so, or risk falling behind the pack. The logic seems straightforward: if you want to be good at a sport, you should play intensively year-round…”
Early specialisation in sport is a big problem. It has been shown to contribute to higher injury risk, burnout and there are suggestions that it is actually detrimental to future sporting performance.
When I was at university I saw numerous examples of kids who had been elite stars as teens who had put hours and hours into their training, kids who had shown dedication, perseverance, grit…kids who had gone the extra mile, kids who were revered for their sporting prowess who just went off the rails as soon as they had the opportunity to do other things.
I would go as far as to say that my degree programme was actually a case study in wasted talent!
But specialising early can also have a real dark side. I saw examples of kids who displayed some pretty serious emotional problems as result of this.
One of these kids was Rob (not his real name).
He was one of the top ranked tennis players in the country throughout his childhood, he was dark haired, good looking, he was fun to be around and he had the swagger that came with the confidence of being one of the best. He had the world at his feet.
Then things changed…
His behaviour started to become erratic. He started to drink heavily, he would regularly spend all day in the pub, drinking and playing pool. He had a couple of difficult relationships with girls that involved him getting violent. His studies took a nose dive. In short he became a real loser.
As a friend, I found myself having some in depth conversations with him in an attempt to try and get to the bottom of his behaviour. They were usually after one too many drinks and sometimes these became pretty heated but I couldn’t stop myself. I could see the path that he was on and I couldn’t stand by and watch him slide further and further into despair. In our conversations it was clear he had a difficult relationship with his father who had largely been the driving force behind his tennis career. He was feeling some deep rooted feelings of resentment due to a feeling of losing a part of his childhood but at the same time he was also feeling regretful that he wasn’t living up to his father’s expectations of him.
I’m no psychologist but even I could see that this was a real double edged sword for him…resentment and regret…anger and shame.
I would love to tell you that he managed to come back from it all but unfortunately things got a whole lot worse…
He had a complete breakdown…
His behaviour became so crazy and he became so withdrawn that we had to call his parents and they came and took him home. We believe that he went into counselling.
I'm ashamed to say that I don’t really know what happened to him after that.
I hope he is OK…
It is hard to say that his tennis career was to blame for what happened to him, it was probably a whole host of things but it is pretty safe to say that the relationship he had with his father and the expectations that were placed on him contributed to him going down a path that then became a downward spiral into a complete meltdown.
You will see a lot of stuff on the internet about the role of parents in sport. There is a wealth of information out there that talks about how parents should act giving advice as to the the way to support their kids in sport.
But as I travel through the sports landscape it seems to me that none of this is hitting home. Perfectly rational people who really know what is going on seem to be acting against their better judgment.
There are a number of drivers which I have characterised below through the creation of a number of parent types.
1. The 'supportive' type
They have a powerful drive provide their children with the best opportunity to succeed. They invest financially and emotionally in their child’s development from an early age to thinking that this will get their kids the best chance in life.
After all, what self respecting parent doesn’t want to give their kids the best chance of success? Don’t we all have that secret dream that our kids will be amazing at something and don’t we want to do our utmost to give them every opportunity to succeed?
But what if this translates into an expectation and our children are just doing it as a means to get our approval and love? What are the potential consequences?
2. The 'keeping up with the Jones's' type
Then there is the societal pressure to be keeping up or keep getting ahead. I see this everywhere I go. Parents are almost obsessed with where their children measure up to others.
After all there is the whole 10,000 hours rule, if you don’t start early you will be left behind, right? (don’t get me started!)
3. The 'wear my kids like a medal' type
Worse still you have the parents who parade their kids around like trophies. We have all met them haven’t we, the ones who engineer the conversation so that they can talk about their kids various achievements “…oh yes, did I mention that (insert child’s name) has made it into the U9s o (insert sports squad / academy)”. This is just fuel to the fire.
Check out this video called ‘Trophy Kids’ for a real insight into this problem.
4. The 'it never did me any harm' type
"You have to push kids, right? If you don’t push them then they will never amount to anything...If I hadn't been pushed then I would never have got to where I am in life, etc, etc". This is the classic mistake of thinking that your upbringing is right for your children. Assuming that your children are just extensions of you and not individuals in their own right can be a source of major breakdown in so many parent - child relationships.
I think that every parent struggles with the balance of making sure we encourage and challenge our children to stretch themselves without stumbling into the realms of pushy parenting.
5. The 'push - wrap' or 'helicopter' type
These are the growing breed of parents who have very high expectations of their children and are constantly pushing them to achieve in all aspects of their lives. These are the kids that are grade 10 on the piano, play county or state everything, are getting straight A's in everything. These kids are flying and the expectation is that they will continue to do so.
And then they get cut from a team or they don't get picked in the starting line up or they get a bad grade and the parents come wading in and wrap their arms around their kids and challenge the coach/manager/teacher for daring to cause their child so much heartache.
Just when the child is about to learn a really valuable lesson about struggle and handling adversity the parent says "don't you worry my little one, I will protect you from the big bad world".
Julie Lythcott-Haims new book, "How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success" talks about this area in detail and is reviewed in a recent Washington Post article where the suggestion is made that:
"...mothers and fathers in affluent communities have been hobbling their children by trying so hard to make sure they succeed and by working so diligently to protect them from disappointment, failure and hardship".
The worst thing about all of this is that many people reading this will know someone like one of these charactisations (or will know people who are like them all at the same time!) but very few people will recognise this in themselves.
The reality is that we all have a some elements of these characters in us given the right set of circumstances and in lots of ways many of these characteristics can be very positive. The problem is when it becomes too much! The challenge is to have the tools to recognise when when it is becoming too much and to know what to do to correct the behaviour.
This is why I am so passionate about the work that Jamie Edwards does at www.trained-brain.com and the ‘Winning parent’ programme. Not only will it help parents to become more aware of their tendencies and help them avoid becoming any of these characters and the obvious associated pitfalls but it will also help them to turbo charge their support for their children which could really enhance their developmental journey in sport (and life).
I have teamed up with Jamie to bring the ‘Winning Parent Programme’ to the Talent Equation community and I am really excited about this as I think it is the missing link in the development package for talented kids.
There is a programme for coaches to help them to manage the parent - athlete - coach relationship and there is a programme for parents to help them support their child's journey.
There is also going to be a podcast, some webinars and also an exclusive live retreat for those people that really want to take their relationships to the next level.
I am really looking forward to it!
All the best
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