It’s not unusual for a parent to notice a surge in their child’s skills in some favorite activity. This is happening right now with my youngest daughter and her competitive swimming ability. As we look to support her while she steps it up, I immediately wonder, “what is my role as a parent of a young athlete?” I did some research and thought I would share my favorite findings. I was relieved to find that I am — more or less — doing what the sports psychologists recommend!

I found some great, general “Role of Parenting” articles at Red Star Soccer and at Competitive Advantage. Here are some highlights from those articles, including one by the late, tennis hall-of-famer Pam Richmond Champagne.


  • 73 percent of children who compete in organized sports quit by age 13. Many drop out because they say the pressure from coaches and parents simply takes all the fun out of playing and competing.
  • “Fewer than 5 percent of children can be called elite athletes.”  (From an 6/7/04 article in U.S. News and World Report.)
  • Fewer than 1 percent of the children participating in organized sports today will qualify for any type of athletic scholarship in college, and even smaller numbers go on to elite competitions like the Olympics, or to professional sports. My swimmer is 12 years old in one of the most competitive age groups around…but the heat sheets for meets reveal a decline in the number of entries in the 13 – 14 age groups.


  • Let our children take the lead in defining their sports commitments. Every six months I sit down with my youngest and ask her about her swimming goals, ask her about the number of practices and meets she is attending, etc. If I don’t hear the equivalent of a solid green light, it’s time for more discussions.
  • Focus on mastery and enjoyment rather than winning. Coaches and parents who instill a life-long love of fitness and sports are the real winners.
  • Make sure your child never feels they must earn your love or approval in the athletic arena. At Competitive Advantage, Dr. Goldberg says, “Your child is not his performance…one of the most tragic and damaging mistakes I see parents continually making is punishing a child for bad performance by withdrawing emotionally from him.” This strategy may decrease the child’s performance and will certainly affect the parent-child relationship.
  • Avoid comparisons to other athletes. Psychological studies prove that athletes succeed best when focused on their own performance, competing against themselves. Respect your child’s individuality.
  • Give the gift of failure. Teach your child how a failure presents a huge lesson and the secrets within for improvement.
  • Honor your family unit. Find a way to have some fun, unstructured time away from the sport. According to Pam Richmond Champagne, the mother of world champion tennis pros Venus and Serena Williams says they never talk tennis away from practice and matches.
  • Build a supportive relationship with your child’s coaches. Don’t step in and do the coaching for them.

Mama J is a Northern Colorado-based writer who enjoys exploring family dynamics and relationships.

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