When A Child’s Best Effort Isn’t Good Enough

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Many parents put pressure on their child’s athletic performance – whether or not it’s good for the child.


fea_soccer-girl-on-bench.pngHow does one effectively study human behavior and the brain’s response to stressful situations? Simply observe parents watching their children participate in competitive sports! With three children playing various sports, I have had numerous opportunities to examine adult behavior in the midst of youth competition.

Perhaps it’s the season, perhaps it’s the weather, perhaps it’s global warming – something must be responsible for the increase in parental meltdowns at youth sporting events. After all, it couldn’t possibly be a lack of restraint of our educated and civilized selves! I am referring not only to the always-been-around expletives directed at referees, but the seemingly increasing rate of outbursts at our own players.

During a competitive tournament my 12-year-old daughter was in, I witnessed a variety of adult reactions following a one-goal loss to another team in the championship game. As I made my way to my car, it dawned on me that some of these girls were walking away from the tournament enjoying the exhilaration associated with a hard-fought battle, while others were experiencing feelings of complete failure and inadequacy. Unfortunately, some were even bearing the heavy burden of having disappointed their parents.

As we walked toward the trophy tent, I overheard sporadic portions of conversations such as “great game … be proud … played great … did your best,” but on the other hand, many parents displayed grimaces of disappointment not for the girls but in the girls. Remarks uttered audibly reflected some parents felt “let down” because some of the girls, perhaps even their own daughters, failed to play the perfect game. A bad kick, a missed shot, a dropped ball … on and on and on.

Hmmm, I thought … have we lost our perspective? Isn’t this, after all, a game? Our children learn important lessons from participating in team sports, but it has always been my understanding that the main objectives are teamwork, sportsmanship and having fun. When did youth athletic events evolve from fun, physical activities into stressful performances during which adults harshly assess mistakes?

Don’t get me wrong – I am a competitive person – always have been, always will be. I believe that everyone, even children, should give their best effort at any endeavor in which they engage, whether it is school work, music, sports or chores. But when did we reach the point where a child’s best is not good enough? And when one’s best is not good enough, then what?

For our Children or for Ourselves?

When I missed a middle school cross country meet recently, my husband called to inform me that our son had added 20 seconds to his best time and finished fifth as opposed to the first or second place we had anticipated. The phrases “didn’t try hard enough” and “how on earth did he not place higher?” were able to escape from my voice box before my brain could stifle my words. I am grateful for my absence that day, because time and distance allowed me to digest my unfair sentiments before I had a chance to knock my son’s self-esteem down a couple of notches.

After all, why was I disappointed? For my son or for myself? A runner, like any other athlete, has varying levels of performance depending on the day. There are races during which my son excels at a level he didn’t think he was capable of, and there are races where the energy and strength are slightly compromised due to outside influences – lack of sleep, improper diet, the stars not lined up just right … after all, those are the same influences which dictate how our days unfold as an adult, aren’t they? Imagine that!

Moreover, children realize their mistakes before we ever open our mouths. They already know, for example, that their job is to take or keep the ball from the other player, but sometimes they are simply unable to do that at that particular moment. If another player wins the ball, it is time to move on to the next play. Must kids be reminded of their mistakes by the overgrown bystanders on the sidelines?

Negative Never Helps

As I shamelessly eavesdropped on the girls’ conversations in the back of my van following a game, I realized that players can hear almost everything the adults say from the sidelines. One girl noted that she can hardly hear the coach’s instructions over the booming voices of parents. Another indicated that she once considered stopping her game long enough to challenge the verbal critics on the sidelines to take her place on the field.

As I drove away with my daughter following our soccer loss, I could feel her eyes on me in anticipation of my response about the game. I looked at her and with a mischievous snicker, communicated with her in my mocking sing-song voice, “They won, they won, they shot the bb gun! You lost, you lost, you ate the apple sauce!” (I know, silly at best, but it sprung from my rural childhood – we didn’t have cheer coaches back then.) The sparkle in her eye and the laughter from her heart were the only reactions needed, but my attempted humor and casual approach launched the opening of an in-depth conversation about the entire weekend. It allowed her to relive each great move or embarrassing mistake knowing that her best was all she should expect and that this was, after all, just a game. And as I always say, “Some days you get the bear and some days the bear gets you!”

I vow to leave the coaching to the coach and the playing to the players. My job is to be a cheerleader from the sidelines, and if I mess up, well, I hope the players aren’t too hard on me. After all, everyone makes mistakes!

Dana Ballinger is an attorney and mother of five children.

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