Recently while watching our kids’ swim lessons, my husband and I sat in the parent lobby, only to overhear a rather heated discussion between one of the parents and the pool supervisor.   Correction, actually – the pool supervisor was providing professional, well-thought-out feedback for the parent with regards to the child’s progress, and the parent proceeded to berate the pool supervisor by saying things like “I feel like you’ve been saying that my son will get his badge for a year now, why doesn’t he have his badge yet?” to which the pool supervisor replied “Yes, your son earned a badge a couple of months ago, and he’s making excellent progress in this level, so he is close to earning his next badge…”   The parent proceeded to angrily express why he felt that his son should receive his next swimming badge, until the pool supervisor (much to his credit at age 18) respectfully asked to move the conversation away from the crowd and into the pool office.

As a former competitive athlete and coach, my blood was boiling from overhearing this conversation.  As a parent of two kids myself, I completely understand that when parents have such conversations, they are simply trying to be an advocate for their child.    I also understand what it’s like to watch your kid week after week when they have a goal that they keep falling short of – in this case, earning a swimming badge.   Our oldest took two full years of weekly swim lessons to earn her first swimming badge, and let’s just say, if I sat down and did the math, I would not want to calculate exactly how expensive this swimming badge was.   Yet, the former athlete and coach in me knows just how harmful it is to kids when parents try to override the coaches.  Just because we as parents are paying for our kids to participate in sports, it does not mean that we get to dictate when and how our children will be rewarded.  Our job as parents is to emotionally support our kids’ journeys, which will inevitably be fraught with many ups and downs.   Our job as parents is *not* to interfere with or override what the coach is doing.

As a society, there has been a collective movement towards over-parenting, most recently termed Lawnmower Parenting, where parents will literally get out the virtual lawnmower, and rather than let their child face obstacles head-on, the parents will do whatever it takes to mow those obstacles away.   This type of parenting is not only detrimental to kids in sports, but it will cause a catastrophic effect on all aspects of their life, causing things like anxiety, feel of failure, and being ill-equipped for life in the real world.   I’ve personally witnessed many talented athletes quit their sport because of the immense pressure of having parents that were hyper-involved.   The sad reality these days is that most kids are simply not being granted the space they need to develop independently.

As difficult as it was for me to watch my daughter to come home frustrated week after week when she didn’t earn her first swimming badge, I kept saying the same thing to her:  her water safety is of critical importance, and she will receive her swimming badge when she earns it.   In no way, shape, or form do I feel entitled enough as a parent to try to influence that outcome.   I think this is why, weeks later, I am still perturbed by the conversation that my husband and I overheard in the swim parent lobby; in a sport like swimming, where there is considerable risk of drowning if a child is not water safe, why would any parent want to control the outcome by fast-forwarding a badge?   It disturbs me greatly that as a society, we seem to care more about instant gratification and short-term self-esteem than we do about actually working hard for something and legitimately earning it.

I recall a situation from many years ago, where I was coaching kids in competitive swimming. My youngest class always had an ambitious coaching agenda – they were mostly children between six and eight years old, and I typically taught a group of ten kids at a time.   In order to keep the class moving efficiently and fair to all the kids, it was critical that each skill be taught precisely and in order. Less than two weeks into a session, one of the dads constantly insisted on following our class up and down the swimming pool – and although we had a “no parent” policy on the pool deck, our class was the closest to the bleachers, and therefore, within earshot of the parents. As I tried to provide specific instructions to the kids, I could hear the dad behind me providing his own instructions.   His son, who was only six, looked rightfully confused, and chose to follow his father’s instructions.

Parents of kids in sports: listen up. I get it. You have good intentions. You want to be present and enthusiastic for your kids. But hear me out: you are doing irreparable harm if you behave like the father in this situation. If your child is put in a position where they are given conflicting information and have to choose between an authority figure such as a coach, and their parent, they are almost always going to follow the directions given by the parent. Confusing your kids is not helping them to learn. Confusing your kids is not teaching them how to trust the instruction of another authority figure. Confusing your kids is distracting and unfair to the other kids in the class. Confusing your kids is being disrespectful to the coach.

I ended up having a very respectful conversation with this particular father.   I asked him if his kids were having fun, and if he was happy with my coaching, and he said “Yes!!  Of course!!”   I then politely said “Great!  I’m glad you are happy with my coaching, because when you’re in the stands coaching your kid behind me, he becomes confused and doesn’t know whose instructions to follow.   If you are happy with my coaching, please trust me with your son for the 30-minute lesson, and I promise he will learn.” The father responded exactly as I thought he would – he didn’t show up to the pool for two weeks. When he did return to the pool, he made a point of very obviously lying horizontally in the bleachers.   I didn’t even address the dad’s overtly defiant reaction – because truth be told, his son was progressing fantastically and having fun in swim school, which was all I cared about.   I can’t help but wonder, this many years later, if the father actually learned anything from our interaction.

Outside of our kids’ swimming lessons, my husband and I have also observed the dangerous trend of over-parenting while our kids are on the ice at hockey school, and let me tell you, a good majority of hockey parents need to back the fuck off and let the coaches coach.   Sorry, not sorry.   During the very first week of classes, we witnessed parents opening the rink access door and demanding to speak to their kids.  In one instance, our son saw the access door fly open by a parent, and he thought the open door meant that it was time to get off the ice.   The father who opened the door didn’t bother to close it, and he stood with his son, completely oblivious to the fact that our kid had also just walked off the ice.   Just as I was ready to run down from the second floor restaurant to redirect my son and have some choice words with this father, the coach noticed what was going on and guided him back on.   My husband was fuming, but he chose the higher road and spoke with the rink supervisor to enforce the fact that parents should *not* be doing that.   Fortunately, this incident occurred at the beginning of a session, and the rink staff do a great job of enforcing such rules.

Other things we have witnessed at hockey school include parents yelling instructions from behind the glass (who do you think the kids choose to pay attention to in circumstances like this?), a father losing his temper when his four-year-old walked off the ice because he “didn’t work hard enough and they didn’t get their money’s worth” (the kids is *FOUR*), parents letting their kid butt in the line while waiting to get on the rink, and insisting on carrying their kids on the ice (I promise, getting on and off the ice is a skill they will learn from the coaches), and over half of the parents standing with water bottles, waiting to give their kids water from the sidelines (last time I checked, my kids were capable of getting their own water when they were thirsty).   Seriously, folks, what has our generation of parents come to?

With all the madness that my husband and I have witnessed in the hockey arena, it almost made me second-guess myself and my role as a parent.   My husband and I made a conscious decision when we enrolled our kids in hockey school to disappear from the immediate ice rink each lesson and watch them from the second-floor restaurant.   We want our kids to learn and have fun *away* from us.   We don’t want to distract them (my son in particular will follow me all along the ice instead of paying attention to the coach, if I’m anywhere near the ice).   We want them to focus on the love of the game and making new friends.    I checked in with the coach, and said “Is this really the way to do things?   To hover and helicopter rinkside??”   The coach just looked at me and laughed “Nope.   We really prefer for the parents to be far away because it’s better for the kids.”   PHEW.   OK, not much has changed from the coaches’ perspective since I last coached kids over twelve years ago.   Our kids know to look up at the second-floor window if they want to wave to my husband and I; we can see them, clap for them, cheer for them, and give them a thumbs up.

Parents with kids in sports, listen up.   Our job is never, ever to coach, interfere with, or overstep what the coaches are doing.   If there are general concerns about a coach, there is almost always a professional escalation process to address those concerns.   Our job as sports parents is to support our kids emotionally.   Our job as sports parents is to be our kids’ number one fan, no matter what the outcome of the game.   Our job as sports parents is to tell our kids we are proud of them.   Our job as sports parents is to teach our kids humility when the game is going well, and to provide encouragement when our kids are struggling.   Trust me when I say that long after your kids have scored their final goal or finished their last race, they will be exponentially more prepared for life in the real world if we employ the latter approach.

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Written by Jennifer Douglas

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