Failure has become something of a taboo word amongst our current generation of parents, with many choosing to do everything in their power to ensure that the path they create for their children is as smooth as they can possibly make it.
This has led to us being labelled as ‘snowplough or lawnmower’ parents. These labels are unhelpful and do not really do anything to encourage or support parents. Parents are merely trying to do what they think is best to protect and ensure some success for their young children.
However, if too much of the wrong type of support is provided by parents undoubtedly leading to certain amounts of short-term success, what is the impact of this type of parenting in the long term?
Certainly, in a sporting sense, failure or perceived failure can be brutal to both children and parents and at times it is no surprise to see parents’ step in, fight their child’s corner and behave in a way that is merely demonstrating their absolute love for their child. This is not always the sole fault of the parent, some of the structures that are in place across a number of sports can often lead to parents behaving in a way in the sporting arena that is perhaps very different to how they may behave at home.
In youth sport, we have to look and reframe perhaps the use of the word failure. Are any children really failing? Is it this fear of failure and our behaviours around the word that actually stop young players reaching their full potential?
Are we focussing on the wrong things as sporting parents as to what we perhaps deem as failure? Is losing a match or starting on the bench for an under 9 game really failure?
From a young age, children are essentially brainwashed and conditioned to fear losing and failure. Parents, coaches, teammates, friends convince them that failure is some kind of awful thing, creating environments where children are unable to express themselves, try new things and be creative.
So how do you behave when your child is struggling in front of you? Do you jump in immediately to lend a helping hand? Jumping in is undoubtedly the natural and loving thing to do rather than watch our children land flat on their face, however research also shows that it is the wrong choice.
An experiment by psychologist Wendy Grolnick demonstrated this. She invited mothers and children to play together and captured their play sessions on video. Grolnick made note of which mothers helped their kids figure out what to do while playing, and which mothers let their kids figure things out for themselves.
Later, Grolnick put each of the children alone in a room with a challenging task to perform. The children with helpful mothers who advised and directed them during play simply gave up when they grew frustrated with the task. But the children with mothers who held back, encouraging them to be independent, were able to stick with the task despite their frustration.
Over the years, I have coached and seen many young players who have performed admirably in their early years, with huge support from parents, very few struggles, lots of victories and huge amounts of joy. However, despite being able to increase the level of challenge in training and put them in challenging situations in a training environment the whole process was far too smooth for some of them.
These players when faced with children catching them up both physically and mentally, the influence of their parents diminishing and the increase in the number of tasks that required them to really think and step up for themselves, suddenly found sport a much tougher proposition. Several struggled to reach the same levels of success and craved those early days of celebration with their parents that they had become so accustomed to.
I cannot stress enough to sports parents the importance of not solely focussing on outcomes at a young age but looking at the processes behind successful long-term performance and creating environments around our young people that allow them to continue to go on and thrive as teenagers and adults.
Failure is merely an opportunity to learn and if we can work with our children and all see it that way it allows us to lay a solid foundation for long term growth. It also allows us not to get too stressed when things do not go according to plan as we have taken a wider perspective and are able to see the bigger long-term picture.
This may mean that we need to trade some short-term happiness and success to ensure that our children are not faced with long term unhappiness further down the road. It does not mean there can’t any be joy and happiness, but the joy should be in celebrating the right things including our children displaying positive character traits such as self-reliance determination, creativity, adaptability and resilience.
Our children can only develop some of these skills if they go through small periods of being a little nervous, anxious and scared. This will help them become more adept at what life throws at them and will help them develop further as individuals.
The reality is that the most successful, happy, emotionally balanced athletes don’t fear failure. It’s not something that scares them. They are merely playing the game, have it all in perspective and are having fun.
We all probably know deep down as sports parents that allowing our children to work things out for themselves is the best way. However, not only do we have to wrestle with our own instincts of jumping in to help which also makes us feel good, we don’t want to feel like we have been a bad sports parent either, by not providing the right level of support, or indeed the level of support being given by other parents around us.
Take a moment to reflect, has this ever been you and have you ever been in this type of situation?
My guess is you probably have, but the next time you are and want to intervene, please remember ‘Is a win today worth if for a bigger loss in the future?’