Parenting Athletes in the 21st Century

Last year, in the winter of 2012, I did an inspirational speaking presentation for a group of athletes, coaches and parents at a local high school. At the end of the presentation, as usual, I opened up the conversation to questions from attendees. In the back of the audience, a woman raised her hand and promptly asked if I had any advice for parents raising athletes, things that they could do which would help their athletic offspring.

You would have thought I’d been asked this question before; however, this was not the case, as the general theme of my presentation centers mainly on the athlete themselves and the decisions they make.

I am a firm believer, at least once an athlete reaches high school, that no matter how good a coach is, or the athlete’s parents are, ultimately, success will largely be determined by the choices the athlete makes and the path they follow. They are the most important piece in reaching their potential.

That is not to say great coaches, programs and parenting styles aren’t worth their weight in gold, because they are, but that they will always be secondary to the willingness of the athlete to follow the path laid before them by those aforementioned individuals.

Needless to say, in that moment, I was taken a little off guard by the question based on its immediacy. My answer, a common one, was to state the importance of encouragement and support by an athlete’s parents and that these two aspects will be of utmost importance.

It was on my way home from the presentation that evening when I became a little uncomfortable about how simplistic and somewhat superficial the answer was that I gave. It wasn’t untrue, and certainly had value, but it simply didn’t carry the weight needed for today’s times.

As I mulled this over (preparing for the next time this question might arise), I settled on three things in addition to the common support and encouragement young athletes would surely need to be successful. Aspects that I felt would complete my response, be more substantive, and give some depth to my answer for parents wanting to know how they can help their young athlete follow the right path to athletic success. They include:


It is imperative that the athlete take ownership over the goals for which they seek. They must “own” them, meaning that they come from inside them and not from what’s inside others. Their goals have to be theirs. They have to carry with them some sort of emotional discomfort for the athlete when they think about the possibility of not achieving them.

Encouraging an athlete to come up with goals, inspiring them to do their best, and teaching them how to create opportunities for themselves are all great things, but telling them what their goals need to be, and/or you [the parent] becoming the reason for why they are playing, has the likely ending of unhappiness for everyone.


Successful athletes tend to be very responsible. They get to practice on time, are organized, set proper priorities, understand the concepts  of sacrifice and a strong work ethic, and  they believe themselves answerable for their actions both on and off the competitive field. The more you can help create a sense of responsibility within them, the better. Doing less for them is, in a sense, doing more for them.

Entitlement-type attitudes are much less likely when an athlete learns that what happens to them and for them is largely determined by the actions they take based on the responsibilities they believe they have. That is a good thing.


Accountability and responsibility go hand in hand as it pushes responsibility to the next level. Athletes who hold themselves accountable believe that they are the ones who control their destiny. This belief is not one of arrogance, but one of quiet confidence.

They are willing to take calculated risks (ones that carry with them the possibility of great benefit) that others are not, because when they make a mistake they know they will learn from that mistake. They do not blame others when something is their fault. They KNOW it was their fault and do not hide behind any false pretenses as they work hard at not repeating that mistake.

Holding athletes to commitments they make, guidelines set, and responsibilities they have teaches them that the RULES do apply to them. That they must think before they act. And that the choices they make determine their fate.

And I might add with emphasis….it is this point of accountability that has been taking a back seat (too often these days) in order to keep a player on the field and/or win games. Looking the other way when responsibilities aren’t met, commitments aren’t upheld, or rules are broken is a surefire path to feelings of entitlement. Not a good place from which real athletic excellence can develop.

So, the next time I am asked “what is it that I can do as a parent to help Johnny or Susie become a better athlete?” My answer will be:

Not only is it important for parents to support and encourage their young athlete along the way, but also help them develop ownership over what they want to accomplish, create a sense of responsibility within them for that goal, and hold them accountable for decisions, choices, and commitments they make. All of these play an important role in creating foundations for success, athletic or otherwise.

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Tags: Athletes, Parenting, Sports

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