By Margie Sugarman
Margie Sugarman is a leading board-certified psychotherapist and sports consultant based in New York. Margie’s desire is to enhance performance through the connection between the mind and body, and her current client list includes Olympic, professional and amateur athletes across the country. Her experience employing various therapeutic modalities has helped equestrians win classics, junior medals and Grand Prix. Do you have a question you want Margie to answer? Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
As a parent of a young rider, I have a lot of pride in her success. I’m very involved in her riding career, but recently she told me that I’m making her nervous. I try not to put a lot of pressure on her to succeed, but I know how much potential she has, so I push her to do her best. Is there any way I can still stay involved in her career without pressuring her with expectations? Do you have any advice that would help?
Athletes of all levels sometimes put immense pressure on themselves, but it’s common for young athletes to feel pressure from outside sources. The pressure a young athlete experiences is usually directly related to the expectation the athlete has for a particular performance. Pressure can often cause nervous energy. Although the excitement can serve as a motivating factor, too much apprehension can hinder your child’s confidence and negatively affect their performance by causing them to question their abilities.
When a young athlete enters a competitive sport like riding, the parent’s goal should be for their child to gain ownership of their own participation. The child needs to feel that the sport is theirs, not their parents’. Parents often assume an extremely active role. In some instances, their overbearing presence is a significant source of their child’s stress. Not being able to distinguish their own needs from their child’s falls into the dynamic of the “reverse dependency trap,” in which parents over-identify with their child’s experience or live through them vicariously. They define their own self-worth based on the success of their children.
Sports may actually become more important to the parent than the child. This excessive interest, rather than promoting the child’s participation, undermines the child’s interest by taking away his/her ownership of their sport.
There are some very real questions parents have to answer “yes” to if they’re going to have a positive impact on their child’s outcome in riding. This outcome doesn’t necessarily mean winning, but it means enjoying, growing and learning some life lessons from the athletic experience.
1) Can you, as the parent, share your child? This requires putting your child in the coach’s care and trusting him or her to guide your child through the challenges the sport presents.
2) Can you, as a parent, accept your child’s disappointment? Every athlete experiences the “thrill of victory and the agony of defeat” as part of the competitive experience.
3) Can you, as a parent, show your child self-control? We all know the subjectivity of this sport, but self-control can’t be lost in expressing our feelings. Feelings certainly can be shared in the right place and at the right time.
4) Can you, as a parent, give your child the financial dedication this sport requires? This sport is extremely expensive. Many competitors, no matter what their age, are concerned about not getting a ribbon and having spent so much money.
5) Can you, as a parent, allow your child to make decisions? Although all parents have ambitions for their child, the parent must accept the fact that they cannot dominate their child’s life.
It’s important to convey to your child that you support them in all of their endeavors. It must be clear that the reason for this support isn’t for their wins and ribbons, but your joy in seeing their progress, their efforts to do their best, and their enjoyment of a sport. Competition teaches us life lessons about respect, sportsmanship, discipline, fortitude, setting goals and priorities and decision-making.
When sports parents begin to treat their young athlete’s sports “career” as a learning experience rather than an investment, it becomes easier for the child to see that their athletic experience is a personal journey that they can enjoy to the fullest.