The Role of Parents: Successful and Happy Athletes


The Role of Parents: Successful and Happy Athletes

So, as keen athlete parents, we’ve all been there… sat trackside willing our young athlete to that win, time, height, or distance and wishing there was something we could do to help. Well, it turns out there are things we can do to help! 

It’s easy to assume that their journey involves just them and their coach. Wrong! 


Parents Play a Huge and Indeed Crucial Role.  


Improved athlete performance isn’t just down to the time they spend at the track, which, during the school years, probably only amounts to between 6 and 12 hours each week. The remaining 156 - 162 hours of the week also matter!! This is where parents come in. 

The basic foundations for every child’s physical, mental, and emotional development are set within the home environment. If your child happens to be a young athlete, this also provides the starting point from which their coach then works. 

For an athlete, a good foundation will comprise:

  • Good general health and fitness

  • Positive mental attitude/growth mindset/confidence

  • Internal motivation and drive

  • Desire to learn

  • A genuine love for the sport/event

Without this sound foundation, the coach has his/her work cut out, and the athlete themselves will be fighting an uphill battle to achieve their goals. 

Importantly, all of these factors are ‘modifiable’, in other words, they can all be controlled given the right guidance.

Good General Health and Fitness

These factors stem primarily from the ‘things that you provide’, namely a good healthy and well-balanced diet and a home life where movement and physical activity is actively encouraged. 

Without a doubt, the most powerful way to maximise impact here is to ‘walk the walk’ instead of just ‘talking the talk’. In other words, being seen to eat, enjoy, and have a good relationship with healthy food and drink, and being seen to have a physically active lifestyle, provides a seriously strong influence at a time when young people are formulating new attitudes and perceptions. If they see you eating loads of vegetables and walking to the shop instead of taking the car, these observations will stick and, importantly, will be normalised.


Positive Mental Attitude/Growth Mindset/Confidence

These factors are determined by what you say and how you say it. We should never underestimate the power of words, and how they are delivered because right from birth, this will have a profound effect on how your child interprets and ‘sees’ the world. 

In sport, how we respond to their performances matters. Be aware that body language, as well as words, can convey some seriously harmful messages to a young athlete if not thought through. 

Instilling a ‘growth mindset’ should be every parent’s number one priority from as early an age as possible. 

Using a narrative that suggests anything (within reason obviously) is possible if you work at creates the positive “I can” approach, a core requirement for all children but especially aspiring young athletes. This more positive take kicks into touch ‘fixed mindset’ beliefs that only clever or ‘talented’ kids succeed and leaves wide open an exciting world of possibility. 

If your athlete has high sporting ambitions, the ‘growth mindset’  “I can” attitude is a core requirement.

Internal Motivation and Drive

In psychology, there are two types of motivation:

Extrinsic - where the motivation is driven by external factors (e.g. winning medals, impressing others in the hope they’ll respect/like you, etc.)

Intrinsic - where motivation comes from within (e.g. personal satisfaction, a deep enjoyment of the process, loving the feeling of making others proud, etc.)

It’s important to understand that these bring different pros and cons to the sporting table. Yes, the lure of a medal or prize money can be a seriously helpful driver, and being respected or liked by others can be a great benefit from a win, but they all depend on external factors that the athlete cannot control. The athlete cannot guarantee their opponent won’t do better on the day and cannot be sure a win will result in others choosing to like them.


Fostering a more intrinsically motivated approach is by far the best option, as the athlete can control this. So, where do parents come in? Here are a few tips:

  • Avoid the trap of offering prizes for PBs

  • Talk about the process, not the outcome (i.e. don’t focus on results!)

  • Do whatever it takes to help them enjoy their sport i.e. focus on making it fun

Desire to learn

Following on from the benefits of a growth mindset, learning literally becomes their passport to improved performance. Instilled with the belief that it’s possible to improve, they’ll become a sponge for information, soaking up any and every tip that might produce a gain. This realisation generally comes once they’ve experienced their first noticeable improvement through, say, a tweak in technique. 

Parents can help here through positive conversations regarding the possibilities that come from hard work and practice. There is, however, a fine line between enough and too much talk of improvement. Parents, to a certain extent, should take a back seat here and assume the role of ‘sounding board’ rather than a teacher because that role is already filled… their coach! Unless you are their coach, it’s generally wise to leave talk of technique-tweaking to the coach to avoid conflicting advice and confusion (and frustration… from athlete and coach).


A Genuine Love for the Sport/Event

As a parent, you’ll know your child better than anyone else. You’ll instinctively know when they’re enjoying their sport and also when that enjoyment starts to wane. There is one exception to this, however. If you’ve inadvertently become too invested in their sport, the warning signs that things aren’t right can easily be overlooked. In this scenario, the focus has swayed from process toward results… this is dangerous territory. 

If the young athlete detects that a parent is not noticing unhappiness or that their happiness has become irrelevant, resentment can build, often resulting in plummeting interest and effort, further fueling frustration. 

There can be genuinely innocent reasons for this. Take my own scenario. My desperate attempts to help Joe out of his own performance slump eventually made me almost obsessive about finding a solution. This created an intensity that was totally counter-productive, adding yet more pressure to the huge personal pressure he already felt. I was too deep to notice and adamant that I was helping. 

It’s important to understand that literally, no one comes out of this scenario as a winner. Noticing it before the damage is done is, therefore, key. 


Taking a step back to genuinely analyse your own motives can be extremely helpful. Asking yourself the following questions can help with clarity:

  • Are they excited to get to training sessions?

  • Are they happy after training sessions?

  • Do you feel frustrated after poor performances or sub-optimal results?

  • Do you ‘live and breathe’ their sport?

  • Does their sport take priority over everything and everyone else?

  • Do tensions run high during the car trip home?

  • Do you sense a deep desire to ‘help’?

  • Is there a chance this desire to help could be creating additional pressure?

  • Are they becoming increasingly withdrawn or despondent? 

  • Is this situation affecting the relationship between you and your athlete?

Having a checklist like this could have helped me notice both my own mistakes and, importantly, that all was not well from Joe’s perspective…

Take-home points:


#2.  Let THEM make the CHOICES.


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