‘Lawnmower parents’: why not to undermine coaches.

Photo by Samuel Zeller

You see the ‘helicopter parent’, hovering over the sport’s field, to impart advice, before swiftly taking off into the horizon to be seen again in some distant future.

The lawnmower parent is version 2.0, and involvement in their child’s performance is a result of a desire to control any outcome. No barrier is too small, no remit too big, they will mow down any dandelion in their child’s sporting landscape.

So, how does a lawnmower parent affect a child’s development in sport?

You see them poolside, a gaggle of parents approaching the swim coach to inquire about their child’s slow training performance (in their eyes) and then advise on stroke technique. To make suggestions, demands, veiled threats at times, if their child does not immediately improve or become part of the race team.

At the local running track too, there are always one or two in the stands, waiting to ambush the coach with similar plans and ideas about how to improve their child’s 1,500m time.

Despite the presence of an appointed, qualified and experienced coach, lawnmower parents cannot help but interfere: from making suggestions how a coach should coach, to indirectly re-living their sporting past through their children. Either way, the effect on a child’s sporting development can be subtle but profound.

The reasoning against such behaviour is robust and uncomplicated: if their child never has to deal with controversy or adversity on their own, how will they learn how to deal with it on their own or as an adult? The simply won’t. Unless they patiently learn, with assistance but without overbearing, how to navigate difficulty.

It is how children build resilience; it is how they learn. A young athlete who will have everything micro-managed by a parent will have no coping mechanisms and will most likely falter at the idea of failure. Such parent behaviour is not to be confused with supporting and trying to enable the best possible outcome.

Enabling is one thing, designing and pushily engineering an outcome is another. The latter makes for dysfunctionality and codependency, and derived results are not sustainable through life. Nor do they build resilience in tackling straightforward hurdles.

Do you want to give a young athlete the best start? Do you want to provide them with a solid lasting foundation to thrive and perform to the highest level possible? Enable and support their coach. Here is why:

Aside from the physical development which empowers all children to transform into athletes, the real magic happens when they develop a lifelong passion for movement, teamwork and exercise - such development has profound effects on how a sport is perceived later on in life, with considerable implications on physical and mental health.

It is a crucial time during which a child becomes internally or externally motivated. Two powerful opposing psychological drives either promote sporting longevity or stifle it:

Externally motivated young athletes experience subtle differences: at best, the need to belong to a team for purposes of self-worth, since belonging to the team means prestige and accomplishment. At worse, they will be practising their sport for external rewards such as parental approval and expectations.

External motivation is fleeting and tends to abandon young athletes when needed the most. It’s a carrot and stick type of motivation: Motivation 1.0.

Internally motivated young athletes strive for mastery in their sporting performance, a process which resides deep within the self: it defines them, it’s their way of life, it’s what makes them be the first out of the door in the mornings and the first into the swimming pool. Internally motivated young athletes link sport to fun, meaning, purpose and well-being.

Internal motivation will always be part of their success toolbox, and it will never abandon them, especially when under pressure.

Internally motivated young athletes experience positive and profound growth in resilience, confidence and happiness whereas externally motivated ones fight an invisible fight: how to motivate themselves to please others.

One of the easiest ways to push a young athlete towards being externally motivated is to exert pressure to perform — the unwitting culprits: parents. Pressure to achieve is a useful construct, but young athletes flourish best in a context: race day or match day. Not upon the demands of a coach, parent or teammate.

School Rugby is sometimes an exquisite example of the suboptimal parent ‘coaching’: the one you find at every match shouting from the sideline. The match begins and ends with: arguing the referee’s decisions, the coach’s credibility comes under question, and the apparent unfairness of it all unfolds in neverending arguments.

In all sporting contexts, a young athlete will (children are remarkably perceptive) sense the subtle (or unsubtle) tension develop between parent and coach, and their response to this can be a shift towards external motivation.

Recently I found myself worrying when I decided it was time for my four-year-old son to start sport. I knew that if he felt that sport was going to be a chore for him or that it was something he would do to appease his father, then I might as well put his swim shorts and little tennis racket aside.

I was afraid since I knew that this could go either way for him. In my attempts to remain calm however I tried to ensure two things: first, I would hire the best coach I could find, and, second, plead with them to make it a fun process for him — nothing more, nothing less. I did not need my son to be prodigy, proficient or pro by his early twenties. It had to be about health and fun.

When I take my son for his swim lessons, I go to the viewing gallery, and that’s where I stay. When I take him for his tennis lessons, I sit outside the court and read a book. I trust the judgement of the coaches because I have to: because it today’s world coaches are incredibly well qualified and are experts in their field.

Even though I once was a competitive sportsperson, as a parent I now know to stay well clear of the coach (it is not easy) and let them do their job. I know by letting go and (under the coach’s guidance) allowing a young athlete to find their way in sport, is the best thing I can do for them — that and being their driver.