The mental impact of being a sports family

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Natalie Graves

When you have an athlete in your family, a great portion of your life becomes all about sports. The responsibilities of practices, games, tournaments and camps are a part of your daily routine. You become invested in every win and loss and devoted to helping your athlete be successful. It is so rewarding to see your loved one work hard and perform well because in a sense, when he or she wins, your family wins. I like to call this dynamic a “Sports Family.”

A sports family is one that has at least one athlete in the immediate family, which means sports is a major focus of the entire family. Attending every game, meet or competition, while providing moral support, is what sport families do!

There is, however, another side of the sports family that deserves exploration. An astounding 70% of children drop out of sports due to negative experiences caused by their families. Challenges can occur when the family’s identity is tied to the athlete beyond basic love and support. This type of over involvement and interaction can create tension and stressors within the family, which can ultimately be unhealthy.

Here are a few red flags to look out for and tips to help:

Red Flag 1. Non-athlete siblings are neglected

In some families, all the children play sports. In other families, maybe one child plays a sport and the other child/children may have different hobbies or interests. Non-sports children or a child with less prowess in their sport may feel overlooked if the attention and focus are always placed on the “main” athlete in the family.

Tip: Make sure equal time is spent being involved with the children’s sports and activities. Give verbal praise and show support to everyone. If events are happening on the same day, try to send a family representative to each activity to show support.

Red Flag 2. Siblings feel jealous.

Jealousy is a common result when there is a very talented athlete in the family or when one child plays sports noticeably better than his or her sibling(s). Feelings of jealousy can also arise when other family members feel neglected. For example, a sibling may argue that all of the support and accolades are going to only one athlete in the family, which can create feelings of resentment and hurt.

Tip: Make sure all children are receiving positive attention. Encourage and praise all the children consistently. Also, create an environment where the children support and encourage one another.

Red Flag 3. When the family’s only activity is sports

When sports are a big part of a family’s lifestyle, often it becomes the only form of entertainment. Travel and vacations are based around tournaments and competitions. Participating in other activities outside of sports provides balance and allows for exposure and growth in other interests.

Tip: During the off season, make a point to engage in non-sports activities. Even if you cannot take a non-sports vacation, consider a weekend or day trip to make wonderful family memories.

Red Flag 4. Parents illustrating poor behavior at sporting events

One of the biggest red flags in sports families is when parents are overly involved in their child’s sports activities. Undermining the coaches, comparing their child(ren) to other student athletes, over training the athlete and yelling from the stands at competitions are just a few ways parents can negatively impact their child’s athletic experience. In fact, the parent’s behavior is one of the top reasons youth stop applying themselves or stop playing sports altogether.

Tip: Be mindful of your boundaries. Allow the coaches and referees to do their jobs. Do not be overly critical when discussing your child’s performance. Always be supportive and patient when it comes to your child’s involvement in athletics. Your behavior sets the tone for your child’s behavior on and off the court.

Red Flag 5. Athlete feels pressure from family

Children start playing sports for the fun of it. When adults make winning the main or only focus, athletes lose the enjoyment of playing due to the stress of competition. Things like placing unrealistic expectations on your child applies even greater pressure. Their focus then becomes trying not to disappoint their parents instead of the love of the game.

Tip: Remember not to take the fun out of sports. Remind your child that whether they win or lose, you are proud of him or her. If there is a loss, don’t harp on it and make your child feel bad about it. There’s always next time.

If you see yourself or a family member in any of the above red flags, it’s time to make the necessary adjustments. Talk to your child to make sure that he or she is feeling comfortable with his or her involvement in sports. You may even discover that they want to do more, less or even some other activity. Sports families, don’t ignore the signs!

Natalie Graves is a licensed clinical social worker and an expert in the area of mental health and wellness for athletes. Graves owns a private practice (Natalie Graves Athletic Counseling) specializing in this discipline. A proud native of Chicago, Graves earned a Bachelor’s degree in Sociology from Chicago State University and a Master’s Degree from the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration. Additionally, Graves completed an Addictions Studies Program at City Colleges of Chicago Kennedy-King College. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn. To set a complimentary consultation, call 773-294-3903.

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