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Articles / Preparing for College / Psycho Sports Parents

Psycho Sports Parents

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | April 18, 2013

This article is targeted at high school athletes and their parents. The emphasis on school sports is remarkable. I did a newspaper analysis once, comparing the column inches devoted to a state-title-winning girls basketball team compared versus the students at that high school who had attained National Merit Finalist status. Ha! As if I was surprised to see that basketball ink outpaced National Merit ink by a 20-1 margin. The b-ballers got big color pictures, too.  The NM Finalists got mere text. Needless to say, when I presented my analysis to the newspaper folks, I got looks that said, “What the heck is wrong with you, man? We’re talking state champs here!”

Anyway, that little anecdote sets the stage for my rant of the day about sports-obsessed parents and their effect on their sports-playing kids. I got a heads-up message from one of my usual PR sources headlined “Spring Sports Madness Reveals the Losing Side of Student Athletics: Psychiatrist Shares 4 Ways Sports-Obsessed Families Can Affect Young Athletes.” This got me to thinking, since I was at one time a high school state-title-competing tennis player. Yes, I know; that was back when women tennis players wore dresses that would have made Scarlet O’Hara jealous, but the principles were the same. Fortunately, my parents were not psycho about my tennis “career.” They weren’t in a tizzy about me getting a college scholarship and/or going on to play Pancho Gonzales and Rod Laver in the Big Time. They were just quietly supportive and very happy for any accomplishments I happened to earn.


These days, we see three-year-old girls practicing balance beam routines and pee-wee football boys who are all but hidden by their enormous shoulder pads. “You gotta start early!” some parents proclaim. I guess these folks have scholarships, Gold Medals, and Heisman Trophies in their eyes. One has to wonder just who they’re rooting for. I call it the Vicarious Parent Syndrome (TM). Nevertheless (I love that transitional word), let’s see what psychiatrist Gary Malone has to say about starry-eyed sports parents.

Quoting from that PR release:

They’re called student-athletes, but many youth advocates – including psychiatrist Gary Malone, are concerned that the emphasis is on “athlete.”

“Anyone who follows sports knows that college-level and professional recruiters are looking at recruits – children – at increasingly younger ages, and it’s not because they want to ensure these athletic students get a well-rounded education,” says Malone,  a distinguished fellow in the American Psychiatric Association, and coauthor with his sister Susan Mary Malone of “What’s Wrong with My Family?” (www.whatswrongwithmyfamily.com).

“In my home state, Texas, a new high school football stadium is opening that cost $60 million dollars and seats 18,000. That’s all funded at public expense. We constantly read of districts across the country cutting academic and arts programs and teachers’ salaries due to budget shortfalls. How can this make sense?”

As a high-performing student-athlete throughout his own high school and college years, Malone says he appreciates the benefits of extracurricular programs.

“But the NCAA.’s own 2011 survey found that, by a wide margin, men’s basketball and football players are much more concerned about their performance on the field than in the classroom,” he says.

Okay. Let’s go back to my newspaper survey. In the eyes of my community, which aspect of our local high school seemed more important, athletic or academic prowess? Sure, now and then an outstanding athlete will have the best of both worlds and be not only a high performing athlete but also a top student in the classroom. However, when it comes to the next level of sports, the NCAA kind, we see a disturbing outcome: poor graduation rates and creative majors for athletes, such as “Undergraduate Studies,” which may or may not include actual learning.

Forget about the consequences for the athlete’s non-sports career opportunities and take a look at the root family issues, as Malone notes. He notes that the imbalance favoring athletic pursuits can damage student-athletes and the family unit:

• Life beyond sports: Only 3 percent of high school athletes will go on to compete in college; less than 1 percent of college athletes turn pro, where the average career is three years with risk of permanent injury, including brain damage, for football players. Even if they’re among the successful elite, wealth management is likely to be a major problem; some studies show that up to 78 percent of NFL players go broke after three years of retirement. Is this the best future for a child?

I can attest to those chances percentages. I once had dreams of becoming a professional tennis player until I started playing the regional tournament circuit here in the Northeast. That’s when I quickly learned that there was a huge chasm between a state-level champion and a regional- and national-level amateur champion. Forget about the pros. I had my head handed to me with regularity.

    • Misplaced parental priorities: A parent’s obsession with a child’s success in sports can be extremely damaging to a child, to the extent of bordering on abuse. Parents who look to their children to provide them with the validation, status or other unfulfilled needs don’t have their child’s best interests at heart. Parents who tend to be domineering can be especially dangerous in the face of an athletic success obsession.

Ever read about a riot at a Little League game, when parents attack an umpire or rival parents? That’s becoming all too common these days. Plus, what kind of example is that providing for our youngsters? It’s actually an indirect form of bullying, from parents over their kids. That’s why Malone cites the term “abuse.”

    • Siblings left behind: When the family values one child’s athletic prowess over the talents and gifts displayed by his or her siblings, the latter children risk growing up without a sense of personal identity, which leads to co-dependency problems in adulthood.

I have personal knowledge of this. A friend of mine has an older brother who had a stellar, high school all-state, college All-American, and NFL Rookie of The Year/Pro Bowl career. My friend lived his entire youth and part of his adult life under the shadow of his brother. His parents tried to be balanced in their approach to all three children (all boys), but the success of the one proved to be a challenge, with all the national press and constant adulation pouring in for The Star. Some scars in the other two siblings have been a long time healing.

    • Pressured to play: Especially in the South, but throughout the entire United States, football is huge. Basketball dominates inner cities and regions like Indiana; wrestling is big in the Midwest and parts of the Northeast, and hockey might be the focus for children throughout Northeast and upper Midwest. Children, especially boys, may feel obliged or pressured to play a particular sport even if they have no talent or interest in it to the detriment of other talents that might have been developed.

Parental pressure is bad enough but how about peer pressure? You know, “You gotta be a football hero to get along with the beautiful girls.” We all saw the “jock crowd” when we were in high school. I have to wonder how many high schoolers have gone out for sports in which they had no interest just because they wanted to be part of that crowd, or to get along with the opposite sex.

Malone summarizes:

“Athletics can be extremely beneficial to a young person’s life, but I think we have our priorities backwards,” Malone says. “Imagine how much better off our country might be if, instead of football, we were obsessed with our children’s performance in science and math.”

All I can say to that is, “Amen, amen, and amen!” So, parents, don’t be a psycho; be a sci-co … a science congratulator. (That was a stretch, but you get my drift, I hope.)


Be sure to check out all my admissions-related articles and book reviews at College Confidential.

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

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