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Encouragement or Pushing?

With many young athletes crossing my path, it’s not unusual to hear comments from them like: “They push me too much” or, “They’re always on my case about what I’m doing at practice.” Not surprisingly, many young athletes feel pressured and pushed by their parents. In contrast, many parents believe in ‘the push.’ “If I didn’t push my daughter to practice, she wouldn’t be as good as she is. I have to get after her sometimes.” Or, parents agonize over what is the right amount to push: “How can I ever know if I am doing damage or not? I want to be there and be supportive, but sometimes she looks at me like I have hurt her feelings.”

What is the difference between encouragement and pushing? We might think of encouragement in supporting terms, while pushing conjures up images of over-involved sports parents.

Research is striving to answer this question more clearly. Can an ideal level of push be possible? Authors Lauer, Gould, Roman & Pierce of a recent study suggest that parents who find a balance between challenging and supporting their children might produce the healthiest results for sport performance and parent/child relationships, so there may indeed be an ‘optimal’ or ideal level of push.

A healthy push seems characterized by the value being pushed. Demanding wins or results creates undue pressure and stress on your young athlete. However, expecting hard work and commitment to sport and other life endeavours seem to benefit children who might not yet know the value of such traits in realizing their goals.

When you are looking to develop the optimal level of push on your child, consider the following:

Age and developmental stage. Younger children can be encouraged to attend their practices and put forth effort. Watch as your child becomes older, as they may resent your involvement and instead, show disinterest toward a particular sport. As your young athlete progresses through stages in their development, they will require greater degrees of independence. Pushing should naturally give way to support and guidance.

Frequency/intensity. Even the most noble of values being encouraged can be tuned out due to too much repetition - or worse, perceived as pressure and negatively influence your child’s performance levels and your relationship. Moving in and then out again with the frequency of your influence will allow your child room to learn. Remember, they need the opportunity to fail sometimes (for example, learning the value of good work ethic) in order to truly grasp the concept for themselves.

Value being ‘pushed.’ Strive to encourage the things your child can control (good sportsmanship, hard work, commitment) and stay away from pushing for wins and results.

Child temperament. A sensitive child may not tolerate a high or even moderate frequency or intensity of push without becoming stressed. Carefully monitor their response to your involvement to ensure it is appropriate.

Keep in mind, these are meant to be considerations or guidelines. As always, every child is unique, and your approach should reflect this fact. Education is valuable but parental judgment must be balanced with information before the truly successful level of push is discovered.

April Clay, R. Psych., works with many young athletes and their parents. She also offers an online sport parenting course and can be reached at

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