Mental Equipment Syndicated Column – Sept 1, 1998 – Dr. John F. Murray – I often receive email from anxious parents wanting to know how to squeeze another ounce of athletic success from their children. In many cases, it seems that the parents are more interested in sport than their children! I’ve also heard from the other side in this story, as kids and teenagers describe parental pressure to pursue rankings and titles. What does this mean? Parents, although you always mean well, this article might be for you.

Competition in sport is healthy and natural, and sport psychology is the discipline best suited to optimize performance. But, let’s not forget the word “psychology” in sport psychology. Any psychology must place the welfare of the individual first, and carefully preserve intrinsic motivation. Performance can always improve, but the best sport psychology advice for parents is often to just take it easy.

A young performer who has truly discovered their sport will be internally motivated, excited, and pursuing improvement. However, this attitude isn’t created out of thin air. Individuals discover their sports and mature at varying rates, and in different ways. Although you’ve always preached the value of success to your kids, the state championship might not be tops on the agenda for an adolescent struggling with academics and social development.

With the exception of perhaps Pete Sampras, human beings are not really machines (just kidding Pete). Motivation is complex, comes from deep within, and cannot simply be attached to a person like a motor bolted onto a speed boat. If it were that simple, psychologists might lose their shirts to motivational speakers, or even employees at the psychic friends network.

Praise sport and demonstrate the joy of competition and improvement, but realize that external demands or pressure on a child ruins their fun and sabotages your purpose. Let your child discover sport without providing the benefits of negativity, pressure, expectation, or punishment.

What can you do as parents? Strive to encourage three aspects of sport: Fun, Mastery, and Growth.


Pleasure for sport resides within your child’s own feelings and interpretations. Encourage them to find out what they really love about their sport, and praise these interests and activities. Encourage them to satisfy and please themselves first, not you, for their athletic accomplishments (See the March, 1997 Article “Keeping Tennis Thrilling”).


To help your kids develop mastery, take the pressure off by focusing on performance rather than outcome (See the May, 1997 Article “Developing a Sense of Mastery”). Take them to watch the experts and discuss the positive skills demonstrated by these elite performers. Encourage them to be satisfied by internal rewards such as self-regard, pride, and a sense of achievement, rather than external rewards such as money and trophies.


Help your child extinguish pressure and fear. Rather than talking about winning and losing, discuss performance and improvement. Draw parallels between sporting behavior and growth in other domains in life such as schoolwork and job performance. Emphasize courage and a work ethic that will carry over into other areas too. Frequently check their belief in themselves, as this is a core element to continued growth (See February, 1997 Article “Deriving Personal Growth From Tennis”).

As you respect the individuality of your child, you allow them to grow and improve naturally. By encouraging fun, mastery, and personal growth, you help them develop a greater attitude toward life, and enhance their performance at the same time.