5 Ways to Exasperate Kids in Sports

Have you ever noticed a disgruntled, downcast kid?

Some time ago, my wife and I noticed one at a kids triathlon. We were there to cheer on our kids who were competing in this swim, bike, and run event. While waiting for our kids on the run portion of the event, we witnessed something disturbing. We saw a dad jog up next to his elementary age son and scold him, “Come on! Faster! You can do better! Hurry up!”


The dad embarrassed himself with his angry, demeaning tone. All the parents felt bad for the kid because the dad berated his kid. Even though the kid had woken up early, prepared his transition station, exerted himself through the swim and the bike, his dad still wasn’t happy. Instead of positive words towards the end of the race, this kid heard an angry dad. Uhg!

We’ve all seen this play out in the ballet studio or the soccer field. We can spot angry, resentful, disheartened kids on the baseball diamond or the football field. Parents and coaches have the power to turn things around for the kid or further provoke that kid to anger.

If you have ever wondered if the Bible is relevant today, all you need to do is read its instructions to parents. You’ll discover how applicable its words are to the situations parents face daily. One of those instructions says,

“Fathers, do not exasperate your children, so that they will not lose heart.” (Colossians 3:21)

There is something important here for fathers. There’s a dynamic in athletic performance in which fathers have a unique power to build up or tear down. So if you’re dad, pay extra close attention to this. But the principle here is applicable to anyone who has influence in a kids life.

Note the verse describes something NOT to do. Even though adults do want good things for kids, reality tells us we have to be reminded of what not to do. The word exasperate means to irritate intensely, provoke to anger, or stir up feelings of resentment. It communicates the idea, “Do not get the kid bothered and ticked off.”

The purpose of this prohibition to adults is so that the kid will not lose heart. If an adult stirs up a kid to anger and irritation, the result isn’t better performance, but discouragement. They end up losing motivation. Their spirit is crushed. And in some cases it will cause the kid to quit altogether. To make sure our behavior doesn’t do this here’s a list of ways adults can crush a kid’s spirit. Remember, these are things NOT to do.

5 Ways to Exasperate Kids in Sports (and their remedies)

ONE: Demand something they cannot accomplish.

Set unreasonable expectations. Unjustly demand an unattainable accomplishment. Put pressure on them to perform. My sons enjoy playing soccer. Last season, as I was talking with my older son, he was honest with me and told me that he felt pressure from me to score goals each game. I was thankful for his honesty. I’m not sure where that came from because I’ve made it my regular practice to simply tell him to do his best and have fun. But for some time he was living with the mental expectation that he had to score or something bad would happen with dad. That’s not good. Those demands no kid can shoulder. Thankfully, we got that out in the air and I was able to reassure him that dad is going to be happy even if he never scores a goal again.

Remedy: Be clear with your expectations. But make sure they are realistic. If you’re a parent, make sure that you don’t demand something that contradicts what the coach has said. This confuses kids. Help kids set appropriate goals…goals that focus on character development, sportsmanship, and attitude. Tell kids often that you believe in them.

TWO: Compare them to other children.

“You should be more like _______!” is a phrase that will provoke a kid and discourage her. Helping her grow through instruction is one thing, comparing her to other students or siblings is altogether different. “I wish you would dance more like ________,” IMG_1518communicates that you are disappointed in her. It emphasizes her weaknesses rather than her strengths. It makes her sad because she tries (always unsuccessfully) to live up to your expectations. Done enough, this will embitter a kid and she will lose heart.

Remedy: Keep your comments focused on a particular kid. Each kid has her strengths and weaknesses. Some are faster, others are taller. Some can jump higher, others can pirouette better. God has given unique abilities to each kid. Make sure they have certain competencies, but be sure to nurture their natural strengths.

THREE: Punish them for failing.

How you respond when a kid misses the shot or drops the ball or throws an interception makes a big impact in the heart of a kid. How you respond to their failure can teach them something positive or plant something terribly negative. Punishing kids for failing can take many forms. Adults may yell, scold, or shame. Too many lectures beats a kid down. Non-stop coaching that is void of encouragement will harm a kid’s heart. Giving them excessive consequences, threatening punishment, or getting mad all contribute to a discouraged, nervous heart. Adults that rub in failure or tell kids they screwed up in front of others assure an exasperated kid. Be sure not to emphasize failure more than their effort. However, when we respond graciously to their failure they learn to treat others graciously. Affirming who they are and what their strengths are despite the result of a play shows them that their value is not tied to performance. We should be proud of our kids in success and failure.

SONY DSCRemedy: Ask yourself the question, “How do I prefer people to respond to me when I fail?” How do you want your boss to respond to you when you miss a deadline? How do you want your spouse to respond when you neglect to check the budget and overspend? Then simply treat young athletes the way you prefer to be treated.

FOUR: Regularly criticize.

Unremitting criticism, constant nagging, and weighty condemnation are not the hat trick kids are hoping for. Even positive coaching comments taken too far too often can exasperate a kid. If an adult pushes a kid too often and too hard it may anger a kid’s heart. Telling a kid the same thing over and over can have a negative impact. If the young athlete is doing their best and is trying to do what you’ve instructed him give him some time to work it out. Hovering parents or impatient coaches who remind a girl to step into the ball when kicking a soccer ball every time at practice is not helpful. Instruct them and give them space to grow. Using words like “never” and “always” are a sure way to discourage. “You never listen to coach!” “You always goof off during practice!” “You never will figure that move out!” “You always mess up when it counts!” These are four phrases we should never use.

I once saw a youth flag football coach yell at his players at the top of his lungs throughout the game. This grown man angrily, loudly humiliated 9 year old boys for 50 minutes in front of hundreds of people at a park. Even former coach Bobby Knight composed himself better than this dad. He lost his mind and exasperated the players. It was embarrassing and sad.

Remedy: For every one instructive comment, try to follow that up with five affirming comments (something like: “You got this.” “Good try.” “Keep it up.” “You’ll get it.”). This method is based on marriage research which says that healthy relationships use this 1 to 5 formula. Try it in your marriage, your parenting, and your coaching. Not only will you notice your relationships improve but your young athlete will improve and grow into their own abilities.

FIVE: Link your love and approval to their performance.

This might be the most subtle and yet the most hurtful of all five. The sad stories of current dads who admit they tried to earn the approval of their father through sports are countless. In weird and unspoken ways young athletes can mistake their success and ability as ways to earn an adult’s approval.  Young athletes can learn to play with all their heart in order to honor God not make their mom and dad proud. Parents should be proud of their young athletes all the time. If a parent’s delight in their kid is solely tied to athletic performance then that’s a recipe of an insecure kid, which can lead to an insecure adult. Kids need to know that they are loved without conditions and supported no matter what. Kids need a secure love and the ups and down of athletic performance have the potential to reinforce a secure love.

Remedy: Remember what Christians call the gospel. God never did, nor ever does base his love for us on our performance. The Bible says, God demonstrates His love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Humans are loved by God without conditions. Our value as humans does not come from our performance but because we are created in the image of God. All humans have inherent value and dignity because we’re in His image. Humans are unconditionally loved. So before the game and after the game, look your kid in the eye and tell them:

“I’m always proud of you. I love you no matter what. Go play with all your heart.”

My friend John Hampton tells the story of a college female soccer player who chose the farthest possible university from her hometown was asked why she went so far away from home. Her answer was heartbreaking, “to get as far away from my Dad as possible.” When asked what she misses about playing closer to home she responded with having her grandmother at her games “because she would always give me a hug after the game and tell me, ‘she LOVES watching me play!’”


P.S. And if you ever fail at one or all of these, be sure to go apologize to your kid.
© Tony Cammarota, 2016

One Comment Add yours

  1. vince says:

    hey Tony! Good pointers, and this is good relational advice in general: honesty, grace, verbal encouragement all go a long way to creating strong relationships!


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