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FIRST PERSON

Competitive parents need a benching to ensure kids enjoy their sport

Children dread the postperformance debriefs: subtle remarks and leading questions, which all point to unmet expectations, Madison Sheward writes

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As someone who grew up in the world of competitive sports, the "competitive parent" is a breed I know all too well. I have seen it all: dance moms feeding their kids sugar sticks before a performance, parents involved in fistfights in the stands of a hockey game, monetary incentives for points scored and even an anonymous hate letter delivered as a result of jealousy and spite.

At the age of 17, I can honestly say that I am no longer surprised by the lengths that some parents will go to in order to "protect" or "better" their kids.

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I was 3 years old when I took my first dance class. Yet the image of 15 doting parents crowded around a four-foot by three-foot rectangular window, peering in, is a memory that still clings to me. The wide-eyed parents watched in awe as their respective child would twirl around the room and occasionally clap to the beat of the music. They beamed with pride at the smallest of successes – a partial kick here, an attempted leap there, a crookedly held port de bra – they were just excited to be watching their children out in the world making friends and having fun. When lessons begin for little kids, there is an innocence to parents' eager gazes as their bundles of joy learn the art of dance.

However, the truth about many of those thrilled parents is that eventually, wide eyes turn into hungry eyes. A lot of parents long for their child to be front and centre or have the most playing time or be the top scorer. As each year goes by, the innocent excitement can mutate into something more destructive and the well-being of the child seems to get lost in the process.

By 13, some kids are burnt out and walking on eggshells with every game or performance. I saw many beautiful dancers decide to leave around this age because it just wasn't fun any more, there was just too much pressure. On too many occasions, I've seen soloists in tears backstage at competitions because their performances were not "perfect." Similar stresses occur in my brother's hockey league, too. Players eventually find the game has come to feel more like work than a positive and fun outlet. Children come to dread the postgame parent debriefs – the subtle remarks, the leading questions, all clearly pointing to unmet expectations. "Do you think you were skating your fastest out there?" "Maybe if you had practiced like we asked, you would've done better." "You did well, but next time if you … ."

The fact is, this trivial car conversation is not confined to the minivan. These remarks, although not intentionally harmful, will echo in children's minds. The reverb can turn open and fearless minds into minds afraid of failure. A fear of failure can lead to a resounding halt in terms of exploration and risk-taking in that child's sport or activity.

The only thing that can possibly be worse than your own hypercompetitive parent is the hypercompetitive parent of another kid who has decided that you are a problem. When I was 11, my parents received a hateful anonymous letter sent to them by a dance mom from our same studio. The letter was sent to my mom's workplace marked "private and confidential." The letter began with "A few things you should know" and it then continued to insult every member of my immediate family. Anyone who knew our family knew that the statements contained in the letter were the furthest thing from the truth, but I can just imagine my mom fighting back tears in her office as she read hateful words about herself, her husband and, most painfully, about her son and daughter. Two weeks later, the same letter writer sent another letter to my family apologizing for their first letter and admitting that it was all owing to jealousy. I only just found out about the letter two years ago. My parents kept the letter from me so I wouldn't see that kind of ugliness at such a young age. I wish I could say the story came as a surprise, but after being a competitive dancer for 15 years and watching my brother and parents struggle with the political world of hockey for six years, not much surprises me any more.

Still, I can't write about competitive parents without praising them a little. The time, hours, money and heart they put into their children is profound. I do think that, in most cases, the parents start out with the best of intentions, but get swept up in wanting "the best" for their child, by wanting to protect what they perceive as their child's fragile ego. Unfortunately, these efforts can often be misguided. When parents pressure coaches and instructors to give their child more playing time or a better role or spot in a performance, they create a sense of privilege in their child. Their child comes to think that they are deserving of opportunities that they have not earned. Or, when parents shield their child from disappointment or difficult feedback, they create weak and entitled kids who aren't ready to face the real world.

Moms and dads, let's not forget the doting, wide-eyed individuals that you once were. The parents that would be proud of their kid for simply mustering up the courage to step on the ice, to take a risk and try something new. And, more importantly, to feel comfortable enough to fail time after time and still have the strength to never give up. Parents, you are missing out on the best part of your child's competitive sport and all that it has to offer if you're too busy watching through hungry eyes.

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Madison Sheward lives in Peterborough, Ont.

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