Parents, Performance and Social Facilitation

I witnessed a familiar scene at a recreation volleyball league last weekend. The teams scrimmaged at the end of the one-hour clinic. A 7th grader stepped to the service line, and her father said something. She served underhanded because the game was close, and she wanted to get her serve in the court. Her father told her to serve overhand. She looked at her father and dismissed him. She served again. The next time her serve came around, her father implored her to serve overhand. She did. She scored. She served again and missed. It happened to be game point. She said that she always missed on game point.

This was a very recreational clinic-league that used the principles of “Games for Understanding” to teach basic volleyball skills to young, recreational players. The coaches were volunteer parents who received brief instructions from the clinician before each drill. Everyone enjoyed the experience, which lacked the performance pressure and intensity of a typical youth league. The atmosphere was more like a group playing at the park.

This changes, of course, when the parents send different messages than the parent-coaches and clinician. Even in a relaxed atmosphere, the player felt pressure when her dad told her what to do, and she hesitated to try a less automated skill (serving overhand) because of the game setting and her father’s presence. According to Zajonc’s Theory of Social Facilitation:

  • Audiences increase arousal
  • Arousal inhibits learning new responses
  • Arousal facilitates the performance of well-rehearsed responses.

When an audience (parents) is present, players tend to play harder and perform better in skills that they have mastered. However, the audience hinders development, as players do what they can already do rather than try new skills. Although her dad encouraged her to serve overhand, she hesitated because of the crowd’s presence. We learn better in practices than in games because we are more open to trying new skills, whereas games create pressure to perform. To develop a new skill, we must be willing to make mistake after mistake.

When a parent instructs from the sideline, most children react negatively, especially internally. Rather than concentrate on their performance, they internally focus on trying to please or ignore the parent. Their attention leaves their task, and they have an internal monologue about their parent and how they wish their dad would be quiet or leave them alone.

On my basketball team last year, a girl could not function with her father in the stands. In practice, she excelled. In games, she struggled. She only heard his voice and constantly looked toward him for approval. When he showed his disappointment, she tensed to the point where she missed numerous layups because she was so tight, she lost all fine motor control.

Parents play a large role in a young athlete’s development, but not always  positively. In Little League, our star pitcher was Robbie. He was bigger and stronger than the others, and his dad had Major League dreams. His dad sat behind home plate and yelled after every pitch. He attended every camp with his son and remembered bits and pieces and yelled them at Robbie. He yelled “Release point” all the time. The other teams joked about it.

Robbie was the most erratic pitcher in the league. He would throw a one-hitter, and we would lose because he walked 10 batters in a row. The whole league was scared of him because he threw hard and had zero control. He threw a pitch off the top of the backstop!

I don’t know that Robbie would have performed better if his father sat quietly in the stands because his father was omnipresent all the way through Little League. I played All-Stars with Robbie one year and his dad was the only non-coach parent to attend a practice; every other parent dropped off her child and returned two hours later to pick up her son. Robbie’s dad followed him everywhere he went. If he had allowed Robbie to relax and pitch, he may have developed into a good pitcher. Instead, his high school coach moved him to right field.

Playing youth sports is about exploring and discovery. It is, after all, play. Parents and coaches often inhibit the child’s play in an effort to help the child. Rather than instructing the child on every pitch or yelling at his daughter to serve overhand, good sports parents allow the child to control his or her environment. The athlete needs to make decisions and develop the skills, and parents need to support, rather than dictate, the development. When parents become too controlling, kids lose interest. Sports like skateboarding are on the rise because they lack adult interference. Children learn by watching other skaters and trying tricks on their own, and they enjoy the experience. Skaters help fellow skaters; it is a collaborative sport rather than a competitive sport.

When I watched the X-Games, Bob Burnquist said that the competition was not about winning, but pushing the limits of what people think possible or what their bodies can do. That is a true sporting pursuit and the reason that most people play sports and compete. We like challenges, we like learning and we like pushing ourselves to see what we are capable of doing.

Parents should try to give their children an opportunity to be successful, but that oftentimes means doing nothing. It means supporting the child rather than barking instructions. It means encouraging the athlete’s self-discovery, regardless of the sport, so it retains its fun and innocence, much like skateboarding, rather than resembling the performance pressure of professional sports.

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