A Generation of Wimps: The Product of Overparenting

Over the last two seasons, as a rash of college players have transferred away from coaches with very good reputations (Mike Montgomery, Ben Howland, Roy Williams, etc.) despite receiving plenty of playing time (Gary Franklin from Cal, Jabari Brown from Oregon, etc.), people have searched for answers. What is wrong with this generation? What is wrong with the coaches? What are the parents teaching these young adults? Why is this happening? (Note: I am not against all transfers; I advised a player who I used to train to transfer. However, the rash of transfers, taken as a whole, seems to ask larger questions).

After he received a publicized tongue-lashing on the sideline last week, Tom Brady said that he deserved to be yelled at for making a bad pass. To an extent, I agree. I believe players, especially at the professional level, must be able to handle criticism and critiques of their performance. I also believe that yelling at a player is unwarranted in some situations; was the coach telling Brady something that he did not know already? Brady knew that he made a mistake. However, Brady is correct that a player should be able to handle criticism.

I had a player talk to me yesterday. He essentially said the same thing. He suggested that some of his teammates felt sorry for themselves and could not handle criticism or critiques of their performance. He said that if a player cannot handle the criticism, he should play in recreation leagues, not high school basketball.

As I thought of these instances, I recalled The Nation of Wimps. I never read the book, but I saw several interviews with the author, read the blog, and understood the gist. On the blog, an article titled “Spoiled vs. Overparenting” appeared to capture the problems that we see in high school and college sports.

Overparenting is driven by the demands of the adult. And it isn’t necessarily focused on things (like toys) or on rules. A parent consumed by anxiety for a child’s achievement calls a teacher to protest a grade given to the student. Or sends a kid off to ballet camp with an eye to developing an array of extracurricular skills that will ultimately impress college admissions officers. It isn’t necessarily something the child has asked for. It is something that soothes the parental anxiety.

Parents frequently ask how much to push a child. Is sending a child to a private basketball coach to improve his or her skills going too far if the child has not asked for such lessons? The parent knows the player must practice more and improve to make a team or continue playing competitively. Where is the boundary line between overparenting and providing an opportunity?

When I trained players, I weeded out the ones who were there because of their parents. I called it stealing. If the player does not want the training or feel that he or she needs the training, the training is not going to have its desired effect. If the training fails to have its desired effect, what is the parent paying for? Babysitting? I tried only to train players with specific goals. I did not want to be a high-priced babysitter. That being said, I trained one player who had no basketball aspirations – he had been cut from the varsity as a junior – because he asked his dad for the training. It was self-initiated, not father-initiated. He just wanted to learn to play basketball better because he loved playing. Why shouldn’t a player  be able to get private coaching because he’s not on the college-scholarship track?

My sister teaches at a private elementary school, so I hear frequently about parents calling about grades. At the university level, I saw the products of these parents. They turned in terrible work and expected A’s. University students who could not be bothered to spell check a paper, but were indignant when they did not receive an A. Of course they were. Their parents likely complained to their teachers all the way through high school, regardless of the quality of their work. My sister explained to a parent one time that the student had not turned in homework for weeks and had not attended a single review/tutoring session that she offered. The parent’s response was that the bad grade would hurt his high school application. The parent did not say, “Oh. I’m sorry. I will find out why my son is not doing his homework and make sure that he attends the tutoring sessions to catch up.” Instead, it was the teacher’s fault that the student could not be bothered to do his work.

As the Nation of Wimps blog continues:

Overparented kids wind up without a sense of self. They grow up overly compliant. They lack coping skills because everything has been done for them by anxious parents. They’re weak from within, and it’s a pervasive weakness. The grow up risk-averse and unable to make decisions on their own. They, too, have a low tolerance for frustration.

I do not know any of the players who have transferred. I do not know the whole story. From the outside, looking at these cases as generalizations, not on a specific case by case basis, this would appear to sum up the situations. These players, many of whom switched high schools or club programs on at least one occasion, may lack coping skills. Rather than tolerate a less than ideal situation in high school, they transferred. When facing the same situation in college, they bolt. They have a low tolerance for frustration, and moving from high school to college basketball induces a high-level of frustration for all but the most elite players.

Through our interactions as coaches, parents, and teachers, we set up these children and teenagers for failure, often out of our best intentions. When Reeves Nelson was dismissed from the UCLA team, his mother did not defend him. “Sheila Nelson said she had no issues with how Howland treated her son — except she wished the coach had been harder on him sooner.” Sometimes, players need the tough love, just as Brady suggested that he deserved to be yelled at.

John Wooden is famous for his quote, “Failure is not fatal, but failure to change might be.” It seems with this generation, parents, teachers, and coaches are afraid to allow children to fail. Making mistakes and failing is not bad, unless the person lacks the coping skills to handle the missteps. By not allowing children to fall flat on their faces, adults are interfering with the development of these coping skills. In terms of developing talented individuals, these skills are more important than constant and early success.

On his blog, Daniel Coyle wrote about the new way to identify talent. The two factors are early ownership and grit.

One is early ownership. As Marjie Elferink-Gemser’s work shows, one pattern of successful athletes happens when they’re 13 or so, when they develop a sense of ownership of their training. For the ones who succeed, this age is when they decide that it’s not enough to simply be an obedient cog in the development machine — they begin to go farther, reaching beyond the program, deciding for themselves what their workouts will be, augmenting and customizing and addressing their weaknesses on their own.

Overparenting would seem to exclude the opportunity for early ownership. If a parent’s anxiety leads him or her to sign the child up for more training, how does the child learn to take ownership for his or her development? Instead, these players tend to learn that to practice means to go to a lesson. They practice less because they never practice on their own. They are accustomed to having a coach or trainer direct all of their practice. These players will plateau because they lack the drive to go further and augment and customize their own workouts.

Another tell is grit. This quality, investigated by the pioneering work of Angela Duckworth, refers to that signature combination of stubbornness, resourcefulness, creativity and adaptability that helps someone make the tough climb toward a longterm goal.

With overparenting, the child may not learn this stubbornness. If the parent gets the teacher to change a grade or changes the player’s AAU team if he or she is not playing enough or taking enough shots, how does the player learn resourcefulness and adaptability? In the future, when facing those tough situations that require grit, will he have learned these lessons? If he lacks grit, will he handle and overcome frustrations?

By Brian McCormick, PhD
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League
Author, The 21st Century Basketball Practice


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