Are You Building or Breaking Your Child’s Performance-Based-Identity-Prison? by Lizl Kotz


This is a heartfelt letter to parents with children who have chosen to pursue a single sport.  A letter such as this often times get parents on the defensive.  Please understand that my intention is to share what I have learned along the way as a child athlete, a collegiate athlete, an adult athlete, a mom whose kids are pursuing sports, and most importantly someone who cares deeply about the relationship between the parent and child.  I always tell my young athletes that no-one hands their parents an instructional manual on how to parent a high-achieving athlete, so kids, cut your parents some slack!  

There is growing anxiety in our youth today.  I have some thoughts on why our youth as a group is anxious and depressed, but my focus today is on our young athletes who do in fact get the endorphin release related to exercise, are spending less time on screens compared to non-athletes and who typically have a set of friends built into their sport.  Why is this group walking around with the weight of the world on their shoulders?

Growing up, I walked to the tennis courts every day and spent hours honing my skill.  My coach was extremely tough on making each practice my best.  The tennis club located in Kempton Park, South Africa had the saying: “hard work beats talent when talent fails to work hard” written on each court in invisible ink.  My coach had such high expectations on enduring suffering and sacrifice that one day a friend knocked my tooth out while horsing around before practice.  Without thinking about it twice, I slipped my broken front tooth into my pocket and completed practice.  My lips were sealed as to hide my missing front tooth until I walked home to share the news with my mom.  I wasn’t afraid of getting into trouble, I simply understood that training was a priority at the time.

I don’t  remember my coach ever placing specific expectations on my results-spoken nor unspoken.  She helped me to understand, that if I worked hard, the results would follow when the timing was right.  Losses were simply used to learn from and to help gather data to keep developing my game.  My parents paid for my lessons and drove me to many tournaments in order to provide opportunities, yet they never decided what my goals would be. They gave me the freedom to choose my goals and never held over my head that they were spending money on years of lessons.  My dad cared about my happiness and my character and didn’t give a hoot whether I won or lost.  I would walk off the court only to find him with his nose in the newspaper.  It used to infuriate me when he would ask: “who won?”Now I understand what a gift this was.  Thank you dad for not caring about my result and simply being there to either help me celebrate or  process my disappointment.

The second commandment in the Bible clearly states: “You shall not create for yourself an idol.”  Along the way I have learned that God knows what he is talking about.  Do not make your child’s sport an idol and don’t allow him to make this mistake.  If you are not religious you can also think of it as; do not turn a great thing into an ultimate thing because it will lead to burnout. Parents, please remember that athletes are all fiercely competitive, as they should be.  Also know that competitiveness is best friends with pressure.  Your child may hide the pressure they feel from you (sometimes self-inflicted) but trust me, it’s there.  Brene Brown, psychologist and researcher on shame and vulnerability speaks truth when she explains how easy it is for self-doubt to show up as soon as we are vulnerable.  Your child will be tempted to entertain the questions: am I good enough? What will my parents/coach/friends think if I Iose?  This is where you can truly make or break your child-athlete.  You can feed self-doubt and help your child believe the lie that they are only as good as their result or you can coach your child that you value courage, and that you understand that every competition they face, invites vulnerability and that you are so proud of them for having the courage to show up and battle it out again and again.

As a mom of athletes myself, I understand the spark that is ignited by excitement for your child’s potential.  Help your child understand that having result-oriented focus only works short-term but will eventually smother this flame also known as burnout. Use your child’s sport instead to help teach lessons on determination, responsibility, empathy and courage which in turn will keep this flame burning for years to come and lead to a bright future.