Optimal Parent Push Toxic or True?

During one of my workshops for the parents of young tennis players, one of the fathers stated a widely held belief. I'm not sure you can get a great player without at least one crazy pushy parent.”It's a topic worth exploring.

Results of a USTA research project conducted by The Institute for the Study of Youth Sports by Daniel Gould, Michigan State University (2004 & 2005), shed some light on the subject. Most parents and coaches admitted to the existence of something referred to as the Optimal Push. However, the majority agreed that it's a tricky concept. It only works when done right, and there's a fine line between optimal pushing by a parent and pressuring/over pushing.

I'd like to suggest that by definition, optimal pushing is only optimal IF it works! The problem is that in most cases when parents attempt to push their children, the short-term results suggest success while the long term outcomes (which can't be seen at the moment) are disastrous. Many cases demonstrate a damaged parent-child relationship, psychological issues for the player, and motivation and performance issues. Many parents discover too late that their strategy had short-term gains and long-term heartache. The future was sacrificed for the present. The Andre Agassi story is a perfect example in tennis. After relentless pushing by his father, Agassi reached the tennis pinnacle, but at a price (physically, emotionally and psychologically) most of us would not want our children to pay.

For this reason, I believe we must differentiate between two variations of optimal push “Toxic Optimal Push and True Optimal Push. The characteristics of each are demonstrated in specific behaviors that create an overall growth and performance environment. Here are the four cornerstones of each with a brief description.

Toxic Optimal Push

Controlling “ Child is constantly directed by others about what to practice and when to practice, when and where to compete, and how."

Nagging “ Child experiences frequent complaints, criticism, and correcting about behaviors and habits."

Conflict “ Increasing amount of conflict arises between parent and child over sport-related issues, which then spreads to other life issues."

Condemnation of performance reality “Child regularly receives verbal and non-verbal signals that his or her play is not good enough yet."

True Optimal Push

Choices“ Child is offered a limited number of practice and competition alternatives from which to choose. Challenges “Child is often confronted with parent-guided challenges &/or goals to overcome or reach causing skills to be stretched. Collaboration “A team-like atmosphere is created between parents and child that requires working together in decision making and planning. Support for child's vision “Conversations and body language conveys a belief in the ultimate success journey that is in process, regardless of any particular day's results."

These two versions of optimal push have extremely different outcomes. Most importantly, in a battle for control over the overall sport experience, parents must choose not to win. The sports experience belongs to the child. The ultimate question is not to push or not but something quite different. Since our relationship with our children is the single most important thing, the question is: “How do I consistently send the message that there is nothing my child can say or do that would cause me to reject him or her?”

Sport Family Coach at

Founder of Growing Champions for Life, David helps sports parents and coaches incorporate positivity and persistence into their communication with the young athletes who count on their encouragement and guidance. An eight-time national water skiing champion, five-time national record holder in water ski jumping, former World Championship U.S. Water Ski Team coach, and proud professional sports parent, he understands first-hand the challenges and rewards of competition. His extensive experience as a corporate leadership coach for Nextel, Sprint, Allstate, Balfour Beatty, The Villages and other companies provides David with unique insight into the skills needed to excel in sports, business and life. He brings an athlete's discipline, a coach's inspiration, and a parent's practical experience to his mission to grow not just champion young athletes, but holistically well-rounded individuals equipped for lifelong excellence.

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