Do parents place unrealistic expectations on their athletes?

Do parents place unrealistic expectations on their athletes?

NCSA Recruiting

Do parents place unrealistic expectations on their athletes?


USA TODAY High School Sports has a weekly column on the college recruiting process. Here, you’ll find practical tips and real-world advice on becoming a better recruit to maximize your opportunities to play at the college level. Jason Smith is a former NCAA DIII athlete and college coach at all three division levels. Jason is just one of many former college and professional players, college coaches, and parents who are part of the Next College Student Athlete team. Their knowledge, experience, and dedication along with NCSA’s history of digital innovation, and long-standing relationship with the college coaching community have made NCSA the largest and most successful athletic recruiting network in the country.

Everyone has an opinion on the pressure that young athletes face to fulfill unrealistic expectations in their sport. Some believe that parents and coaches don’t have high enough expectations, not pushing their athletes to pursue their sport at the highest level.

MORE FROM NCSA: Six easy stress reducers for parents of student athletes

Others, however, explain that the expectations are too high and unrealistic, causing athletes to quit sports at a young age. So, what’s really going on? Are expectations too high, or are they too low? What do the data say?

Understanding families’ expectations of current DI and DII athletes

To answer these questions, the NCAA polled more than 21,000 current college athletes. NCAA asked these athletes if they grew up with the expectation from their family that they would compete in the pros/Olympics. Here’s what they said:

  • On average, 26 percent of DI men said their family expected them to compete in the pros/Olympics.
  • About 22 percent of DII men’s families expected them to compete in the pros/Olympics.
  • Approximately 13 percent of DI women reported their family expected them to be pro/Olympic athletes.
  • Nearly 9 percent of DII women said their family expected them to compete in the pros/Olympics.

How many NCAA athletes actually compete professionally or in the Olympics?

These numbers may not seem very high, but they stand in shocking contrast to how many NCAA athletes actually go on to compete professionally.

  • On average, about 3 percent of NCAA athletes play their sport professionally.
  • At the low end of the spectrum, only about 0.9 percnt of NCAA football players compete professionally. Compare that number to 35 percent of DI football players who reported that their families expected them to go pro.
  • On the highest end, approximately 9 percent of NCAA baseball players go pro. However, 34 percent of NCAA DI baseball players said that their families expected them to play professionally.

The data suggest that a significant number of families have unrealistic expectations about their athletes’ future levels of achievement.

What’s wrong with setting high expectations?

While there’s nothing wrong with families wanting the most for their athletes, problems arise when athletes are expected to achieve a result that may not be attainable for them. These “assumptions of achievement,” according to family and sports psychologist Dr. Jim Taylor, can negatively impact athletes.

For example, when it comes to even simple expectations like winning a game or being the best player on the team, there are too many factors outside of the athlete’s control. Weather, better competition, injury and other conditions can prevent an athlete from winning a game or being the best.

For adolescents, this pressure to achieve unrealistic expectations can turn their love of the game into a constant battle for perfection and can cause them to quit their sport before high school. In fact, about 70 percent of athletes leave organized sports by the age of 13. The most common reason: It’s not fun anymore, according to a poll by the National Alliance for Youth Sports.

Start setting goals that focus on the process, not the outcome.

To avoid placing unrealistic expectations on your athlete, focus on creating goals based on what your athlete can control. Focus on the process and incremental improvements that can help your athlete in their long-term athletic development. Here are the steps you can take to set more realistic goals:

  1. Talk with your athlete and determine their goals. You want to ensure that your goals as a parent align with what your athlete wants to accomplish. Maybe they just want to join a team and make new friends. Or, they would like to start running more. Create goals that work for both of you.
  2. Set “SMART” goals. SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound. When you set the parameters for the goals, your athlete will feel more empowered to make them happen.
  3. Avoid making goals that compare your athlete to others. Development occurs on a different timeline for every adolescent, in part due to the relative age effect (read our article about the relative age effect). Don’t place undue pressure on your athlete by forcing them to measure up to other kids who may be maturing at a faster rate. For example, a teammate may average a home run each game, but perhaps your athlete’s top performance right now is just getting on base.
  4. Acknowledge small wins along the way. Keep your athlete excited about the process by recognizing their successes. Maybe it’s an accomplishment when your athlete steals a base one game. Celebrating this win is going to make them more confident and motivated to keep pursuing their longer term goals.
  5. Adapt your goals and accept failure. Your athlete is going to learn how to deal with failure from you. If they don’t achieve a goal, avoid getting upset and showing your frustration. Instead, help your athlete determine why they didn’t meet the goal, and create a new, achievable plan.

At the end of the day, just remember your athlete’s sport is about them. They need to have fun playing, while advancing their skills. Whether or not your athlete is bound to be the next MLB draft pick, they need to know you’re on their side and won’t be disappointed if they don’t win a game or lead the league in scoring.


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