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Will to Win Can Warp Some Parents

Jan Hofmann is a regular contributor to Orange County Life

Like all the other soccer moms and dads, DeAnne Wilson Nicholas really gets into it when her kids are on the field.

“It’s amazing the personalities that seep out when the moms and dads are all out there,” she says. “They’re all yelling, ‘Run harder! Run faster!’ That’s easy for them to say; they’re not the ones running around out there for an hour. But I’m guilty of it. We all are. Your emotions just get so caught up in it.”

But for her children’s sake, she says, Nicholas tries to restrain herself. “I can see there’s a little more competitive drive in me that I have to hold back,” says Nicholas, who has two daughters and a stepdaughter.

It was that same competitive drive that helped take Nicholas from Fullerton to the 1972 Olympics in Munich, where she competed in the high jump, placing 16th in a field of 64.

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And while Nicholas admits she would love to see her daughters become Olympians themselves someday, “I don’t want them to think, ‘If I’m going to make mom happy, I’m going to have to go to the Olympics.’

“I would love for them to be athletes, but only if they want to do that for themselves,” she says. “I shouldn’t expect my child to boost my ego.”

But some parents do just that, says David Young, a child psychologist with offices in Orange and Irvine. “Parents have to ask themselves, ‘Is this what the child desires or is it our needs?’ That’s kind of a bottom line with anything to do with parent-child relationships.”

Too many parents see their children as a chance to achieve secondhand the athletic glory that may have evaded them in their own youth, Young says. Long before he started studying psychology, he saw plenty of examples of that. A successful athlete himself --he says he was scouted by the pros when he played high school baseball--Young has vivid memories of bench parents.

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“I have played in games where the child was apologizing for their parents (who) would yell and curse and degrade the other team. They just weren’t able to keep it in perspective,” he says.

His own parents, he says, “never really pushed me. I was allowed to excel. It wasn’t my parents carrying out their vicarious athletic endeavors through me. But there were times when I wished they’d be a little more into it. I’d come home and tell them how I scored the winning run or something and my mom would say, ‘Oh, that’s nice. It doesn’t matter whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.’

“As a cliche, that’s nice, but still, if you win, you want your parents to get excited about it,” Young says.

“It’s a fine line, knowing how much to be involved without taking that little step further for your own needs,” he says.

Adults and children tend to approach sports with widely different goals, Young says. “To go out there and be the best, that’s an adult’s concept. But for the child, it’s just a chance to go out there and have fun. Sure, they have fun when they win. But they just want to be out there.”

In his practice, Young says he has seen families arrange their lives around children’s sports activities. “I worked with a family where the children were prodigies in a particular sport, and the parents sacrificed and geared their schedules and vacations around their sporting events. One of the boys didn’t want to do it anymore, but the family was so into it--they even hired coaches from foreign countries--that he was afraid to tell them.”

“Kids can be absolutely destroyed by parents who push too hard,” Nicholas says. “I remember these girls on a team with me who weren’t really all that great as athletes, but they would run their hearts out, not for themselves, but for their mother. And if they didn’t perform, their mother wouldn’t even talk to them.

“If you can’t be accepted for what you are by your parents, what would give a kid an incentive to get out there and try?” she says.

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Fortunately, her parents were different, she says. “I succeeded in track and field because of my parents. I had the ability, the drive, but without their backup, I couldn’t have gone nearly as far. We never had discussions where they said, ‘You should try harder.’ They were just always, always there, no matter what any of us wanted to do.”

Nicholas’ father, William H. Wilson of Fullerton, says his daughter’s motivation came from within. “We really had nothing to do with that decision. We encouraged her and made sure she got to practices, but she was the one who decided to make the sacrifices she had to make to go as far as she did.”

“You need your parents there to praise you when you do well, and pick you up when you fall,” Nicholas says.

Sometimes children need to remind their parents that it’s only a game, Young says.

Bob Causee of Fountain Valley says his sons do just that sometimes. “If I get too serious about their contributions on the field, the boys or my wife will remind me and help me put it back in perspective,” says Causee, who has been a soccer coach with the local chapter of the American Youth Soccer Organization for 8 years.

“It’s really just for fun,” he says. “They’re only kids. And it’s just one of many experiences that teach them things about life.”

Kenda Marlin, also of Fountain Valley, coaches young soccer players from 4 1/2 to 6 years old. “Young children are very naturally curious, and they want to go out and try different things, as long as it doesn’t turn into a stressful and unpleasant experience for them. With the younger ones, you don’t get too many pushy parents.

“But we live next to a park, and I’ve seen a lot of other games that become very wild. You hear parents screaming things that are, well, not necessarily constructive.

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“We all have to remember that the foremost goal is for the children to enjoy themselves and feel good about themselves,” Marlin says.

“I just want my children to find something that they really love, the way I loved track,” Nicholas says. “It can be anything. I just want them to have that feeling.”

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