Summer 2024

Parenting Today: Don't be an overbearing sports parent

GettyImages-525234499With basketball season now in full force once more, I am reminded of the battle my husband Steve and I faced time and time again as parents. Whenever we were watching our children play basketball when they were younger, the temptation was always present to become overly involved in our sons’ sports careers.

If you’ve read our book, you are familiar with some of our struggles with this. Steve tells a story in the book about driving our oldest son, Luke, home after an AAU tournament, and realizing, upon seeing Luke’s tear-filled eyes, that he had been chewing him out about his performance for three hours. I also share a story in the book about how, whenever it looked like our youngest son Cody might join his brother, Tyler, 10 hours away to play basketball at the University of North Carolina, I deeply wanted to urge him to stay closer to home. All this to say, the tendency to become overly involved in your children’s sports lives can reveal itself in a variety of ways.

One of the most common areas where we see over-involvement today among parents is in the stands at sporting events. Attend any grade school, middle school, or high school basketball game across the country, and you will most likely witness a parent in the stands who is becoming too involved with the happenings on the court. This can include everything from worrying, to yelling at officials, to screaming at the players, or griping about the coach.

To be honest, I feel like a dose of practicality can go a long way with this issue. For example, there is nothing a parent that can say that will ever influence the official. The official is never going to think, “Yes, Mrs. Zeller wants me to call a foul. I’ll do that.” Instead, the parent just looks silly.

In more of a general sense, I learned early in my sons’ sports careers that there is nothing I can do—as a parent in the stands—that will change the outcome of the game. As a parent, I am a spectator. I can show my support for my children, but I must also let the coaches do their jobs. I must let my children go through the ebb and flow of the game, the highs and lows of the process. The second I try to control the process is the moment I connect my child’s identity to his performance. This is the underlying danger to all of this.

Connecting a child’s worth to his or her performance in athletics, over and over again, can result in all kinds of long-term issues for the child, such as anxiety or depression. If a parent connects a child’s worth to performance, it seems likely the child will also connect his or her self-worth to performance. Over time, the child’s performance becomes the child’s identity—and it is always dangerous to place our entire worth in our performance in this world!

If you are interested in learning more about this idea, I recommend visiting and reading “Nightmare Sports Parent?” or “10 Signs of an Overbearing Sports Parent”. Both are quick reads that can help us, as parents, keep our intentions in check.

Lastly, the beauty of the gospel is that it frees us from a performance-based mentality. God’s love for us is not conditional; it’s unconditional. He welcomes us back into His purposes, time and time again, no matter what our spiritual performance or performance in this world may be.

I hope we, as parents, can strive to reflect this same idea with our children in the athletic realm. Through our parenting, I hope we can help our children attach their identity to something that goes far beyond the fickle nature of sports, far beyond their performance in an inconsistent world.

By Lorri Zeller

Steve&LorriLorri Zeller is a contributor to Sports Spectrum and serves as the Vice President of Administration for DistinXion. This column was published in Sports Spectrum’s Winter 2016 print magazine. Log in HERE to view the issue. Subscribe HERE to receive eight issues of Sports Spectrum a year.