Breaking Walls Counseling

Erica Gallmeyer, MSW, LCSW


Confessions of a “Psycho” Sports Parent

April 17th, 2016 by

Confessions of a “Psycho” Sports Parent:

Be honest, how many of you are looking around right now thinking, “Is she talking about me”?  Go ahead and sigh with relief, I am talking about ME.  I guess I should have titled it, “Confessions of a RECOVERING ‘Psycho’ Sports Parent”.   I actually hate the fact that we associate the word psycho with being a parent of an athlete.  In any other walk of life, a psycho is an axe murderer or a serial killer or a stalker, right?  So how did Sports Parents get the reputation of being such evil monsters?  Well, here’s my theory.  It’s simple….mix a parent’s most basic instinct-protecting their child-with a highly competitive environment, coaching techniques different from one’s parenting style, a huge monetary sacrifice and watching little Susie cry and guess what happens?  Super Mom who works as a level headed professional during the day turns into Michael Myers at night.

I can barely handle watching the old videos of my 4-year old in her first years of gymnastics because I cringe at the sound of my mad woman voice in the background.  As my little “Susie” casts 10 times before she does her back hip circle on bars, which is basically equivalent to a tee ball player taking 100 swings before he hits the ball from the tee, I am in the background screaming my head off as if she is competing in the God-forsaken Olympic Trials.  What was wrong with me?  Before she entered competitive gymnastics we were busy learning ABC’s, trying to tie shoes, celebrating every cute little thing she said.  Suddenly I turned into this crazed Sports Parent who frankly probably needed tranquilized.  Looking back and laughing at myself hysterically, I realize that I had NO IDEA of what the journey as a high level competitor would look like.  I pretty much thought that my little Susie would go from doing a forward roll on the balance beam to being hand-selected for the National Training team overnight.  So as her parent, I had to scream loud, push her hard, mean mug any other parent whose little “Sally” might get in Susie’s way and create and us vs them relationship with her coaches.

Okay, all exaggerations and jokes aside….you get my point.  Somewhere along the way, I got lost in the process.  Sadly, the above mentioned incidents weren’t even the worst of my moments.  The worst came several years later when my daughter moved to an even more competitive environment and was training alongside other gymnasts who were much more talented and refined than she was.  As my Susie felt the increasing pressure, so did I.  She is my cub and I am her Mama Bear.  Any good Mama Bear has to protect their wounded/struggling cub, no?  I mean again, I go back to the fact that at the core of the “psycho” Sports Parent is really just a basic drive to shield his/her cub from being hurt.  Simultaneously, I found my life outside of the gym in disarray.  I was in the middle of a major health crisis, finances were not secure as a result of my health issue, my marriage was falling apart, my father became very ill and passed away suddenly and just at the perfect moment, Susie stopped doing her skills in the gym.  So basically, everything in my life was out of control.  What was I to do….rely on all I knew…INSTINCT and TRY TO CONTROL SOMETHING.  That “something” turned out to be my Susie’s gymnastics.  If I just pushed harder, argued with her coaches more, rolled my eyes at more gym Moms, she would get better….my life would get better.  Right?  Someone validate me here.


Exactly, there is no validation to be had in that situation.  I was wrong.  I thought that holding on to the one thing that had been constant in my life (my daughter’s gymnastics) with white knuckles would somehow change the course of my crumbling life.  Instead, what happened was the opposite, the relationship with her coaches was damaged, she was physically and emotionally exhausted and we had to move on…..all because of my human instincts.  Ugh.

So, what is the moral of this story?  How did I get to the place of “recovery” being a Psycho Sports Parent?  The answer…..I slowed down.  I slept, I prayed, I consulted friends and people who had been through similar things and I actually sat down with my daughter and talked to her about what she wanted and needed.  It turns out that she was struggling to deal with all the emotional turmoil in our family as well and it was displayed by her underperformance in the gym.  She confessed to me that she hated gymnastics and wanted a break.  Not only did we slow down, but we flat out stopped for a while.  Soon things started to fall back in to place.  She’s gone on to be a very successful gymnast and is well-ahead of the game.

So how can we stop being over-involved Sports Parents?  How can we avoid falling prey to reverting back to basic instincts when it comes to parenting our athletes?  Most importantly, how can we as parents create the most positive and supportive environment possible for our young athletes?  Here are 5 ways, I have personally become much more successful:

  1. Do not jump in and get involved every time Susie or Johnny feel emotional discomfort. Sports are really about life lessons.  They need to feel some discomfort to grow.  We cannot go to college with them and yell at their professors for giving them a bad grade.  We have to let them deal with disappointments, failures, and broken hearts on their own sometimes.  We are there to love them and support them.  Give them a hug.  Tell them you love them unconditionally.  Be their sounding board, but keep a distance.
  2. Create a partnership with your child and their coaches. In other words, know your role.  My daughter’s current head coach is tough and has very high expectations.  My job is to be my daughter’s soft place to land when she has a practice where she doesn’t meet those expectations, not to bash her coach, but to allow her to vent.   10 times out of 10 if I simply listen and ask my daughter how SHE could have better handled the situation she realizes that her coach cares for her and only wants what is best for her. The best thing I can do is act as a partner in the parent-athlete-coach triangle.  I must trust her Coach’s methods (obviously, if there was abuse involved in those methods it would be a different story entirely).
  3. Go Away! I believe that Psychologist Alison Arnold says, “Get a life”.  Instead of sitting at my daughter’s practice and exposing myself to every fall, every mistake and every criticism given to her for fear of reverting back to my “instinct mode”, I simply don’t attend practice.  I may come in once and a while to watch her at the tail end so she knows I care about what she is doing, but for the most part, I stay out of the gym.  The gym is HER place where she is growing with HER people.  My place is at Starbucks reading a book (even though I should probably be working out).
  4. If you have a problem with the coaches/organizational leadership, TALK ABOUT IT. Schedule a meeting.  That’s right….a good, old-fashioned, sit-down meeting.  We have come so accustom to e-mailing and texting (which can be sorely misconstrued) that we rarely sit down face to face to discuss the hard stuff anymore.  Over the years I’ve had many a meeting with coaches for positive and negative reasons.  With exception of maybe 1 or 2 meetings, I was completely off-base with what I ASSUMED was going on in the gym.  I guess I should also add here that gossiping with other sports parents instead of going directly to the source is most often the kiss of death in these situations.  Frankly, those meetings have helped grow that partnership I talked about in #2.
  5. Lastly, STOP, DROP and…..THINK (hahaha…you thought I was going to say roll). Seriously, it’s always best to walk away from an emotionally-driven circumstance to give yourself some psychological space to think and process.  Sleep on it.  I am a firm believer that things always seem worse when you’re tired.  Get a good night of rest and face the situation refreshed.  Find a good sounding board.  That doesn’t mean that to find a friend to says “Amen” to every point you are making.  Sometimes it means finding a more experienced parent to talk to or finding a friend who will be the devil’s advocate and present all possibilities.  You may also discover that your intense feelings regarding your athlete’s turmoil is actually a symptom of something greater going on, just like when I was trying to control my daughter’s gymnastics because everything else in my life was out of control at the time.  Nonetheless, please step away from the situation and re-visit with a clear and open mind.

I hope you all enjoyed reading about my journey as a recovering Psycho Sports Parent.  I still have ugly flair ups at times.  After all, competitive sports tends to tap into those most basic instincts I spoke about.  But I can honestly report that I have grown so much and actually have great passion for helping other parents get to a place of recovery as well.

Signing off for now,

You’re ever transparent, work in progress, recovering “psycho” sports mom!

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