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Fri 19th Aug 2022
Avoid pushy parent horror stories
Posted by: mattmolloy
Posted on: Tuesday 2nd February 2016

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Why should I allow my child to do competitive sport?

After gaining more than his fair share of coverage on the pages of this website through his own performances over many years, these days Matt Molloy is taking a 'back seat' as an athlete. Age-Group Triathlete of the Year in the 2012 220 Awards, these days Matt's sporting goals are more focussed on swim coaching with Enfield Swim Squad (, returning to his pre-triathlon swimming roots.

This time around Matt is coaching with the experience of being a "swimming parent", having four kids involved in competitive swimming. Having been witness to the 'pushy parent' scenario, how should you approach coaching kids successfully? In this feature Matt addresses this trying to answer the question, "Why should I allow my child to do competitive sport?"

Since deciding to let triathlon (as an athlete) take a back seat, I've managed to fill a void left by swimming, biking and running myself by getting more involved as a swim coach. As I have four kids involved with a competitive swimming club, and having coached swimming previously after I retired from competitive swimming in 1992, it was somewhat inevitable that I would become more involved on poolside.

Related Article - Matt Molloy: Different Perspective

Pushy parent syndrome...

Without doubt, the single biggest difference between the time I coached swimming previously and now is the fact that this time I have the experience of being a "swimming parent". Indeed, part of my motivation to get involved again on poolside is a direct result of some of the horror stories I've witnessed in the spectators gallery – I'm sure we've all seen or heard of the overly pushy or hyper critical parent. Whilst my exposure to this has been in the context of a competitive swimming environment, I am certain that there are similar horror stories on the touchlines of football, rugby and hockey pitches and during junior triathlons that appear to bring out the worst in some parents. Although I like to believe that the majority of parents have the best intentions of the child at heart, the desire for little Jonny or Jane to be "successful" can have a monstrous effect on what are otherwise seemingly rational, measured individuals.

Beyond sport...

A primary focus of my current coaching is the development of swimmers from the "learn to swim" stage to the competitive stages. As a club, in common with many sports, we are committed to the long term development of athletes. Our philosophy is to provide a positive environment in which each athlete can develop physically, emotionally and socially. We see competitive sport as a means of teaching life skills such as pride, commitment, hard work, discipline, integrity, loyalty and the ability to apply them not just in the team environment, but as part of their everyday life.

Like many skills-based sports and activities, the acquisition of expertise takes time. There are no real short cuts and the pursuit of expertise needs frequent exposure to the environment/activity and purposeful practice. In terms of the ability to learn, the best time to develop neural pathways and the athletic engine is during childhood. Therefore in order to achieve expertise, there needs to be an effective three way partnership between the coach, the parent and the child – the "team". Both the coach and child rely on the parent and it is only logical that, if the parent is to be an effective part of the team, they need to understand what the team is trying to achieve and to support that endeavour. To that end, a key focus for me in obtaining parental support is to explain why they should allow their child to take part in competitive sport. Specifically, I highlight the positive aspects and lessons that competitive sport can bring, e.g.

  • It can teach life lessons that create great people not just great athletes
  • It can teach team work
  • It can teach confidence and self-belief
  • It can prepare children to prepare for life
  • It can help develop goal setting abilities
  • It can teach how to overcome and deal with adversity
  • It can help develop values and virtues like integrity, honesty, humility, courage, discipline
  • It can increase knowledge of health, physical fitness and nutrition

Notably, the word "can" features heavily in the above list. As alluded to earlier, if the benefits are to be realised then the parent needs to understand how they can assist. As well as the more obvious roles that will be familiar to the parent in relation to the child's activities, e.g. banker, taxi driver and bag packer/carrier, there will also be less obvious roles of counsellor/psychologist, nutritionist and law enforcement officer, all of which are important.

As a coach, I try to emphasise to the parent to remember that the child's results do not define who that child is. If the reason parents choose for their child to pursue a competitive sport is for them to achieve podium success and glory, then statistically, parents are setting themselves up (and the child) for failure. However, if the reason the parent exposes the child to competitive sport is because of the wider benefits it can bring, the chances of success are so much higher and the experience is more likely to be a positive one. That is not to say that the pursuit of podium success should be discouraged, on the contrary, it is just that if that is the sole purpose for participation then the chances of disappointment are high.

In my view, if the product of following a sporting activity is a life-long love of either that chosen sport and/or sport in general, then success will have been achieved, irrespective of what any results sheet may say.

Matt Molloy,
Support Coach & Academy lead – Enfield Swim Squad

@EnfieldSwimSq | @AhoySavaloy

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