Sports Parents with High Expectations

Sports Parents with High Expectations

show jumping, WEF, Wellington
Cloe White, rider. Peter Pham, photo.

Are you one of those sports parents with high expectations? (My husband was.) Or are you a trainer or an equestrian who is a perfectionist? (I was!) You know the person; the one who always ignores (or discounts) what was done correctly and instead “hunts down all the mistakes and things that were not done perfectly.”

The rider that NEVER feels good about their performance (even if they get a championship ribbon) and the trainer or parent who always “believes you could have done better.” (That’s code for, “you didn’t do well enough.”) We internalize THAT statement as, “we will never be good enough!”

This unhappy, disempowering mindset of high expectations and perfectionism will shut us down. It will distract us from focusing on the details of executing the ride and, ultimately, it will prevent us from enjoying our riding. For one thing, your internal computer (your brain) takes everything you tell it literally. So, since the brain is smart and it knows that perfection is impossible, it short circuits.

Your brain doesn’t know what to tell you to do. It is thinking, “What’s the point of trying?” (Let’s give up on this impossible dream and go find something else to do that we may be able to control more.) After all, we have to execute the details perfectly, and since that is impossible, then winning is really not under our power. So, what’s the point of paying attention to the details of riding?

How well can you ride when you don’t pay attention to the details? You know, the little details like using your eyes to look where you are going or remembering to ride the right course? (Not to mention the obvious dangers of riding without thinking!)

Changing any bad habit is about associating massive pain with the bad habit and massive pleasure with creating the exact opposite habit of positive reinforcement and self-talk! But it all starts with making the decision to not want the bad pattern of being a perfectionist, beating ourselves up for mistakes and discounting our wins, which kills our enjoyment of the sport and ruins our confidence.

We have to feel the massive pain and consequences of having that negative pattern. Then, we have to associate massive pleasure with overcoming that pattern and staying focused on the vision of the dream that we are striving for.

But what if your trainer (or parent) is also a perfectionist?

“My trainer is just like me. He’s a perfectionist,” a client said to me with pride in her voice. Why does she say that with pride? Because that client and her trainer both have high standards, and “everyone knows it’s a fact that having high standards is a good thing.”

What was this client’s fear? Giving up her high standards. (Same fear that many parents have.) Whether she reached those standards or not, due to her perfectionism, that was not really the problem; the problem was the fear of not having high standards at all, and therefore not achieving anything to be proud about!

My client was doing her all or nothing thinking again and drawing her inflexible line in the sand … again … wait for it … she could not lower her standards AT ALL and still like herself. She just couldn’t live with that. That was not who she was.

And for the parents with high standards and high expectations for their child’s sports performance? They don’t want to lower their standards for their child, either! (That’s not who I am!) But showing your disappointment over a child’s mistakes, always pointing out the mistakes they made, coaching from the sidelines, or getting upset about how they ride (which can be felt even if you don’t say anything) creates unhappy children who end up not performing at their best.

We don’t want to believe this to be true, but it is. As parents, we feel it is “our job” to push our kids to win. But not enjoying a sport is the number one reason why kids drop out. Why does a child not enjoy a sport? Constantly living with negative disapproval from coaches and parents is painful.

It’s frustrating to give it your all and to try your best over and over when it is NEVER good enough! Being a perfectionist is NOT the way to help our kids to win. It’s the number one way we sabotage their ability to win!

Why? Because it’s not fun to have your parents disappointed in you or withholding their love because you made mistakes in your sport! It’s not fun to live with the constant reminders of “how much money we are spending on this.”

This is counterproductive to the child, and it is also counterproductive for your child’s coach to see you putting this pressure on their coaching as well! No one focuses and performs at their best when they are being judged and/or punished.

Parents, you do not want to train your children to be unhappy perfectionists who are always underperforming because they are distracted by being so worried about making a mistake, rather than focusing on what they need to do correctly and then celebrating those wins!

If you want to help your children perform, use those “hunt down what your child didn’t do right” skills to find all the things they did do right! Heap praise on them so that you help to train their brains to repeat the things that they did correctly. Handle mistakes as “learning opportunities” that you welcome!

Mistakes are NOT a bad thing! They provide valuable feedback for improvement next time. Both you and your child need to embrace the learning opportunities and see them as positive stepping stones up the ladder. It is crucial to your child’s success to make this massive shift in your thinking (and theirs) about mistakes!

“Fail fast, fail often, fail everywhere!” That is a quote by John Donohue. The meaning being, of course, that we learn the most from mistakes and failures, so the more the merrier in our young careers!

I was blessed to have grown up at my family’s huge summer sports camp on a beautiful lake in Vermont. We had over 200 girls and counselors for the entire 12 weeks of summer at this sleep away camp. We also had a lot of different sports, changing the sport we were doing every hour of the day.

So basically, I had to ride horses, then go swimming, then go waterskiing. After lunch, I had to play tennis, learn to sail, learn to canoe, shoot rifles and do archery. Can you imagine how many mistakes I made in each class, especially since we had to keep improving upon our skills or learn totally new ones? It was mistakes and failures all day long! All summer! Every summer of my life growing up!

But guess what? I loved it! I loved the challenge of something new and trying to improve every day! Every girl at the camp was making mistakes and failing at one thing or another. It became NO BIG DEAL! We quickly figured out that making mistakes was how we learned the correct way to do it next time!

We learned that making mistakes, and sometimes losing a competition or failing, was part of learning and enjoying a sport!! Wow! What a blessing it was that I learned that at such a young age! I failed “fast and often and everywhere” all over the camp! And because of that, I became an athlete who has always enjoyed sports.

For parents, oftentimes our ego is the cause of our impatience and intolerance for our children not excelling at sports as fast or as well as we would like. Take my husband, who is an Olympian gymnast and is in four Hall of Fames. He opened up his own gym and successfully trained thousands and thousands of kids. Not only did they excel at their sport, but to this day, these now grown up kids call or email him to thank him and to tell him how much they enjoyed training with him.

But fast forward to his own six-year-old child on the soccer field, who had scored 13 out of 15 goals, and my husband would go ballistic! (That was after spending the game yelling instructions from the sidelines.) We didn’t even want to get in the car with him! He would just be so angry and upset about the two goals that my son missed!

Suggest to my husband that “soccer is supposed to be fun” (when our son was only 6!) and he would yell, “Winning is fun!”

True story. The result? By the end of “the season,” my son was so shut down he couldn’t even move on the soccer field. He was terrified. As we packed up after the last game, a parent on our team came up to me and said, “Your husband is responsible for this. He did this to your son!” And he was right. (Yes, I was able to turn that around for my son years later when he ended up competing in tennis.)

But did my husband “coach” his gymnasts like that? Of course not. Why? Because they weren’t HIS children, and he knew that wasn’t effective coaching. In fact, he used to tell the kids he was coaching to laugh at themselves when they fell or made a mistake. But sometimes it is different when they are your own children and your own money! Especially if you are an “ego-driven parent.”

Ego-driven parents, who are also guilty of comparing their child’s performance to the performance of other children, need to let go of their child’s performance being attached to their own identity. If your child loses a game or didn’t get a win, it doesn’t make your child a loser and it doesn’t make YOU a loser. It does not mean that you or your child are not “winners.” This is just your need for significance.

Detach! Focus on a different goal, such as your child performing at their own personal best every day, instead of performing perfectly every day.

Change your values! Instead of placing a high value on winning, lower that and place a higher value on your child loving their sport and, therefore, being excited about doing their personal best. Kids excel with positive motivation, feeling unconditional love, and praise. Especially from parents.

Be honest with yourself. Are you always providing praise and unconditional love despite their performance that day? Can your kids relax and focus on doing their best because they know they can always count on you to have their backs, instead of breaking their backs?

Equestrians, here’s the solution for perfectionism. Change the word! Instead of being a perfectionist who beats yourself up for not being perfect, what if you added to your New Identity that you are a person with “high achievable standards?” Now that’s something “do-able” that your brain can actually wrap itself around and get excited about working on to move forward! Doesn’t that feel better?

Listen, there is a difference between the perfectionist with unrealistic expectations who implies, “You’re not perfect and it wasn’t good enough again (and never will be) because you messed up here and there,” and the person with high attainable standards who thinks like this: “I rode well and I’m excited to have feedback about how to ride even better next time! I have high, attainable standards and I WILL achieve those goals.” One is disempowering and will shut you down, and the other is the complete opposite.

Now, to be absolutely clear, you still have to program your brain to win! You still have to have the intention of winning. Your brain needs to know what the goal is or what you want for the outcome. To say, “I want to have a nice round,” is NOT programming your brain to win. So tell your brain that you intend to win. Then go in and ride with that intention.

Riders, it may not be what your trainer (or parent) is saying or the exact words that your trainer uses. It may be how you are hearing it or internalizing it; the meaning that you’re giving to the words or the tone of that person’s voice. And the meaning creates the emotions inside of you.

But even if your trainer or parents are saying the “wrong words,” change the meaning of those words yourself. Take the power away from those negative words. Say instead, “I’m excited about my successes today. I rode great and, with the valuable feedback from my trainer (“valuable feedback” replaces “mistakes”), now I know how to ride even better tomorrow!”

We can’t change other people, but we can set boundaries with overly critical trainers or parents. Let them know that you are taking back the reins (crops and spurs)! You have adopted extreme ownership of your riding career. You have decided to look at your own performance with a different perception than theirs.

Educate them! Invite them to be a part of your success rituals for riding towards your own personal best standards; not their impossible, perfectionist standards. Let them know that you have decided to stop short-circuiting your brain with impossible programming, constant disapproval, and critical comments!

And remember, just because your parents can’t handle their emotions when you don’t ride perfectly every time doesn’t mean that you can’t handle your emotions about the same outcome. Change the meaning you give to that event. It is not that you lost. It is that you tried your best and you have another day tomorrow where you will apply the new lessons that you learned.

And decide to get excited about that!


Don’t give the control of your emotions over to others. You are in control of the meaning that you give to words and events, regardless of what is being said and what is happening around you. You are in control of winning, and celebrating that win, regardless of anything! If that is what you choose.

Finally, what if everyone around you STILL continues to put pressure on you with their disappointment? Adopt extreme ownership of your outcomes. Lean into the resistance that you are feeling.

Take away their power (and get yours back) by deciding that you are going to ride for yourself and not to please anyone else or to prevent them from getting angry.

Don’t show up to ride as the people-pleasing victim. Show up as the empowered leader who has decided to do their best regardless of what’s going on around them. Block out the noise and the distractions, program your brain to win, and go in there and do it for yourself.

Despite your environment. And use that empowered success formula for the rest of your life and in all areas of your life. Your new rule is; don’t ever allow other people or events to keep you down or to prevent you from becoming anything less than you can be.

You responsible for your own success.


Nancy Dye is a breakthrough mindset coach and resilience trainer helping people to transform the quality of their lifestyles.

Nancy is certified as a strategic interventionist from the official coach training school of Tony Robbins and has over 30 years as a change agent; shifting people into peak performance.

Nancy specializes in solving the puzzle of why people are not performing at their best and customizing the right strategy for “jumping over” adversity. She handles all areas of an athlete’s lifestyle, including relationships, career, addictions, weight loss, health and transitioning through life stages.

With a past career in corporate sales and as a luxury lifestyle Realtor, Nancy has been coached by some of the top sales trainers in the corporate world, as well as by some of the most elite coaches in the world of sports. Nancy redesigns the inner lives of athletes, executives, entrepreneurs, and elite military and veterans.

Nancy is married to Jack Miles, a former Olympian gymnast who is inducted into four athletic Hall of Fames. For one-on-one coaching or information on her workshops or riding clinics, Nancy can be reached at