Ask the Coach: "How Can I Keep My Parents in Their Lane?"

Coaching

When parental enthusiasm slows a young runner down, Eliud Kipchoge's coach, Patrick Sang, steps in to train her whole family.

Last updated: August 10, 2021
5 min read
How to Deal With Controlling Sports Parents, According to Coach Patrick Sang

Ask the Coach is an advice column to help you keep your mind in the game.

Q:

Hi Coach,

My dad played football until he got injured at university. My mum grew up playing tennis and would have made it her career if she could have. Now that I made my school's varsity athletics team, they're constantly pushing me to do better, as if I could make up for their lost dreams. I fell in love with athletics because it seemed like my own thing, but now it feels like I'm doing it for them. How can I take back control of my sport and tune out their voices so I can actually enjoy running again

Pressure Undermining Sports Hunger
17-year-old sprinter

A:

It may not feel like it right now, PUSH, but you're already halfway there.

I experienced some pressure of my own when I first started running at the University of Texas in Austin. The head coach recruited the incoming class of runners largely based on our stats. So when we met him for the first time, he asked us questions about ourselves and our running background. As he went down the line, I could tell he was becoming more and more disappointed with our level of experience. He had brought all these expectations with him—and we were not what he expected. This guy was furious. I could see it in his eyes. And that is a terrible feeling.

Eventually, I learnt that the coach was under a lot of pressure to build a winning team, and he was passing that pressure on to us. Knowing what he was going through helped me separate his anxiety from my own—and it allowed me to speak to him with empathy instead of anger. Soon, we did some time trials, and I got to show him what I was capable of. I can tell you, it was a special kind of satisfaction to prove his expectations wrong. But I couldn't have done that without understanding his perspective.

This is why I say you're halfway there. You've already put in the hard work to understand why your parents are acting this way. As you said, they're trying to relive their dreams through you. You know this is not about your performance, it's about their regrets. Understanding that gives you a head start on overcoming your challenge. I have another story that may help with the rest …

When I was starting out in athletics back in the '80s, running was going through big changes in my home country of Kenya. People began to see the sport as an opportunity to gain employment, to get a scholarship and maybe even to go to the United States. And I began to see runners' spouses and family members viewing them as a source of income. They would expect the runner to deliver, not necessarily in terms of performance, but in terms of resources. Putting this kind of pressure on an athlete is like giving them a physical weight to carry. It nearly always slows them down.

Sometimes the answer isn't tuning your family out, it's bringing them in to help them understand your process—and your passion.

How to Deal With Controlling Sports Parents, According to Coach Patrick Sang

Relatives often think that applying pressure will help them achieve their agenda, whatever that may be. That it's just a matter of a runner trying a little harder on race day. They don't always see that the real effort is in the hours and hours of training and preparation. That the most powerful motivation comes from within.

You said your parents were athletes themselves, but it seems as if they might have forgotten about that daily grind and how every sport requires sacrifice and struggle. I think you should invite your parents to training. Let them see you warm up and stretch and exit the blocks over and over. Let them see you work on pace, posture and mental endurance. When they see what really goes into your sport, they may start to understand how you are already pushing yourself every day. They may be able to let go of their anxiety and say, "You've got this!"

Sometimes the answer isn't tuning your family out, it's bringing them in to help them understand your process—and your passion.

If this doesn't reduce their pressure on you, you're going to have to speak up. Let them know that their commentary is distracting you instead of motivating you. Tell them how much you love your sport, just like they loved theirs. This will take courage. But it will be worth it.

If your parents were here with me right now, I'd tell them they're lucky to have a daughter like you who truly loves her sport. I'd tell them your love of running is something to be protected, cherished and supported, not pushed to the point of burnout. And I'd tell them that what they are doing right now isn't going to get them what they want. That they will need to give your fire some air to let it grow.

And here's a reminder I'd give to all three of you: You all want the same thing. Both you and your parents want you to realise your full potential. If you can help them understand that the path to this is through support and not pressure, I have no doubt that you'll learn to enjoy running again. And your parents might enjoy it more too—from a healthy distance.

Coach Sang

Patrick Sang is a Kenyan running coach and retired runner. Since becoming Eliud Kipchoge's coach in 2002, Sang has helped him win an Olympic gold medal, set the marathon world record and become the first man to run a marathon in less than two hours. An international runner for Kenya, Sang won silver medals at the 1991 World Athletics Championships, 1992 Olympics and 1993 World Athletics Championships in the 3,000-metre steeplechase. Collegiately, Sang competed at the University of Texas at Austin, setting the school record for the 3,000-metre steeplechase.

Email askthecoach@nike.com with a question about how to improve your mindset in sport or fitness.

Photograher: Kyle Weeks

How to Deal With Controlling Sports Parents, According to Coach Patrick Sang

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Take It Further

For more expert-backed guidance on mindset, as well as movement, nutrition, recovery and sleep, check out the Nike Training Club App.

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