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Vicarious Parents 09/16/04
By Masaaki Tajima, Certified National Level Coach

One of the biggest problems and headaches that a coach faces is dealing with vicarious parents. Vicariousness is, living one’s life through another person. These are parents living their life and dreams through their kids. Parents must realize the distinction between living their lives through their kids and living it with them. Parents too often push their kids in order to make up for their own past frustrations and limitations placing tremendous burden and pressure causing embarrassment not only to the child but also, unknowingly, on themselves. It is an insidious disease that is prevalent in all sports causing unrealized damage.

The problem is most prevalent during the developmental stage of the child athlete. The problem become less when the child is no longer a child and has reached an age when he or she is out of the household and on his or her own; usually when they reach college age. At this stage, they may have matured enough to see the vicariousness of the parental experience and have come to terms with it, but the effects and damage is done and the resulting consequence may last a lifetime, if this is not recognized and addressed much earlier.

I believe the ultimate goal of a coach, and parents as well, is to prepare the athlete for the eventuality of independence, for them to be able to think and play for themselves on the court and life off the court. The connection between the realities of life on and off the court is inseparable. Without the ability to think and act for themselves, the child athlete is inescapably dependent on the coach or the parent for continued guidance, in effect, the coach or the parent, playing the game for them. There is a clear distinction between necessary, normal parental guidance, support and encouragement that personifies the parent’s values, and vicariousness.

The tragedy is, when the parent is playing the sport through their kids, the kids become no more than automatons incapable of independent thought and action. The consequence of this is that whatever individuality the child had in their developmental years, their creativity and spontaneity, the building blocks of identity and self-confidence, is delayed or lost forever. In this situation, the potential negative results can be enormous.

Having the offending parent realize his or her behavior and admit the error, a very difficult task at best, and this is just the first step. Some respond positively and even remorseful, when their conduct is pointed out because they are understanding and admit they were unaware of the scope of their involvement. But most of these affected parents respond defensively justifying their actions on the belief that they were doing it for the best interest of their kids, a response difficult to counter even for a seasoned coach. In some sports and competitions, the problem have become so bad that in some sports and games, parents are barred from training and competitive arenas.

These parents are so self-absorbed into themselves; they lost rational and perspective. They believe their child, with training, can accomplish anything and within unrealistic time span. And if the results don’t meet the parent’s expectations, the coach and the child become the scapegoat. The reality is, it takes 10-12 years of intensive training for talented athletes to reach elite levels, if ever. Furthermore, in the U.S., unlike Asia and Europe, the talent level of kids who plays table tennis is below average.


Coaches set policy and guidelines to both parents and kids from the beginning so the boundaries are clear but in these cases, even when policies are set, you see parents interjecting, interfering, often giving conflicting advice confusing and putting stress on the child, who has heard it too often before. The situation is aggravated when the meddling and badgering is so routine that the child not only loses interest, becomes more defensive in their behavior because they lose their sense of confidence and self-worth. They become conditioned to respond by defending themselves and learn to satisfy the parent just to be relieved of the pressure for the moment. The short-term consequence is that they go on the court determined not to lose rather than playing to win.

The long-term damage is that these parents cause an opposite result in the shape of negative behavior and development. Psychologists have known that kids with high self-esteem behave positively while kids with low self-esteem are more likely to respond negatively. Kids are very resilient, but they have a breaking point where they can’t take more pressure and at some point, start to display negativism.

Life of their own

Since parents are the child’s first teachers, it is important that parents not lose sight of what is important, that this is about and for the kids, with no strings attached, in a positive, non-intrusive way, giving them an environment of fun and an exciting atmosphere where stress and pressure is reduced to a minimum. They have enough peer and self-imposed pressure already.

This is not possible if the parents don’t have a life of their own. When parents become so involved in the athletic development of their child, their lives are now intertwined where conflicts are inevitable. If the parent can realize his or her fault and make the change, the result can be enormously positive for both parent and child and forged a healing relationship.

Warning signs

When parents find themselves spending more time on the child’s sport activities rather on their own interests. Get anxious and irritated watching their kid’s performance, make frequent comments and criticisms and inducing guilt by making sacrificial remarks. When kids are observed withdrawn, dependent, resentful, insecure, self-conscious and become increasingly aggressive in competitive situations.



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