Teen Athletes' View of Success Affected by Parents, Peers

From the WebMD Archives

Dec. 15, 1999 (Minneapolis) -- Even if teen athletes view success as "how you played the game," they may feel that their parents define success as winning, according to Spanish researchers. These athletes also are more likely to have peers who support their point of view, the authors report in a recent article in the International Journal of Sports Psychology.

However, athletes who define success as winning are likely to feel that parents, coaches, and peers share their view, write lead researcher Amparo Escartí and colleagues. The possibility of these two attitudes are important for athletes, their parents, and their coaches to bear in mind, Darren Treasure, PhD, tells WebMD.

"This study is one of several sports psychology studies that looks at how athletes' [views of success] are formed," says Treasure. "How success is perceived affects people's performance in sports. Those who perceive success as winning do fine as long as they're winning but become discouraged in adverse settings. In those settings, athletes who perceive success as doing well continue to persist and do well." Treasure is an assistant professor of sport and exercise psychology at Arizona State University in Tempe.

In a survey of 90 male and 44 female high school track and tennis athletes, the Spanish investigators asked athletes how they defined success, how their parents and coaches defined it, and how their friends defined it. Friends were categorized into those who were involved in athletics and those who were not. The average age of respondents was 15.

Respondents were considered task-oriented if they viewed success in terms of whether they were performing as well as possible, mastering skills, and overcoming difficulties. Respondents were more ego-oriented if they defined success as performing in a manner superior to opponents and beating other people. They found that athletes who were more task-oriented felt that their criteria for success differed from those of their parents and coaches, whom they saw as more ego-oriented, but similar to those of their task-oriented peers. More ego-oriented respondents were more likely to feel that their success criteria were in agreement with those of both their peers and the adults in their lives.

"One of the interesting findings in this study was that there was little difference between boys and girls in task or ego orientation," Ian Tofler, MD, tells WebMD. Tofler, the co-chair of the sports psychiatry committee of the American Association of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and a consulting psychiatrist at Children's Hospital in Los Angeles, tells WebMD that a certain amount of parental pride in children's athletic accomplishments is normal. However, parents should avoid becoming overly invested in their children's achievements, particularly in athletics, because this stance can actually harm children by encouraging them to perform despite injuries and fatigue.

In an accompanying article in the same issue, Gershon Tenenbaum and colleagues found that athletes were more likely to improve their performance if they had attainable goals than if they were to simply give their best efforts toward unattainable goals. In this analysis of previously obtained data, the researchers from Israel and Australia found that easy and difficult goals that were realistic were the most beneficial ones, compared with very difficult and unattainable goals and "do your best" goals.

Vital Information:

  • Whether teen athletes believe their success is defined by how well they perform or by winning, they are likely to have peers who support the same view, according to a recent study.
  • Those who define success as winning can become discouraged in adverse situations, while those who focus on performance will continue to do well.
  • In another study, athletes with realistic goals were more likely to improve than athletes who had unrealistic or 'do your best' goals.