It Can Be Tough to Raise Tough Athletes

By Brian Gotta, President of CoachDeck LLC

In my years of coaching, I have seen lots of kids who had tremendous athletic talent but who didn’t live up to their potentials because they were mentally soft. And I’ve known many who did not have as much ability but got the most out of it because of toughness. I imagine some of that is just innate. But I am certain that much of it has to do with parenting.

Three of my four adult children play professional sports and all of them, at one time or another, have coached youngsters of various ages. The stories they tell about the way some parents coddle these kids shows me that nothing has changed for generations.

It used to be called, “Overprotective” and maybe it still is, though I have not heard that term in a while. Maybe that is because this type of parenting has become the norm, not the exception.

They have described kids leaving an activity in the middle to run over to a parent and get a drink of water. Or to ask for a shoe to be tied. Or to say they need a rest. Or to simply cry that they don’t want to play anymore. And nearly every time, instead of telling the child to get back out there with the others, the parents give them what they want. Attention. Positive reinforcement.

One child broke down because he lost in a competition and, in an angry fit, picked up all the cones my daughter had set out and threw them. He sprinted to his father in tears. His dad told him he had to apologize and go put the cones back. But the boy never did and there was no consequence.

I can cite many more examples but I’m sure you get the point. I think it can all be summed up with a basic scenario which I used to teach when I ran coaching clinics for my Little League: I explained that little kids playing sports are going to often bump into each other, fall down, scrape their knees. I am not talking about serious injuries, mind you; just the run-of-the-mill, ordinary “boo-boo.” When this happens, there are four words you should say, but the order in which you say them makes all the difference:

Are you all right?


You are all right.

Same words, completely opposite connotation. You see, when these little humans are doing something new (playing sports) and something unexpected happens, the first thing they do is look to the nearest grown-up to gauge the severity of the situation. If the grown-up says, “Are you all right?” it means he doesn’t know! This could be serious! Now the child is scared and begins to wail. He runs to mommy or daddy and they comfort him. That feels good. Positive reinforcement for overreacting. The message is if you get knocked down, cry and you’ll be rewarded for it.

But, on the other hand if the immediate reaction to a little ding is, “You’re all right,” the child is instantly reassured. “Oh. I am? I must be if he says so! OK!” Now what lesson did this child learn about how to act after a spill?

When my third son was playing shortstop his freshman year in high school he dove for a ball hit over his head, landed awkwardly, and broke his collarbone. It was obvious he was in a tremendous amount of pain as the coaches attended to him. After a couple minutes a concerned woman in the stands asked, “Does anyone know where his parents are?” I said, “We’re right here.”

Everyone has the right to parent their children as they wish, and there is an entire spectrum ranging from far too protective, smothering, to distant and even abusive. Just like with everything, the extremes are always wrong. The trick is the find the right spot in between. In raising my kids, I wasn’t perfect, and I know there were times I was probably too tough, especially as their coach. But I would rather err on that side than on being too soft.

Especially when our children are young, we usually see them as being less capable of handling adversity and less resilient than they actually are. In sports and in life, they will face many challenges over the years. The tools we give them early on will set the tone for how they fare when we are not there to protect them.

Brian Gotta is a former youth baseball coach and volunteer Little League board member. He is the President of CoachDeck and also author of four youth sports novels and a baseball coaching book which can be found at He can be reached at

1 comment

Feb 25, 2021 • Posted by Josh Beers

What a fantastic reminder! I have not raised professional athletes, but I have taken criticism from parents as both a dad and coach for not stepping in to multiple situations that I believed was best for kids to work through from injuries to emotions. I have told my players if you are hurt, stay down, but if you are not, then get up. It’s amazing how few injuries we now have when no one is babying them every time they get bumped or dinged. Thanks for helping us raise tough kids for life.

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