Playing Parental Whack-A-Mole: 6 Tips for Staying Sane in the Insanity of Youth Sports


So you are the parent who tires to stay above the fray of the parenting sports frenzy.

You don’t watch every minute of practice.

You don’t cross-examine your child after each workout or meet.

You assume good faith with your child’s coaches.

You refrain from comparing your kid’s “talent” and achievement with those of her teammates.

And then it happens.

Maybe it is that throw away line from a parent in your car pool: “My kid must be making great progress because she just got bumped to Group B, not C.”

Or it is the parent who makes the off the cuff remark on one of the few occasions you stop in the gym instead of doing the usual drop and run: “I hope your daughter wasn’t too upset when she was the only one who didn’t get to do her full on floor the other day.”

Or maybe it is even the self-doubt that creeps in when you notice a perceived slight: “I wonder why my kid was the only one from our club in camp group 7 during our gym’s summer camp…”

And, bam! There you are turning into the parent that you swore you were not going to be.

You are tempted to watch practice to find out what is going on.

You start to question you child on the car ride home.

You question whether the coaches are paying sufficient attention to your child…maybe they never liked her in the first place?

You begin to panic that your daughter is falling behind, not cutting it and is doomed to an athletic life of mediocrity.

As one reader wrote, beating these thoughts off is like playing “the parental game of Whack-a-Mole.”

So, how does a well-intentioned parent deal?

  1. Expect the irrational feelings, and welcome them. Here’s the thing: you cannot cure normal. It is completely and totally normal to feel pretty irrational when it comes to our kids. We love them so much and when we fear that others are disregarding them, we are going to feel a little insane. It’s okay. They are just feelings. Big breath in and they will pass…or at least calm down.
  2. You don’t have to react to every feeling you have. Just because you feel this yucky feeling rise within you, you don’t have to act on it. Just notice the feelings, name them (“Hi Whack-a-Moles!” might do) and let them leave.
  3. When you are tempted to act on these feelings, get that Whack-a-Mole hammer out and smash away. The visualization alone should make you laugh and put things back into perspective.
  4. Talk to a trusted person. Naming the Whack-a-Mole feelings and sharing that idea with a trusted friend in a similar position can be a great help. Being able to hop on a call to a pal who gets it and understands when you say “I’m having a Whack-a-Mole moment” can be hugely beneficial. Agree to talk each other down when either is struggling.
  5. Use the 10/10/10 test. Will this matter in 10 minutes, 10 days or 10 years? If the answer isn’t yes to all three of these time lines, considering letting the little mole free into the woods to inhabit someone else’s yard.
  6. Ask for forgiveness and practice self-compassion. If you mess up and let the Mole take over (you yell at the coach, your child, turn the car ride home into the Spanish Inquisition etc.) apologize. A simple “I was out of line and should not have spoken you that way. I am sorry and I will work hard to never do it again.” is sufficient. And then forgive yourself too. You’re going to have moments that make you insane. It doesn’t make you bad; it just makes you human.