Delusional Parent Disorder in Youth Sports

By Keith Van Horn

Definition of Delusional Parent Disorder:  Parents who have false or unrealistic beliefs or opinions about their children even when confronted with facts: “Watching John yell at his son after the game makes me think he suffers from Delusional Parent Disorder.”

I am not a psychologist.  To my knowledge, there is no confirmed condition called Delusional Parent Disorder (“DPD”).  I’m just a dad and a coach, but coaching middle school girl’s basketball for Colorado Premier Basketball Club sometimes makes me wish I had a degree in psychology!  It would certainly help me to understand the thought process of some of the 3,000 parents who have kids in our programs.  Most of the parents on our basketball club are amazing and only suffer from a mild form of DPD, which I also admit to suffering from, but there are always those extreme cases.  You know that dad or that mom.  While I simply made up the name of the disorder, it is a real problem, especially when DPD creeps into parenting a young athlete.

It does seem that there is something in our genetic makeup that makes us parents feel that our children are always better than they actually are.  We can’t help it and I feel that way about my own four children.  Maybe mine are the exception?  They are the prettiest, smartest and of course, the best athletes.  My daughter is great at soccer, my son is an outstanding runner, and my two youngest daughters are the best basketball players.  Yeah right.  Well, isn’t it possible?  I just can’t help it and neither can most parents.

Alyssa Lundahl, who led a 2014 study at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln found that nearly 50% of parents with overweight children were in denial about their child’s weight.  They may not really be in denial.  Could it be that we are genetically programmed to believe our children are just better than they are?  I would argue that those parents in the study are just like us parents who believe that their children are better athletes than they actually are.

What is the problem of having an extremely over inflated view of our child’s athletic abilities? What does it hurt?  Actually, it can hurt a lot.  When we have unrealistic expectations of our children’s athletic abilities, we begin to put unnecessary pressure on them to perform to a potentially unrealistic standard.  Instead of appreciating their coach (who is usually an unpaid volunteer) we begin to think that they should be playing little Judy more, should be getting Judy more shots and by the way she really is a point guard.  We begin to coach them from the sidelines if their play or effort is not up to the level we believe it should be.  “Come on Johnny, play some defense for once!”  We have those post-game conversations in the car with our children, dissecting the game and inflating the importance of a twelve year-old youth soccer game when all they really want to know is if we will take them out for some ice cream.

These situations negatively impact the player-teammate, player-coach and most importantly the child-parent relationship.  It instills a belief within our children that they are not living up to our expectations and instead of learning to take personal responsibility for their own enjoyment and improvement in their sport, they learn to blame coaches, teammates and end up looking for someone else to help them get to the “next level” rather than finding the passion and desire within themselves to improve and reach their goals.  These situations teach our youth the exact opposite of what they should be learning from their participation in youth sports.

The parent suffering from DPD can cause their child to become a bad apple on their team.  John Calipari, the current head men’s basketball coach at the University of Kentucky and my first head coach in the NBA once told me a story.  When he was the head coach at the UMass, one year he had a top ten team that had a chance to win a national championship.  They were struggling early and he had a very talented player who was constantly getting in trouble, causing problems at practice and just plain being a cancer to the team.  After trying to help the player both on and off the court, his problems continued and eventually Calipari had to kick him off the team.  After dismissing him from the team, the team began to play great and they made it all the way to the Final Four.  Coach Calipari, after telling me the story said, “Our team that year was like a big tub of Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream.  All of the ingredients mixed together so well and the result was something great.  But when that player was on our team, he was like a little, itsty bit piece of (expletive that starts with an “S”) in our tub of ice cream.  You put one little, itsty bit piece of (expletive that starts with an “S”) in your tub of ice cream, and all the ice cream is just absolutely (expletive that starts with an “F”) RUINED.”  Parents suffering from severe cases of DPD are like the you-know-what in their child’s team ice cream, causing relationship problems with coaches and teammates.

So how do we avoid allowing our ingrained DPD to creep into your child’s youth sport experience?  Nearly all parents suffer from DPD to some extent.  It all starts with putting children in youth sports for the right reasons and reminding yourself constantly what those reasons are; Learning teamwork and communication. Understanding the importance and benefits of fitness and an active lifestyle.  Competing in a healthy and positive way. Overcoming adversity and losses.   In a world where it is natural to help our children avoid pain and failure, coupled with schools implementing systems that guarantee success when success has not really been attained, youth sports is one of the few opportunities that a child has to learn how to fall and get back up.  If a youth sport organization, coach and team are providing these opportunities for our children then we should be ecstatic.

Once our children are in an environment that teaches those life lessons, we should let the coaches coach, the players play and the referees (attempt) to referee.  Then see where it goes.  If a child loves their sport, let’s keep them engaged.  There are so many lifelong benefits to having a passion for sport.  They may very well reach some amazing goal that THEY set, but the reason for having our children participate in youth sports should not be to get them a college scholarship or to go pro (more on the odds and costs of that mentality in a later post) or to meet our parental expectations of them as an athlete.  It is great to encourage them to dream big.  We just need to make sure it is their dream.

We need to make sure that we are not that mom or that dad.   We can avoid getting sucked into that black hole of parenthood that is filled with terms such as “Sports Scholarships,” “Top Team,” and “Nationally Ranked (at 13 years old!).”  By curbing our natural instinct of being a delusional parent and having potentially unrealistic expectations of our children’s athletic prowess, we can provide our children with a more positive sports experience and set them up to benefit from lifelong lessons they can learn from their youth sports participation.

Keith Van Horn is a husband, father, entrepreneur, coach, writer and former University of Utah All-American and NBA Basketball Player.  Read more about Keith’s life, basketball career, philanthropy and current projects here.