My Kid Isn't Good at Sports, Do I Tell Him the Truth?

Parents can support healthy self-esteem in children without falsely inflating self-confidence.'s "Ask Your Mom" columnist, Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., says you can focus on your child's love of the sport and allow other sources to give him the honest feedback.

Illustration of a mom looking at her son playing soccer
Photo: Illustration by Yeji Kim

Hesitant Cheerleader

My teen loves soccer but he's just not very good at it. I feel like a really bad mom saying that but it's true. I am very supportive regardless but he's mentioned that he wants to look at colleges strictly for their soccer teams and I really don't think that's a good idea. How do I tell my son to branch out to other things without hurting his feelings?

—Hesitant Cheerleader

The very short answer is, "Don't!" Not because I suggest you falsely cheer him on, or protect his self-esteem, but because he will learn best if his environment gives him feedback naturally. As his mother, you can stay in the role of his biggest (but honest) fan, and let the world do the dream-crushing.

I think it's normal for each of us to have our own parental blind spots; who else will think our children are as extraordinary as we do? In fact, research supports the importance of parents nurturing healthy levels of self-esteem with specific, truth-based praise and attention to their strengths. When it comes to specific skills, we can be like talent managers—spotting and encouraging our children's strengths, while being real about their weaknesses.

Truth in Parenting

I respect your realistic appraisal of your son's skills, rather than a rose-colored belief that "he can do anything he sets his mind to!" As I watch my first-grader's soccer team member get his hand tied up in the goal net, repeatedly, I wonder, "what do his parents say to him after the game?" Of course, a 7-year-old's ego strength is different from a 17-year-old's, but you do bring up a good question for all of us when it comes to our child's specific array of skills, "when and how do we tell our kids the truth?"

We learned from the self-esteem movement in the 80s that giving all the kids trophies may have done more harm than good, some experts suggesting it led to a generation of narcissists. A "follow your dreams no matter what" approach and vague, constant praise can instill a false sense of confidence that potentially sets up children for a lifetime of over-confidence that becomes problematic in the real world of the workplace and relationships. So, I encourage you to strike out the guilt about "being a bad mom" to have a realistic view of your son's abilities.

The growth mindset research on motivation and performance has convinced me of the importance of focusing on process over outcome, attending to what our children enjoy rather than what earns them accolades. In your situation, your son loves soccer, so you can support his love of the game without necessarily sharing your honest skills assessment, especially if he's not asking! If he is not seeking your input, I do not see the value of volunteering your opinion.

If You Must . . .

If you can't help yourself from getting just a little involved, you could check in with your son's soccer coach. You do not even need to share your own observations of his lack of skill, but ask, "what do you think of his plan to choose a college for their soccer teams? Do you think he's at a high enough level to play in college?" The best-case scenario is you get the surprise of your life when the coach disagrees with your judgment and informs you that your son is indeed a superior player. Because our parent instincts are usually sharper than that, the more realistic scenario is the coach agrees this would be a tough reach. In that case, you can nudge your son and coach in the direction of an honest discussion with each other.

Even if he might be good enough for a less competitive college team, you may not want him placing all of his hopes and dreams on soccer without considering all the other reasons to choose a college. This is worth an honest and open discussion. Depending on how open you think your son will be to this discussion, you could even partner with the coach to discuss the different ways playing college soccer fits into college selection.

Shift Focus

You reference encouraging your son to branch out, which is where you can leverage some positive influence without having to focus on soccer deficits. When discussing college options, you can broaden his focus by asking questions that remind him of the expansiveness of college opportunities beyond the soccer team. If he has a career goal, it might help him to get excited about programs that have proven pipelines to this career (hopefully it's not to be a professional soccer player). If he loves travel, talk up the junior year abroad possibilities. How you discuss college with him might remind him of the many considerations when making this momentous decision.

Raising Resilience

As your teenage son is maturing and growing away from you and your influence, this is the perfect example when other sources can influence him while you stay on the sidelines of the metaphorical soccer field of growing up. This way, you don't put yourself in a position of hurting his feelings, and you can be there to give him support when he inevitably confronts the difference between his hope and his reality. What is real life, if not a series of these realizations? The more practice he has with managing hard truths, the more resilient he can become over time.

The Bottom Line

Your question opens the floodgates to an important lesson in parenting: how to be our children's biggest believers and cheerleaders, balanced with not falsely inflating self-esteem. Your honest appraisal of your son's skills will actually serve him well, and you don't even have to break it to him yourself. Focus on his love of the sport, encourage pursuing a wide range of interests, and support him through eventual disappointment rather than trying to prevent it by telling him yourself.

Submit your parenting questions here, and they may be answered in future 'Ask Your Mom' columns.

Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., is the author of The Art and Science of Mom parenting blog and a mother of three from Oak Park, Illinois. She is a clinical psychologist in private practice who specializes in working with children and adolescents.

Read More Ask Your Mom columns here.

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