How to Increase Your Kids’ Performance Anxiety (Not That You’d Want to)

We’ve all heard stories about those super intense sports parents who get more invested in games than their kids do.1

So the question of whether or not parents ought to attend all of their children’s games or practices is an interesting one – with no clear one-size-fits-all answer (check out 6 Reasons Parents Should NOT Watch Practice – which also is an interesting blog with some pretty cool contributors).

I’ve struggled a bit myself in trying to figure out where to draw the line in my kids’ activities, and have witnessed some pretty nutso animated parental behavior too. But, I wonder if it’s less about a parent’s mere presence and more about other subtler factors – like a parent’s expectations.

What does that mean, exactly?

Performance climate

Previous studies have looked at the impact parents can have on creating a “performance environment.” Those who overemphasized winning (and were overbearing, demanding, and critical) were rated by coaches as having contributed negatively to their children’s sporting experience.2 After all, fear of not living up to a parent’s expectations can be a real source of stress for some youngsters.3

Studies have also looked at different factors which contribute to these motivational climates that parents can create. For instance, some parents tend to define success in terms how well their child does compared with others (a “performance” orientation), while others define success in terms of how well their child does, relative to their own previous performances (a “mastery” orientation).

There’s also the way in which we approach these goals – with some being more inclined to pursue success and competence (“approach” goals), while others focus on avoiding failure (“avoidance” goals).

Like parent, like child

A recent study combined these two factors, and took a closer look at 73 competitive young athletes and their parents, to see how the parents’ goals for their child might influence their child’s performance anxiety.

The athletes were given an assessment to learn more about their athletic goals, which included questions in the four categories, such as:

  • Mastery-Aproach: “It is important for me to perform as well as I can”
  • Mastery-Avoidance: “I worry that I may not perform as well as I can”
  • Performance-Approach: “It is important for me to do well compared to others”
  • Performance-Avoidance: “I just want to avoid doing worse than others”

Parents were also asked about their goals for their child:

  • Mastery-Approach: “It is important for me that my child perform as well as he/she can”
  • Master-Avoidance: “I worry that my child may not perform as well as he/she can”
  • Performance-Approach: “It is important for me that my child do well compared to others”
  • Performance-Avoidance: “I just want my child to avoid doing worse than others”

Athletes were also asked to reflect on how they felt about an upcoming competition, and given a competitive anxiety assessment designed to measure several components of anxiety. One of them was the concept of worry – which would translate into thoughts like “I worry that I won’t swim well.”

Parents’ goals matter

As you might expect, parents who had more performance goals for their kids (wanting their kids to do better than others, or avoid doing worse than their peers), tended to have kids who worried more.

On the other hand, parents who expressed more mastery goals (simply wanting their kids to do their best and perform up to their abilities) did not seem to contribute to increased worrying by their kids.

The researchers suggested that when children perceive that success is dependent on how they stack up relative to others, they worry about not being able to live up to these expectations. After all, they have no control over how others will perform, so this just adds to the uncertainty and stress of the situation. Performing up to their own abilities may not be a sure thing either, but at least it is more in their control.

Take action

This study is just a small glimpse into what is ultimately a much larger and complex issue, but it does suggest that we may want to have a conversation with parents about their goals for their children. As important as it may be for us to help students create effective mastery goals (as opposed to performance goals), it seems that parents’ adoption of mastery goals is a key factor in creating a more effective motivational climate for their child as well.

Along these lines, I recently heard a story about a young musician who commuted across several states to take lessons with her teacher. The young musician’s mother videotaped all of her lessons – and the student was expected to review the video and take notes on the drive back home. However, the mother wasn’t pushy or invested in her daughter becoming a superstar, but rather, for her to become good enough for her to really enjoy making music, and so they had a good working relationship. The student continues to do very well, and recently received a rare comprehensive scholarship package from a respected graduate program.

Maybe that’s an example of an effective balance? Having and setting clear expectations for effort – but stepping back and providing space, support, and demonstrating trust when it comes to the details of how the work itself will be done?

What do you think the right balance looks like? Do any specific examples come to mind from your own experience of parents and children?


  1. Which has led to an HBO documentary called “Trophy Kids” (view a short clip or read an amusing article).
  2. Understanding the role parents play in tennis success: a national survey of junior tennis coaches
  3. Fear of failure, fear of evaluation, perceived competence, and self-esteem in competitive-trait-anxious children.

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice...
Why Are Performances Still So Hit or Miss?

It’s not a talent issue. And that rush of adrenaline and emotional roller coaster you experience before performances is totally normal too.

Performing at the upper ranges of your ability under pressure is a unique skill – one that requires specific mental skills, and perhaps a few other tweaks in your approach to practicing too. Elite athletes have been learning these techniques for decades; if nerves and self-doubt have been recurring obstacles in your performances, I’d like to help you do the same.

Click below to learn more about Beyond Practicing – a home-study course where you’ll explore the 6 skills that are characteristic of top performers. And learn how you can develop these into strengths of your own. And begin to see tangible improvements in your playing that transfer to the stage.


11 Responses

  1. hey noa! i’ve always been interested in the varying levels of hands-on-ness that parents have and the effects on their kids. i have parents with incredible work ethic, themselves, but were completely hands off to the point where they never asked me or reminded me to practice once. that instilled a sense of ownership over my practicing, since without my own direction, there would be no direction. i wasn’t waiting for someone to tell me what to do, so i was more likely to push myself into projects.

    i’m assuming that this is based on personality type of the actual child as well, since not everyone would respond the same way to every style of parenting.

    1. Hi Rob,

      Yeah, it’s the sort of thing where I wish there was a once-size-fits-all answer or recommendation, but it depends on the parents, the kid, the situation, etc. so I think as parents we just need to be constantly aware and responsive to what our kid needs and responds to, without our own fears and concerns getting in the way of their experience.

      This all makes me think a bit about Ken Robinson’s book The Element, which is about how cool it is when we find the intersection of our natural curiosities and abilities. Here’s his TED talk, if you haven’t seen it.

  2. My favorite article yet;

    Today I did a trial-and-error and experimentation work in the practice room ; I tried different things but I didn’t choose. I didn’t rote repeated, or I repeated but differently. This sounded like work.
    What I understand is that a piece of music is not played with “my intonation”. “Intonation”, that “I wish I had improved by 212% by tomorrow”, is made of various “noises” assembled. One speed+one quantity of pressure+one grip=one sound. I don’t perceive their differences if I don’t pay attention–focus is improved when it works to compare subtilities, we like it.
    I will be able to work like that tomorrow.

    How should I think of my practice? As a way to enjoy hanging out with the works of others–friends and enemies. As a way to enjoy having “friends” and “enemies”.
    This is the “interpetation” part.
    I look for Journals of Public Relation Research online.

  3. Turning into an under-practicer when you started a practice regimen is a common problem. I checked out Journal of Research about weight loss because I thought the ffort put in the weight loss were simila to those of a practice regimen. I mean a intentional weight loss regimen. This is what are the studies online about. There are several questions : the reasons of a successful weight loss on ther long term (>5years), the means to get there. The study articulate around a central problem : the risk of relapse. I do all the analogy with sport psychology. There are plenty of Journals of Research. They deal with self-monitoring in these researches , and consistency.

  4. My daughter is 9 years old and 4 years into Suzuki violin lessons. We chose the violin for her whereas a friend of ours has a daughter just 9 months older who asked her parents to put her into violin lessons at around the same time 4 years ago. So although both girls are practically at the same place in the Suzuki repertoire, my daughter and I probably spend more time on lessons and I research the best practice techniques and read books like Making it Stick – The Science of Successful Learning (amazing book on how to best learn and mirroring Dr. Noa’s blogs very much), plus we attend 1-2 Suzuki week long institutes in the summer and our lessons with our teacher are longer and we do not take a summer break. The child’s desire has a huge impact on how the parent approaches the practices. On my part I have to help build that desire for our daughter and it is more work so more an emotional investment which could lead to performance focus rather than master focus.

    I confess at the start it was about a performance approach: “where is your daughterl compared to our girl”. “How is our daughter doing against her classmates?” But over the last 4 years we really strongly realized…we are not here to build a Hillary Hahn. We are here as parents to build a person with character (very much a Suzuki approach). So we moved our focus from competitiveness to building mastery. In fact the friend’s daughter is ahead of us by a few songs but we don’t sweat it….we enter into Kiwanis Festivals to help learn phrasing of current repertoire and polishing the songs rather than focusing on learning new songs and advancing. We still ask “where is your daughter in her lessons?” to be honest. But we laugh together my daughter and I and say “it’s not a competition” (in the next sentence we say “but it is a competition”). We have to really work at making sure the learning is fun and that she enjoys the music learning. That the violin becomes her thing, not mine (I am taking lessons alongside which probably helps her, but I cannot keep up…so for me performance focus for myself was a serious issue I am dealing with….do you know how hard it is to keep up to your 9 year old 🙂 )
    One key that Dr. Noa mentioned was giving the child a choice in a previous blog. At this age I still outline a weekly checklist for our daughter based on her teacher’s lesson and she picks the items in the order she wants but she has to check all the points off during the week, so at the end of the week the cumulative results are the same but we hope the long term results are more permanent and embedded so that our daughter “owns” her music learning.
    It is a real balancing act and requires vigilance on my part as a parent.

    1. Paul – I want to commend you on your approach with your daughter. I am both a piano teacher and a viola parent so I’ve been on both sides of the music lesson coin. Your comments that impressed me were “On my part, I have to help build that desire for our daughter…” Agreed! I wish more parents understood the importance of “building desire” into their children. So many will sign their child up because they want them to be “well-rounded” but don’t understand the role they must play in order for their child to grow from the experience of taking lessons. Students who have parents sitting in on lessons and engaging with them at home in the practice room are the ones who come to my studio with a smile on their face and are excited about being there. I encourage parents to sit in on lessons and require it for those who are young beginners or struggling with their progress.
      I’m also glad your daughter has a violin buddy. My daughter had one as well at that age and they loved sharing that experience together. Private music lessons can be lonely due to the hours of individual practice required, unlike team sports, drama, choir band which provide more social interaction. It’s important to attend recitals and find fun ways to share their talent with others. I don’t push competitions with my students but do work hard to prepare those who show interest. You are doing a great job of affirming your daughter’s ability with a light-hearted approach to her friend’s progress.
      Finally, I am glad to hear that you are taking lessons with your daughter. Bravo! You are truly committed and your daughter will value these years (which slip away too quickly!) with you.

      1. Thank you kindly Val, it is a great feeling to have our direction confirmed by a teacher. And I love your comment about the violin buddies. We have not done the violin buddies for a year now but I agree with your comment about it being a social experience for my daughter…’s a really good point….I will re-engage the other father and get us doing violin buddies again. My daughter did in fact mention we have not done violin buddies in a long time 🙂

    I found this article which could be helpful. It deals with helicopter parents-Exactly, it is entitled “Independence and Work Ethic in the Transition to Adulthood:
    A Comparison of Two Cohorts”. It deals not with an example, but with the actual tendency.
    The acrticle stresses out the technological differences that affect the new generations (The Echos).
    A long and referenced artcle.
    “Although technology makes life much easier, Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, and Echo Boomers all recognize that it may have other effects as well. Technology combined with the increased focus on individual success and growth may rob children of some of their innocence and imagination. Technology is not the only area where Echoes have had their childhood shortened. The sharp increase in educational competition–and the extension of that competition to high schools, elementary schools, and even preschools–has children worrying far earlier and far more about their educational and career opportunities than in previous generations.”

    Seriously, check out this article, it’s worth a read.

  6. Performance goals matters the most. Parents are the single point of motivation for the child. Unrealistic goals or high expectations will go in vain, every single time. Even when they fail, parents need to celebrate or at least embrace their effort. Kids are the most vulnerable human beings, they must be appreciated and motivated to perform rather than to get results. Performance is the key, Doing is more important than Perfect.

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