Perfectionism and parents push young hockey players to anger, study shows

Young hockey players with unhealthy perfectionist tendencies are particularly prone to fits of anger, say researchers at the University of Alberta. They add that these youngsters often demand much of themselves in response to unrealistic expectations set for them by their parents or coaches.

"We found that players run into trouble when their standards are too high," said Dr. John Dunn, a professor in the U of A Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation and a co-author of the study. "When these athletes make a mistake, they get angry at themselves, but they also get angry and frustrated because they feel that their parents or coaches are putting an unfair amount of pressure on them with respect to reaching high performance standards."

The researchers also found that players are more emotionally vulnerable as the pressure in a game mounts. That is, they're more likely to snap in the third period of an important game compared to the first period of, say, a pre-season game.

"This concept explains what most coaches already know, which is that you want your players with the most emotional control out on the ice at the most critical times in the game," Dunn said.

Dunn noted that anger, when controlled and channeled properly, can be used constructively, particularly as a motivational tool. However, he added that relatively few athletes are able to use anger in this manner, and, among kids in particular, anger usually has a negative affect on their performance and enjoyment of the game.

"When the high majority of athletes act based on anger, they will do something foolish. In hockey they'll take a bad penalty or even act out of revenge and try to hurt another player," Dunn said. "Anger can even block cognition to the point that the athlete misses cues in the environment and fails to recognize the consequences of his actions."

"There is a time and place for aggression in sports, but I don't think anger is a healthy motivational tool. There are many other positive ways to find motivation," he added.

A simple way to reduce incidences of anger in hockey is to lower players' standards, Dunn said. "This is not 'the easy way out,' it's the realistic route. When we achieve our goals we feel good about ourselves, and then we can set our goals higher."

"Striving for perfection is positive, but demanding perfection is not," Dunn added. "No athlete in the world can be perfect all the time, and to expect perfection all the time will lead to frustration and possibly burn-out. It can also lead to low self-esteem, because you'll never able to reach your goal."

Dunn suggests that parents and coaches make praise conditional on effort, not outcomes.

"It can be very destructive when a parent or coach will only give a high-five or a pat on the back when the kid has met a prescribed standard. That high-five should also come whenever a kid is working hard and trying his best and, hopefully, improving," he said.

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The research, which is published this month in the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, was derived from surveys of more than 200 male youth hockey players between the ages of 12 and 16 in the Edmonton Minor Hockey Association. The study is a follow up to a similar study done on male youth football players in the Edmonton area.

Dunn completed the study with two colleagues, including Jeff Vallance, a former masters student. The paper was based on the results of Vallance's masters thesis, which earned Vallance the "best thesis" award from the American Association for Applied Sports Psychology.

Dr. Dunn can be reached at 780-492-2831 or john.dunn@ualberta.ca.


Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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