A sports dad confesses: Don't make same mistakes I did

As a sports psychology expert, Dr. Patrick Cohn helps athletes perform at their highest potential. But after his own 16-year-old daughter, who was being recruited by college coaches, recently quit playing competitive tennis, he realized his professional expertise was hindered by mistakes he was making as a sports dad.

And in a video that is a Mea culpa of sorts, Cohn acknowledges his parenting misstep with oldest daughter Patti by interviewing his younger daughter, 9-year-old Paula, to get advice on how sports parents should behave.

Cohn explains Patti’s decision to quit tennis by saying, “She felt too much pressure from the recruiting process and from trying to win in tournaments. And part of that was pressure I put on her as a dad. I don’t want to make the same mistakes with you,” he tells Paula, a recreational soccer player.

In response to her dad’s questions, Paula offers refreshingly frank advice.

“Tell them, ‘Good luck,’ ‘Have fun,’ or ‘It doesn’t matter if you win or lose,” she says.

She tells parents to stop distracting kids by screaming on the sidelines, and says that a pre-game pep talk is OK if it’s encouraging and as long as parents don’t “go on and on and on.”

In a phone interview with TODAY Parents, Cohn, who runs Peak Performance Sports in Orlando, Florida, says he is still in shock that Patti has stopped playing the sport she started at age 6. After years of training for several hours daily, “She hasn’t picked up a racket in two months…I’m not holding out for her to go back,” he said.

In his business, Cohn advises professional and amateur athletes on using mental toughness to elevate athletic performance. With his daughter, he admits that he often pushed her to train, often asking “‘How are you going to improve?”

Patrick Cohn
Patti Cohn in a tournament match.

“I was a dad trying to encourage her to be the best she could be. She has mad skills,” he says proudly of Patti, who just finished her junior year of high school and turns 17 next week.

But as the college recruiting process intensified, Patti found that she had lost her passion for the sport. After losing a tournament match — the first one ever that her dad had not come to watch — she says, “I realized that I was partly playing for him. I just kind of decided that’s not what I wanted anymore.”

Patti Cohn was being recruited by college coaches when she decided to quit playing tennis.

She says tennis started off as a bonding experience for her and her father, who attended all of her matches and would often show his emotion while watching her play. Patti says she knows her dad only wanted the best for her when he pushed her to train and improve her fitness.

“I appreciate all he has done for me with tennis,” she adds, but in retrospect wishes “he would have been not as involved.”

Patrick Cohn
Dr. Patrick Cohn with daughters Patti, 16, and Paula, 9.

While Patti has not watched the entire video that her dad and sister made, she has her own advice to parents who have kids competing in sports: “Make sure it’s what the kid wants and not what you want,” she says.

Patrick Cohn
Paula Cohn, 9, enjoys playing soccer but hates it when parents are screaming on the sidelines.

Cohn has accepted his older daughter’s decision to stop playing and is thankful for lessons learned. He says he’s “so far ahead of the game” when it comes to knowing what his younger daughter wants from sports — mainly, to have fun with friends.

“I’m now the one on the sidelines coaching other parents, ‘Don’t yell at them to kick the ball — you are distracting them.’”

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