What to Do When Your Kids’ Sports Heroes Let Them Down

Many kids look to professional athletes as role models, icons, and heroes. So when sports celebrities like Tiger Woods or Lance Armstrong get into trouble, they might feel let down. Here’s advice on how to handle those tough situations and turn them into teachable moments.


sad boy on soccer fieldSince Babe Ruth hit his first home run, kids have looked to professional athletes as role models. Yet when modern-day megastars like Tiger Woods and Lance Armstrong get into trouble — whether it’s accusations of extramarital affairs, steroid use, run-ins with the law, or bad behavior — the vast amount of information available in today’s media-centric world quickly results in a tarnished image.

In 2010 alone, several scandals surfaced. Jayson Williams was arrested for DWI and, the very same week, sentenced to 18 months in prison for the fatal shooting of his limousine driver. Mark McGwire apologized for using steroids when he broke the home run record in 1998, and Gilbert Arenas was suspended by the NBA for bringing guns into the locker room. Even Michael Phelps, the Olympic champion and poster child for wholesomeness, suffered public embarrassment when a photo of him smoking marijuana was leaked.

“There’s no place to hide. It’s almost impossible for these athletes to maintain the position of the perfect, unblemished hero or idol,” says Paul Schienberg, Ph.D., a New York City sports psychologist and author of the book You Can’t Afford to Break Up (iUniverse 2009). “If you choose to live in that world and you’re going to be idolized by kids, then you have to hold yourself up to a higher standard,” adds Susan S. Bartell, PsyD, author of The Top 50 Questions Kids Ask, (Sourcebooks, Inc. 2010) who says that some athletes do a better job than others at maintaining a squeaky clean image. So when these scandals surface, and your kid’s image of hero is quickly deflated, how can you help them deal with the letdown?

Hero Worship is Healthy

“There is a natural tendency to find athletes represent something that’s invincible,” says Dr. Schienberg, who is also the publisher of PSYCHED magazine. That idealization, particularly during adolescence, is a large part of growing up and can even be healthy for kids.

“It’s a necessity to have adults outside of home life that have attributes that a child can identify, admire, and want to emulate,” explains Dana Dorfman, PsyD, a psychotherapist in private practice in midtown Manhattan. For example, appreciating an athlete’s work ethic and perseverance can help kids set their own standards for success as they mature.

Hurt Feelings

Children tend to see the world in black and white terms so when they hear something unfavorable about their favorite athlete, the hero they had looked up to is no more. “There’s a sense of huge loss and betrayal,” explains Dr. Schienberg who says that this realization can be shocking for kids. “They can feel very let down because they’ve held this person in such high regard and really considered him to be such a role model,” Dr. Bartell says.

Other feelings can also surface. “It may be a relief to understand that athletes are also complex human beings whose lives include a lot of nuances and complexities,” Dr. Dorfman says.

Damage Control

Since kids are inundated with so much information — on the Internet, TV, and even on the school bus — initiating a conversation with your kids and helping them debunk the myths is vital. “They’re going to form their own opinions so if parents don’t talk to them about what the reality is, the opinions they form based on misinformation are going to skew reality,” Dr. Bartell says. Asking open-ended questions like, “What did you hear?” or “What do you think about it?” can reveal how much the child really understands and how the child is feeling emotionally.

Also, making it a conversation rather than a lecture is a much more effective way to communicate. “Kids take in information in very different ways and when we think they understand it on an adult level, they absolutely don’t,” according to Dr. Dorfman who advises parents to share a minimal amount of information with their kids and then check in with them again to see how they’ve interpreted it. “In some ways, it’s a safer way to talk about feelings because it’s about a very distant person  and it allows for a nonthreatening discussion.”

Helping your children make the distinction between poor choices and bad people is also key. “In the case of Tiger Woods, you can explain that he’s human and although he clearly made bad choices, it doesn’t mean he’s a bad person,” says Dr. Schienberg.

Once you’ve acknowledged your kids’ feelings and helped them make sense of these adult issues, it’s important to give them permission to continue to follow their favorite athletes and admire those same qualities that made them become fans in the first place. “You can explain to your kids that this doesn’t make them any less of an athlete and you can still appreciate what they did in the  sport and continue to love what they do,” Dr. Bartell says.

Finding An Opportunity

Parents can also use athlete scandals and headlines as opportunities to teach ethics and instill values in their children. “It’s imperative that parents share what their expectations are and where they stand on the issue,” says Dr. Dorfman, who adds that children, especially middle or high school ages, want to know what the limits and standards are. For elementary aged children, who have a simpler understanding of these issues, Dr. Dorfman suggests explaining that drugs, for example, are bad and can make you sick — plain and simple. Even if your kid’s favorite athlete isn’t caught up in a major news scandal, but he or she’s fined for yelling at an umpire, for example, parents can use these kind of incidents as teachable moments. “Those are the kinds of behavior your children will easily latch on to because they think it’s acceptable,” explains Dr. Bartell. “The more often you speak to your kids about these hot button topics, the more likely you are to have effective communication with them.”