The athletic department at Michigan State University invited me to participate in their orientation for parents of incoming freshman athletes. These parents were no ordinary group. Some of their kids had already made their country’s Olympic teams; others had good reason for optimism about making a living off their athletic talents, but all seem genuinely interested in the success of their kids as students first and athletes second. Perhaps that flies in the face of what you have heard about “pushy” parents who are banking on the money their kids might earn  s professional athletesd.

With this presentation, I got as much as I gave—and then some. It was comforting to be again reassured that PARENTS GET IT. That is, they understand better than most that a career as a professional athlete is little more than a crapshoot—little more than a twisted knee, broken ankle or a bad personal decision away from ruin. Meanwhile, though, they have the responsibility for managing the career aspirations of a superb athlete whose chances of going pro, though slim are considerably better than many millions of others. What most parents want and need is some practical tips on how to give an 18-year-old career advice inclusive of college.

The beginning of the process (more articles on this subject are forthcoming) is to understand three career advice mistakes parents often make when dealing with their kid’s ambition to become a professional athlete.

Mistake #1: Positioning college as a “backup plan.”

Parents frequently present backup plans as a hedge against the failure to accomplish a professional sports career. A common phrase is “If you get your education, you’ll always have something to fall back on.” At one time that might have been true. Today’s truth is, according to the Department of Labor, nearly 50% of all Americans with college degrees have jobs that do not require them. At one time, if you had a college degree you had a well-paying professional job if you wanted one. Those days are over.

Beyond that, however, such advice makes it difficult to compete at increasingly higher levels. Competing in college requires an unusual degree of talent and self- confidence. Having the idea of “failure” in the back of your mind erodes confidence at a time when it is most needed. Even someone as talented as the recent Hall of Fame Inductee, Shaquille O’Neal, felt that insecurity as a freshman at LSU. He has often said then he did not feel as if he was “good” enough to make the team.

Mistake #2: Failure to insist on developing skills beyond one’s sport

I don’t know exactly when it happened, but today’s athletes train year round. The demands from coaches and individual training regimens leave room for little else. That’s a mistake. For their personal development kids need to devote themselves to something other than sports. Perhaps the easiest and most rewarding thing to do is volunteer work. Volunteering for a cause beyond your personal gain or satisfaction has advantages. When done in the name of helping others who may be less fortunate, it adds new dimensions to your kid’s personality and accomplishments that will be appreciated by others when it comes to landing a job. It’s one of the things employers look for in new hires. As such, occasional volunteer work becomes an important differentiator among the hundreds of others who otherwise qualify for the same job.

Mistake #3: Relying too much on coaches to teach the life lessons athletic participation has to offer

The truth is, coaches coach and parents parent. Those two processes do not always have the same objectives in mind. The former is to get the best performance in that instance out of you child and in that sport. However, developing your child into a fully functioning adult is your job, not theirs. Athletics can help, but it is a process in which parents need to ride shotgun.

One way to stay directly involved is to start when they are very young and ask what they will try and accomplish each and every season of activity. Over time, their answers, like their bodies will mature. It’s a great way to help your athlete keep a larger picture in mind and develop habits whose outcomes are consistent with more important objectives.

Avoiding these mistakes will not solve everything. But they will get you on the road to a successful career in sports or otherwise.