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5 Rules to Close the Gap Between Parents and Athletes

Nearly 35 million children and adolescents participate in organized youth sports in the United States. Thirty-five percent of these same children say they will likely quit the following year. In the United States, youth participation in organized sports has dramatically increased over the past 25+ years from approximately 18 million children in 1987 to 60 million in 2008. Children are engaging in organized athletics at a younger age than ever before. In 1987, children aged 6 and under made up 9% of all youth athletes in organized sports. In 2008, this number grew to 14% highlighting the earlier entrance into organized sports (Ferguson, Brad, Stern, Paula, JCCA).

What is the most important factor affecting these athlete’s satisfaction and success in sports? Answer: Parents and coaches.

There’s nothing quite like sports to activate the human nervous system. In most cases, at the end of the event, there is a winner and a loser. Of course, this is one aspect that makes sport so compelling. However, the challenge for so many young athletes is to find the path that helps them develop and excel at the same time. Here are a few guidelines to keep your connection with your child and increase the odds that they will develop more intrinsic motivation–a critical ingredient for a lifetime of enjoyment and success.

1. Manage the Rollercoaster of Winning and Losing

Many parents have an instinct to try and talk kids out of their feelings instead of empathizing with them. Remember that children see the world, and definitely sports, in two ways—all good or all bad.. So, instead of dismissing their feelings and praying they see things from your perspective right away you say in a genuine way, “I know losing is hard. You tried so hard and it didn’t work out. But I loved watching you play and seeing how you never gave up.” Shorter the better. Memorize these comments because you will forget them in the heat of the moment. Just like I have athletes burn a few key phrases into their mind before and during games, you, too need a parent performance plan when trying to tame the “inner beast” after a loss.

2. Tread Lightly When Instructing your Child

The old adage: Less is more couldn’t be more on target. The key is to make any advice succinct and almost always set up by a positive comment about what they did well. Research actually shows that it’s not how much you are involved in your child’s sports experience, it’s a matter of degree—that is, how intensely, how frequently and how long you immerse yourself in it. In the long-run, young athletes will get the most from you in terms of confidence building and motivation rather than specific technical skills. So, next time you have the urge to yell at your child floating around out there on the athletic field or want give them a few tips as soon as the game is over, consider timing. It’s a tightrope but if you learn how to balance on it, you can maximize the experience for you and them.

3. Reframe Pre-Event Anxiety

First, you need to help them understand that the arousal in their bodies happens to every athlete. Some athletes get more, some get less. The feeling by itself doesn’t mean they will play poorly or lose. It also means that they care about their sport. Athletes need to understand that they actually need a healthy amount of it to actually perform at their best.

If they can begin to interpret pressure as exciting and a positive challenge they will train their mind to embrace this feeling, not fear it. Michael Jordan, prior to his retirement said, “The day I don’t feel nervous is the day I know I must quit the game of basketball.” Regardless of his nerves, Michael always wanted the ball. He viewed his nerves in a very positive light and always grabbed the opportunity to play and improve. Teach your child to view nervousness as excitement. Help him see that it is a choice. How we think about what we feel makes a dramatic difference. This will begin to help him create a new association to the feeling. Once he sees that he has control over himself and can see nervousness from another vantage point he will perform better and develop greater confidence in himself.

4. Communicate your Values to Develop Sportsmanship

Children who act out in competitive situations are often more extrinsically motivated—driven more by the trophy, praise and winning. When these desires become threatened or thwarted they can melt down. Their high extrinsic orientation clouds their vision and they have a hard time enjoying the game. They are often running high on adrenaline and are in a progressive stage of “fight or flight.” This is when bad sportsmanship can emerge. To combat this, focus on the details of the game over and above the outcome–the great defensive play, their ability to bounce back after a mistake, etc… If children see that you value effort, tenacity, teamwork and sportsmanship, they will begin to internalize these values over time. When their behavior deteriorates be clear about your expectations and what you are willing to do in the way of boundaries. Actions often speak a lot louder than words. If you set a limit that they can’t play in the next match or game stick to it. They need to know you mean business.

5. Give your Child Space After a Game

The classic post-match mindset for veteran parents is to allow kids to cool down and have time to process what happened before inserting their own observations. So, when they finish the event you say, “Hey sweety, where would you like to go for lunch? What does this do? It reminds them and their hijacked brain that life goes on and know that you are not upset or disappointed. It allows them to briefly exhale from the intensity of what they just went through and helps them to continue building a positive association to competition. It builds their growth mindset and provides space for an accurate assessment of what happened—rather than just their typical all or nothing, negative spin (i.e. “it was horrible”). It’s amazing how resilient kids can be if we allow them that opportunity. By removing our layer of judgment—perceived or not—kids are freed up to develop a relationship to their sport on their own terms. And this will pay off in spades down the road.