5 key habits for sports parents to adopt
Being a parent is a veritable minefield, and there’s no manual. Our role as parents is so fundamental to a child’s development that every word, gesture or even silent pauses can be interpreted in one way or another. I know that I’m making mistakes all the time with my 6-year old daughter and habits are being formed seemingly out of nowhere. And that’s fine as long as I’m aware and learning from them.
When you add youth sport into the equation, with its competition, results and emotion, it’s no wonder that we so often see a breakdown in the process, with far too many children quitting sports at around 14 years old due to a loss of fun and too much anxiety.
Through my work as Performance Director at BSI, having lost too many junior players down this road, I’ve spent extensive time exploring and studying this subject and have developed some key guidelines that can help parents along this tricky path. Here are 5 habits to adopt that will provide the best and most effective support for your young athlete (or any other field for that matter)
1. Show your unconditional love and support no matter the result.
This may seem like a no-brainer and something that you always do, but as mentioned earlier our words and actions can be interpreted in negative ways if we are not careful. Many youth athletes grow up believing that their self worth is directly related to how they perform. This is a reflection on how those around them react to good and not so good performances. Try to form the habit of showing your love and support in the same way no matter the result. Of course we celebrate the victories and personal achievements along the way, by sharing the players positive emotions. The best thing you can say when performance wasn’t so good; I love to watch you play.
2. Never give feedback straight after a game.
Every tournament or match offers the opportunity for learning and therefore growth. However for this to occur, the players must reflect for themselves on the performance. Parents and coaches must give the player the opportunity to do so before providing their feedback. Problem solvers are not solving problems. Players hate the drive home when they are told what went wrong and how to fix it. No learning can occur when emotions are high anyway. For this purpose, I ask my students two questions that I learnt from the innovative cricket coach Paddy Upton;
What did you do well? What would you do differently?
I ask the players to give this feedback the day after an event, allowing time for the emotion to clear and for them to reflect properly. You can try this too, and listen to the player.
3. Give them the gift of struggle and failure
The greatest potential for learning and growth happens when we take ourselves just outside of our comfort zones. The nature of this space, because we are stretching our capabilities, is one where mistakes and failure will occur. This needs to be embraced and encouraged. Parent and coaches who bring negative emotion to poor performance are promoting a fear of failure (or more correctly the consequences of failure). This leads to an aversion for the athlete to challenge themselves, which robs them of the opportunity to stretch their abilities and reach their potential. Give the gift of failure and struggle. It is vital for the development process, so don’t take it away or shield them from it. The athlete already hurts from poor performance. See point 2 and provide an ear once they have reflected.
4. Emphasise work effort not talent.
Did you know that praising your child’s talent or intelligence discourages them from working hard, taking on challenges and persevering with difficult tasks? As my daughter started developing her initial academic skills I was consciously praising her for being clever, thinking I was positively encouraging her along the way. However she quickly developed an adversity for perseverance once a task became difficult for her.
Carol Dweck’s excellent book ‘Mindset’ discusses this topic in detail, exploring the vast research that has been done by her and others on this subject. I changed the language I was using with my daughter, to emphasis how hard she had worked to achieve something. The result of this change in language has been remarkable, with a far greater willingness to try difficult things and a new eagerness to learn.
The same is true for sports and the language of talent. Dweck calls it the burden of talent, where the athlete doesn’t develop a growth mindset because they grow up being told how talented they are. In elite sport, talent is important, but it will not get you to your potential without a strong work ethic and smart training. To encourage the work ethic, coaches and parents must emphasise the work ethic.
5. Don’t compare your child to other players.
Every child is walking a unique path and is on a unique development journey. Comparing them to another competitor is not fair and will not lead to positive results. That competitor that you wish your child would be more like; he may be suffering from extreme anxiety. You just never know. Provide the best support for your child along his or her own journey. Acknowledge and celebrate the small victories, the marginal gains that add up to great personal growth. Setting personal goals along the way is a great way to do this, but don’t make it about beating opponents, make it about personal bests, beating your average or a process goal like achieving a certain fitness level for example. Studies show that the very best athletes focus purely on what they can do to improve. The true champions are gracious in defeat if they themselves performed well, because they understand this process and know what they can control.
While competition is an integral part of sport, the real comparison should be for each athlete against his or her own current level and working to stretch that ability little by little. At BSI every student is seen as unique in his or her development of their sport performance, education and as a whole person.