Courtesy of Jennifer Lager, Psy.D. via Julia Galan / SwimSpire
GAME – Get A Mental Edge
As the weather cools and the leaves change colors, kids and parents all over the country are back in the full swing of school and practice routines. Youth athletics can be a very time consuming, stressful, and expensive endeavor. Parents are an essential component in the success of a child-athlete, but they can also be a toxic element. The fine line that parents walk between involvement and respectful distance can be difficult to navigate. Done well, parents of athletes can help their children have fun, bolster esteem, and have valuable learning opportunities which will serve them well in life. Done poorly, parents of athletes can inadvertently end up damaging their relationship with the child, cause low self-esteem, and deter the child from developing a lifelong enjoyment of physical activity or sports.
Contrary to some beliefs, being an overbearing sport parent is unlikely to lead to a successful and motivated athlete. A very small percentage of children participating in sports will receive college scholarships, go to the Olympics, or play a sport professionally. Ask most parents and they will say that their priority is to raise a well-adjusted, resilient, healthy, and happy child. Here are 7 of the best approaches to being a sport parent that will help accomplish this goal while at the same time encourage your child to achieve as an athlete.
1. Be a good role model
Many studies have found that children internalize their parents’ approaches and attitudes. If you badmouth your child’s coaches, teammates, opponents, and officials, this will undermine his or her ability to have positive experiences in the sport. And it is those positive experiences that will lead to intrinsic motivation, which helps athletes of all ages and skill persist even when the going gets tough. This persistence often translates to a willingness to put in the training required for long-term success. Being a good role model for your child will help him or her gain those positive experiences that are so necessary for developing serious commitment to the sport.
2. Let your child be a part of the decision-making process
It’s a well-known fact that when kids make their own choices and set goals for themselves, they tend to become more invested in them. Letting a child make informed decisions about how much weekly training to do, having them determine their pre-race routines, and allowing them to notice how they felt about a practice or meet can help maintain their motivation.
3. Remember your job
Don’t lose sight of your job as a parent, which is to have a strong relationship with your child and promote the development of their essential life skills, including resiliency, self-regulation, decency, and positive esteem. It must be clear to your child that his or her worth and lovability are unrelated to athletic performance. You can accomplish this by making sure to maintain positive emotional connection (which means not being critical, angry, threatening, distant, or punitive, even after a poor performance). This does not mean giving inauthentic praise, but does involve listening more than talking and being empathic to his or her feelings. Sport parents make incredible sacrifices for their kids, and it is important to focus on the fact that these sacrifices should be made so that your child can develop and master skills, not so that you yourself receive something tangible in return (e.g. a scholarship, or the pride of having a “star athlete” as a child). Guilt and threats have been shown to provide short term results in terms of motivation, but are ineffective in the long term. Instead, communicate to your child that you believe he or she can succeed, and encourage him or her to set goals and make choices that can lead to growth (see #2).
4. Define success differently
Seeing success as being simply about winning is short-sighted. Help your child focus his or her improvement and mastery of skills (i.e. process) versus the results of his or her efforts (i.e. winning or losing, outcome). Encourage competition against one’s own potential versus against others. Research has shown that process-based focus promotes the intrinsic motivation that is necessary for long-term success and sustained enjoyment of the sport. You can help your child develop this skill through intentionally giving feedback about a meet or practice that addresses the quality of their efforts to swim to the best of his or her abilities versus being better than someone else. For example, rather than asking your child if he or she won, ask what they did well, what they learned, and if they had fun.
5. Keep it in perspective and have fun
It is a well-established fact that athletes need to enjoy their sport to continue to perform well and avoid burnout. Parents need to help their children develop realistic views of what participating and winning/losing in sporting events mean. In the moment, it can feel almost like “life or death”, and you will hear commentators use all kinds of extreme, catastrophic language when discussing a game. Recently, I was watching a professional tennis match on TV, and something happened that led one of the players (who was losing the match) to genuinely smile and laugh. She was having fun, even as she was losing a match that affected her career and her livelihood! There is room for fun at every level of sport, and it is essential. If the pros can have fun, our youth athletes certainly can, too.
6. Keep your emotions in check
Since you are human, you won’t be able to avoid all the pressures and emotions that commonly occur in supporting a youth athlete. As your child moves into more elite and competitive athletic settings, these feelings are likely to increase. However, just because you feel something does not mean you have to act on it. Use your support network to assist you in dealing with strong feelings that could lead to “toxic” behavior without exposing your child to them. Being consistent and intentional about monitoring yourself can allow you to be the supportive and mature sport parent you desire to be and a wonderful role model for your child.
7. Strive for balance
Balance is an elusive state, but one worth thinking about as the parent of an athlete. Obviously, elite athletes are dedicated to their sport and it will take up a large percentage of their time and energy. However, it is important to see things other than athletics as valued parts of the child’s identity rather than as “desirable, but okay to forego”. It is important that a child’s identity and self-esteem are derived from multiple sources, not just their athletic success. Otherwise, this unidimensional sense of self can allow the successes and failures that are unavoidable in sport to entirely define your child’s self-worth. Valuing other aspects of life such as academics, time with family and friends, and other hobbies allows for a healthier mindset and an emotional safety net for your child during the setbacks in their athletic pursuits.
About Jennifer Lager
Jennifer Lager, Psy.D., is a Clinical Psychologist and mental coach who helps athletes improve their mental game in multiple sports including swimming, tennis, golf, figure skating, and gymnastics (to name a few). She is the owner of GAME- Get A Mental Edge, a performance enhancement business based in McLean, VA.
Julia Galan headshot, PhotoJulia Galan is a lifelong competitive swimmer and a USA Swimming and U.S. Masters Swimming coach. Julia’s passion for the sport, for coaching and for writing led to the creation of Swimspire, a coaching and swimming inspiration source geared towards athletes of all levels and goals.