PARENTING IN SPORTS: 4 Ways to Improve Your Relationship and Child’s Love of the Game

After an athlete makes a mistake, you have 10 seconds to make a choice: Make yourself feel better or help them evolve...and it’s all done by the words you chose to use. – Yogi Roth

How do you think your child would answer these questions with you not in the room and knowing their answers were confidential.

  • Finish this sentence: Stress comes from...
  • What is the main source or origin of your fear or worry as an athlete? 

As a High Performance Coach, I’ve asked these types of questions to many athletes over the years. During these discussions an alarming theme emerged. As I broke down the responses, nearly 70 percent say that the main source of stress and fear does not come from the game, competition, or a coach...but from a parent.

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This eye-opening discovery doesn’t just relate to youth athletes. While working with a successful Major League Baseball player recently, he shared with me that one of his biggest struggles as a hitter, comes when he plays in his home town, and in front of his friends and family.  “That is when I’ve historically played my worst,” he said. “Even if I was hot the series before.”

I can relate. Being a successful two-sport athlete in the Pac-12 Conference, I had my own journey of balancing perfection and the push of pleasing my parents. This internal pressure would sometimes sabotage my own performance.

Being married now and a father of four children, I’m on a mission to change the culture of parenting in sports. My goal is to give parents the education and tools necessary to perform at their best, and improve their ability to support not only their child’s performance, but their relationship as well. 

Stress By The Numbers: 

70% of kids in the United States stop playing organized sports by the age of 13 - National Alliance for Youth Sports

Anxiety is the #1 form of mental illness in teens - National Institute of Mental Health  

85% of college athletic trainers say performance anxiety negatively affects their student-athletes - NCAA.org  

You may think this does not relate to your son or daughter and that they are “fine,” but most youth and teen athletes are not mentally or socially equipped to either speak up or address how they feel – especially during times of stress. The human brain’s white matter, which helps with judgement and dealing with emotions, is not fully formed until after our teenage and young adult years (source: Elizabeth Sowell, Nature Nueroscience, 2003).

Possible Sources of Stress: 

Self-Worth - Many student-athletes receive their self-worth and valadation at an early age from feedback that is tied to their performance. Positive psychologist, Dr. Heidi Grant calls this a Be Good Mindset, where these performers believe that they need to perform “good” in order to be a good person.

Often, the ratio of positive feedback to negative feedback is off-kiltered to be more negative than positive (research suggests the ratio should be at least 5 to 1 positive to negative...what is your ratio?). The unrealistic burden of playing to be perfect sets in. Thus, like the concept of Pavlov’s Dog, many children associate pain and shame with performing. When this experience hits a tipping point, they opt out (how would you like being critically critiqued after every day at work?).

It’s Not fun – Specialization in youth sports, eagerness to be on the highest profile team, and pressure to earn a college scholarship are at an all-time high. Though the intention might come from a place of love, some young athletes are being treated like professionals with hectic training, practice, and game schedules. This grind and emphases on outcomes often times creates a pressure that takes away the natural fun of the game.

Ego - Some Parents live vicariously through their children. They receive their validation as parents by how well their child plays, what teams they play on, and what attention and notoriety this generates. This correlation of performance tied to parenting creates an unhealthy sense of self for the parent – thus, adding misguided pressure to the child (most often without the parent even knowing it). What is more important to you: your child’s athletic performance or a healthy relationship?

 That is my 5 year old son Baylor and me and his soccer game. I’m trying to teach him the concept of  progress, not perfection  and to have as much FUN as possible. 

That is my 5 year old son Baylor and me and his soccer game. I’m trying to teach him the concept of progress, not perfection and to have as much FUN as possible. 

So what can you do? Below are 4 tips to lower stress, improve performance, and increase your child’s love of the game:

Let Them Fail - Many parents try to save their children from failure. This intention has merit, but it might be doing the child a disservice. According to Performance Psychologist Dr. Angela Duckworth, one of the best predictors of long term human performance is what she calls grit. Grit means having both passion and perseverance (emphasis on perseverance). Getting a medal for just showing up teaches nothing. Failing forward is how we grow. Learning how to be resilient and overcome adversity will aid your child as an athlete and in the rigors of life.

Effort and Attitude – Many coaches and parents praise only winning outcomes. This approach creates what Stanford Professor, Dr. Carol Dweck calls a Fixed Mindset, and often undermines performance. Instead encourage your athlete to operate with a Growth Mindset, which focuses mainly on improvement and giving maximum effort. Also, look to reward and praise behavior that demonstrates unselfishness and teamwork. We can never control wins and losses, but we can control our effort, attitude, and how we treat others. Make these concepts the cornerstone of judging performance. 

Balance - Encourage and support your child in activities outside of a single sport. Give attention and praise for their effort in scholastics, having good manners, helping others, and other productive extracurricular activities as much, if not more, than praise for athletics. This will foster a more balanced sense of self-worth, and naturally lower stress during competition. (Also, here’s a hint: coaches at the higher levels love players with a multiple sport background)

Just Play and Have Fun - Children have an amazing imagination. Encourage creativity and playfulness by allowing them to be kids. A must for lasting success (in any field) is a deep passion and drive. Allow your child to develop a love of the game by letting competition be just that – a game (and not life or death). Fear of failure kills creativity. If their drive only comes from you, it will not last, and they will eventually quit. Allow them the gift of taking ownership of their own passion. Multiple reports show that creativity is the most desirable skill in the workplace. Let your child have the autonomy and freedom to just play, and let their creativity build and grow.

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QUESTION, how long does it take your child to become a regular kid after the game is over? If it is a long time, below are possible questions to help spark a healthy performance dialogue with your child:

  • Are you having fun?
  • Why do you play?
  • What do you love about the game?
  • What makes you nervous when you play or practice?
  • How would you like me to talk to you – before or after a game? (I’m sorry parents, during is not an option)

According to over three decades of research by Bruce E. Brown and Rob Miller of Proactive Coaching LLC., when college athletes were asked what their parents said that made them feel great, and amplified their joy during and after a game, their overwhelming response was:

“I love to watch you play.”

This might be the most important advice to remember the next time you greet your child after a game and begin the drive home. This approach will not only improve your child’s performance, but also your performance as a parent. Instead of doing a psychoanalysis on the game, just say these six words, I love to watch you play, and watch how it takes your child’s love of competition to the next level, and more importantly, help them feel better as well.

Because having a supportive and trusting relationship with your child, is the best win of all. 

Below is a video of what kids really think about you yelling in the stands or after competition.  

Below is an excellent Ted Talk on the power of words that you say to your child in sports. 

Below are fantastic books to read to help develop Grit and a Growth Mindset in your kids: 

Grit, by Dr. Angela Duckworth  

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, by Dr. Carol Dweck

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Collin Henderson is the author of the personal development book, Project Rise, and Director of FLOW Mental Performance. For more information, visit flowmentaltraining.com or email: info@flowmentaltraining.com

Collin Henderson