If you are a friend or relative to a young person in organized sports, you have likely seen a glimpse of the pressure that accompanies many young participants in today's highly competitive athletic environment. Kids may start practicing sports from the time they are just able to walk, setting before them a future where playing sports becomes "a way of life."
Depending on one's dedication and athletic ability in a given sport, many young athletes who excel at the recreational level shift into the more intense competition of high-pressure "select" leagues. Take Esquire Network's hit series Friday Night Tykes, for example, where young boys receive intense training and high demands from both coaches and parents to "be the best, or else." The stresses of these highly competitive sports environments, however, are not only taken on by the athlete in competition, but are often carried even more-so by athletes' highly invested parents.
For many athlete's parents, the stress of watching and/or helping out, while kids train to be the most elite athletes in their sport, becomes not only an investment of time and money, but an emotional investment, as well. Although this parental stress is often coming from places of true virtue, such as wanting one's kids to fulfill their dreams, help their team win, or experience the sheer joy of "being the hero," in game-changing situations, the outcome of this stress (especially when kids are unable to perform) can result in messages that are riddled with emotion, unclear, and are often interpreted negatively by the young athlete. If you feel stuck in a pattern where post-game messages seem to fall flat, or worse, cause dissension among family members, consider the following do's and don't's to get the most out of your young athlete and ultimately deepen your family's connection even outside of sports.
1. Don't underestimate the power of positivity. Kids are influenced far more by positive reinforcement than negative reinforcement or reprimand. Although the disappointment of failures and mistakes are more likely to stick out in our minds as something we should help kids "fix," we can help kids repeat what they do right by paying close attention and making a conscious effort to remind them of even the little things they executed well during practices and games.
2. Do focus on the PROCESS more than the outcome. Sports (especially during early learning phases) are full of failed attempts for the young athlete, however, even a strikeout in baseball or softball, for example, can be the result of three swings where the athlete executed perfect mechanics, focus, and pitch selection (but, as happens to even professional athletes in the sport, he/she failed to make contact with the ball in that particular at-bat). It is important that kids are reminded that failure is part of the sport and that continuing to execute the processes and mechanics they are taught in practice will likely result in successful outcomes (i.e. "Good effort. Keep working hard. Nice discipline and mechanics.")
3. Don't forget the "big picture." It is important to remember that sports are a part of life that will eventually come to end, but the values kids learn in sports will be carried with them for a lifetime. Take time to consider what values are most important to you and communicate directly with family members about what those values mean and why they are important.
4. Do ask questions. It is easy to assume what kids are experiencing or feeling, but it's important to show an openness and interest in what it is like for your kids to experience success, failure, and major change, such as losing teammates or coaches to other teams. Fatigue or burnout can also be important things to explore (even if the ultimate message you want to send is that, "in this family, we don't quit, and we fulfill our commitment to finish the season with our team.")
5. Do as you say, say as you do. Your kids are always watching what you do. Being a parent who manages one's own stress, frustrations, and failures, who treats others with respect, and takes pride in the way one carries out his/her own responsibilities is a bigger influence than any verbal messages one can send. So the next time you feel your frustration building about a coaching decision, another player's performance, or a call made by an official, take time to consider how you would want your kid to handle the same situation.
If you wish to learn more about strengthening your family connection or managing the stress of sport performance, contact me at 469.322.9389.
Best of luck to you and your athlete!