Editor's Note: Spring sports seasons are ramping up. After Amanda Lamb wrote about how she supports her kids when they play sports, I asked Bradley Hack, Ph.D., owner of Carolina Strategies and director of Sport Psychology in the Department of Sports Medicine at UNC-Chapel Hill, for some tips for us parents on the sidelines.
We see the stories in the news, we watch the YouTube videos, and we wonder why so many parents are going berserk at their kids’ games. And those are just the most egregious examples. Attend any youth sport event and you are likely to hear more criticism than encouragement from not just the parents, but the coaches AND the players, who mimic the adults in their lives. Why is this happening?
The increasing specialization in youth sports has created a pressure cooker for parents, coaches, and most importantly, the kids. In order to even be considered for their high school or middle school teams in most sports these days, kids need to play their sport year round to keep up with their peers that are developing at a rapid pace. Sometimes, we are telling our nine and 10 year olds that they need to specialize in one sport. We explain to them that they need to choose between soccer and football or lacrosse and baseball if they are ever going to have a chance to compete at the high school level or beyond. It sounds ridiculous, but there is a large nugget of truth to this statement.
So what do we do? Here are 5 Do’s and Don’ts to help parent your athletes in a psychologically healthy way, in a decidedly unhealthy milieu:
DO: ENcourage: Courage is the cornerstone of confidence. Be mindful of the impact your comments will have on your child. Reinforce what they did well and ask them if they think there are aspects they can improve upon. Being encouraging does NOT mean you sugarcoat reality. If they have a tough day, express your belief in their ability to handle challenges and ask if they want some help.
DON’T: DIScourage: Being overly critical and demeaning or tying affection to performance is one of the quickest ways to get your child to quit sports. We know because we see these kids in our office every day. What kid in their right mind would want to come home to intense criticism or the cold shoulder. Be mindful in how you approach them. Remember, they hold the ultimate trump card: Quitting.
DO: Ask more and tell less: Be genuinely curious about their experience. Did they have fun, learn something new, face a challenge, hear a funny joke? Resist the urge to tell them what they could have done better. They probably already know.
DON’T: Grill them when they’re trapped on the car ride home: This is the single biggest complaint we hear from kids. Instead, establish a three-hour rule and don’t process the game during that span. Talk about music, friends, movies and other fun stuff to make sure you’re not more invested in their sport than they are.
DO: Focus on values and process: Find out what values they brought to bear in the game (resilience? determination? mastery? sportsmanship?). Reinforce their effort and energy. We are capitalists in this country, so of course the bottom line matters. It’s OK to be happy if they score or win, but emphasize the things they did to make it happen.
DON’T: Pay for winning or scoring goals or getting hits: This reduces the inherent joy in these accomplishments. Furthermore, research tells us that these external rewards will eventually lead to dissatisfaction with their sport. Keep it simple and tell them how proud you are of their effort.
DO: Think through what level of training best fits your kid: Be deliberate in asking what participation level will work best for you kid. Is your child an extrovert who will delight in extra training sessions with her friends? Or is she an introvert who dreads more peer interaction and would much prefer to workout on her own? Will Classic level year-round soccer allow your child to engage their unique passion or will it prevent them from pursuing other interests?
DON’T: Waste time and money keep up with the “Sport Joneses.” Don’t fall into the “more is always better trap” of extra training. There is good evidence that early specialization and excessive training is partly to blame for the rash of youth injuries, not to mention the high level of burnout we see in our office.
DO: Keep the importance of sport in perspective: Enjoy the family time, competition, character building and peer relationships that are part of what makes sports great. But also realize that every athlete, no matter how good, will eventually need to earn money with their minds and not their bodies.
DON’T: Over emphasize athletic success: Be mindful of how much time is spent discussing and planning for athletic endeavors. High-level youth sports can take over your lives. Make sure it’s balanced with plenty of discussion about academic interests, developing peer relationships, current events and pop culture. Realize how unlikely it is your child will earn a college scholarship. The NCAA has plenty of statistics on this.
At Carolina Strategies, Hack and his colleagues cover these tips and more in the Peak Performance Parenting Workshops, which can help athletes play better. The group also covers other healthy performance tips for your athlete in its Junior Sport Psych Academy.