Your child loves to play. Practices are fun, teammates are a blast to hang out with. The coach makes up drills and games that are enjoyable. No pressure. Just learning and moving. Now, though, it's game time. The pressure has just increased. Some kids thrive on it, look forward to getting out there and competing. Others are terrified, and may experience fear beyond the usual "butterflies in the stomach."
It is completely normal and natural to feel anxious before a competition. Essentially, it is like a test of what you know about the sport and how skilled you are. Remember how school suddenly felt less welcoming on standardized test days? When the idea of a semester final struck fear in your heart? Had you studied enough? Studied the right things?
On game day, your child may experience similar fears. He or she may be questioning their readiness to play. There may be a fear of failure, of losing, of disappointing someone--the coach, teammates or you!
The key to assuaging these fears lies in preparation. Remind your child that the physical preparation (drills, scrimmages, conditioning training) has been done and doesn't go away on game day. Mental preparation can include relaxation, positive self-talk and imagery or visualization. Help your child to relax using some deep breathing. As they do this, they may repeat a phrase or phrases which help them to feel positively toward themselves and the competition. "I am prepared." "I will play my best." "I will have fun." Or, as Olympic diver Greg Louganis used to say before key dives, "No matter how I do, my mother will still love me." Have them imagine themselves at the game, making a good play, smiling, being congratulated by teammates, hearing the crowd cheer. Keep it all very positive.
Remind them that as long as they do their best, they will never disappoint anyone. Remind them, too, that you just want them to have fun, play hard and do what they know to do.
Pre-game rituals can also be calming and centering for athletes. Have the same pre-game meal, put equipment on in a certain order, do stretches or calisthenics prior to game time in the same way, same order each time. What you and your child choose to do is not as important as the ritual of doing it. Just be sure you and your child are in charge of the ritual and not the other way around. If for some reason you are unable to have the ritual pre-game meal, for example, you wouldn't want your child to decide all is lost. Be sure you and your child can adapt to any unexpected changes. Things you can do anytime, anywhere, would be easier to follow.
Above all, remind your child that everyone gets nervous, even the pros. And that feeling a little anxious means that they really care. That is what will enable them to be a good teammate, and do their best.
One thing is certain, kids love to be active. If their activity is organized sport, they have a great opportunity to learn lessons which will help them in situations they will encounter not just in a practice or game, but throughout their lives. Sport teaches discipline, leadership, teamwork, focus and how to deal with the inevitable ups and downs. It also improves motor skill and coordination and of course, provides a basis for healthy habits. A major key to a child’s success in sports is one held by us, the parents. Through our mindful support and encouragement, kids can excel, boost their confidence and self-esteem, and best of all feel a sense of accomplishment.
We’ve all heard the “soccer Mom” stereotype, carpooling and sacrificing personal time to attend early morning practices and games in all kinds of weather. Many parents consider their contribution to their child’s success to be getting him or her to practice, and shelling out money to join the league, buy the equipment or provide snacks for the team a few times per season. Less emphasis, particularly at the elementary level, is placed on making sure the child is successful and feels good about himself when he participates in the sport, regardless of whether the outcome of the season is a trophy or a consolation round.
Success in sports is not only defined or measured by a “winning” outcome. Youth sports tries (often in vain) to promote “fun” over “winning.” But we’ve all seen how ultimately everyone from player to coach to parent falls back on old habits in the thick of competition. This focus on outcome (win/lose) fails to consider a huge element of a child’s development—the process. The process of acquiring skills and experiencing small victories along the way is invaluable for preparing a child for life. Many children drop out of sport or decide they “hate” a certain sport after only one or two seasons, and often carry these negative feelings into their tween and teen years. Something about their experience led them to feel that they were in some way inadequate or incapable of success.
So how can we as parents help to ensure our children feel successful in sport, and learn the life lessons that will serve them so well now and in the future? Here are some suggestions every parent can use:
Consider your definition of success. If you are focused more on the outcome of performance than the process, your child will pick up on this. Keep in mind that small successes along the way do more for your child’s development and self-esteem than one championship game. Remember how thrilled you were when your toddler took their first steps? Certainly the ultimate goal is to for them to grow to walk, run, jump and get an athletic scholarship to a prestigious university—but if that was all you focused on, you wouldn’t even cheer their first tentative steps. “Yes, yes, but just two steps won’t get you into the NFL!” Instead, we cheer each step. We reward them with positivity and excitement. And they continue to grow and develop. This is our intention, after all.
Point out the small successes and progress to your child. Downplay the outcome and emphasize the best aspects of your child’s performance. Be specific. Instead of “You did great,” try “In the first half when the defender tried to steal the ball, you dribbled around her and kept going! That was really terrific ball control!” or “Your follow-through on that swing was amazing. You are really getting stronger.” It might be helpful to set goals with them. Make the goals relate to skills they are working on (i.e., walk back and forth on the balance beam 10 times in practice without falling) or behaviors they might need to improve like sportsmanship or commitment (i.e., say ‘good shot’ to at least two teammates in a game; be on time to practice with all the necessary equipment). Goals will give you direction for your feedback. Make it relevant to your child’s level and what they hope to accomplish. Choose the time and place for feedback wisely. Feedback is best received when the recipient is most available and open to receive it. You know your child best and can determine this. Sometimes it is right after the play itself, during the game. On the walk back to the car, or in the car on the way home. Some children prefer to have their own time to process or unwind after a performance. So maybe bedtime would be a better moment. Encourage your child to talk about their performance. What did they think they did well? What was the best part? Ask open-ended questions.
Remember they are constantly observing, watching and considering YOU. Be mindful of what you say and how you say it. Consider, too, any unspoken messages you may be sending. Frowning, an eye-roll, throwing your hands up in disgust, are all messages that will be received by your child loud and clear even without your intention. Consider positive body language, smiles, thumbs up, open posture, a supportive pat on the back or a hug.
Be a good role model. To teach sportsmanship, be a good sport. Respect coaches, officials and judges. Don’t second guess them or complain if you feel your child isn’t playing enough or did not receive a high enough score. It is OK to voice your concerns to an official if there is a genuine problem, but do so privately, never in front of your child, and always in a polite manner. In most cases these people are volunteers, parents just like you. They “get it,” and will be more receptive if you are respectful. To teach commitment, make sure you are on time yourself. Teaching by example is the best way to get your point across.
Listen, listen, listen. We want so much to impart the wisdom of our years. But to make an impact we need first to listen. Is my child having fun? Are they having trouble mastering any particular skill? How does it make them feel? If they “hate” the sport, do I really know why? What is really on their minds? When you have more information, you and your child can make better choices and decisions together. Maybe you need to change or alter the goals you set together. Try a different sport. Find a different coach or team. You’ll know what to do when you have all the facts before you.
Know the organization your child is playing with. Before you even sign your child up for a sport, do your homework. Ask other parents who are already involved with that organization for their impressions of it. Check out the league’s website. Speak with the coach. Do they share your philosophy, your definition of success? Are they interested in the positive development of your child? Can they provide and appropriate environment for your child to learn not only sport-appropriate skills but life lessons in commitment, sportsmanship and decision-making?
Lighten up. The more pressure you apply to your child when it comes to their sport activity, no matter how well-intentioned (“But they have to work harder and practice more if they want to get anywhere!”) the more likely they will resist. The “fun” aspect will be lost. Don’t forget that even unstructured play and activity have benefits for sport. Just because your child is a baseball player doesn’t mean every sunny day playtime has to involve a glove and baseball. Sure, we have high hopes for our children’s success. We know what it takes to become an elite athlete, after all, we watch ESPN! Or maybe we have even been fortunate enough to have achieved such a level ourselves in our youth. But that level of commitment is rare at the elementary school age. If it is going to develop, it will at its own pace in an appropriate way. We cannot pressure or force it into being. Likewise, we cannot force interest. “But you are good at hockey! You have to play hockey!” If you’re considering outcome here, that one is Lose-Lose.
Above all, let your kid be a kid. Take advantage of the numerous opportunities your area offers for youth sports. Try one, try them all. Just let your child find their way in a supportive, encouraging environment. Make sure they know you’ve got their back and you want them to succeed, at their own pace and level. Oh, and go ahead and dream a little too, of cheering your well-adjusted, happy, confident child as they stand atop the podium receiving their Olympic gold medal while the National Anthem plays. Just pinch yourself in time to yell to your beaming 6 year-old on the field, “You caught the ball! That was awesome!!”