This article was originally written for and published on the quintessential resource website for soccer parents, SoccerParenting.com.
No doubt many of us watched the Olympics, jaws dropped, as records were broken and medal after medal was earned by extraordinary athletes. We also may have looked at our child on the sofa next to us and wondered, “Maybe my kid…” The athletes who achieve elite status certainly set themselves apart physically and technically, but they also possess psychological advantages. Their mental fitness and mental conditioning play a huge role in attaining the highest heights for which they strive and persevere. Does your child have what it takes to reach elite status? Sure, he may have extraordinary talent. Talent alone may not be enough. What is talent anyway?
Talent should be viewed as a multidimensional concept.
A number of factors contribute to an athlete realizing her potential. We are well aware of physical and technical conditioning required to excel. Is the athlete strong enough or fast enough, and does she have the proper technique to ensure success? But what about the mental conditioning? Researchers have long recognized that there is some aspect of “mental toughness” required to excel at an elite level. It has been suggested more recently that the same characteristics which contribute to success are absolutely vital for athletes at lower levels who are developing into elite level players. These psychological characteristics of developing excellence (PCDEs) play a pivotal role in the development of potential. (Abbott & Collins, 2004)
PCDEs can mean the difference between reaching for the stars and actually capturing one.
Psychological Characteristics of Developing Excellence (PCDEs)
PCDEs enable the athlete to get the most out of every practice, to stay focused and to stay invested and committed to their ultimate goals, no matter the obstacles or distractions life may present.
For example, injuries, extended turns on the bench, plateaus and new skill acquisition can challenge the resolve of even the most physically gifted and talented athlete. Applying tools such as positive self-talk, goal setting, focused breathing and imagery allows the athlete to proactively take control of his own recovery, performance or development, rather than letting the situation control him.
Being able to handle setbacks, learn from mistakes and “keep your eyes on the prize” is vital to growth in sport, and in life.
How can we, as parents, ensure our children develop PCDEs?
Due diligence is key when deciding in what program to enroll your child. Ask lots of questions of the league—What is their mission? Do they stress development or winning? Do they encourage psychological/mental conditioning as well as physical and technical, and not just as a byproduct of participation but as an integral part of a multi-dimensional talent development program? What is the coach’s philosophy? How does he or she encourage psychological development?
Encourage Development at Home
Your child should be ultimately responsible for his own equipment, keeping it in good condition and remembering to bring everything to practices and games. Help your child develop a system to help her organize everything (i.e., shin guards, water bottle, uniform, cleats). A checklist is helpful.
Encourage your child to set goals for herself for practices, games and the season. Be sure the goals are specific and measurable. They should be challenging but attainable.
Help your child learn to manage his time. Young athletes often find it difficult to prioritize and properly balance sports, school, time with friends, family time and rest.
Learn and encourage mindfulness, relaxation and breathing skills to quiet an anxious mind and body.
Encourage self-awareness in your child. Help him to recognize any emotions (anxiety, nerves, excitement, anger, joy) and understand how these emotions can affect his performance, for better or worse. Positive self-talk is a useful tool to help the athlete focus and center herself (“I’ve got this”).
Remind her that achieving success in sports is a process, by teaching her the three E’s:
Evaluate: Remind your child that coach feedback is important and will ultimately help her to improve. It is meant to encourage a growth mindset, meaning a mindset where the athlete is aware that she can always learn, always improve, always grow in the sport.
Educate: Emphasize the importance of learning and asking questions to promote understanding. It is OK to make mistakes, as long as you learn from them. Athletes should be comfortable about asking questions of the coach and teammates if there is anything that confuses them or that they would like to do better. “What did I do wrong?” “How can I do that better next time?”
Execute: Realistic performance evaluation combined with asking questions ensures continual growth and talent development, and better prepares the athlete to execute the skills effectively.
PCDE’s do not develop overnight but must be nurtured, and there are differences between and among children of all ages. It may be necessary to adapt to your child’s ability to fully understand and grasp the concepts. A very young child may not understand what it means to set goals or to be committed to his sport, but you can be sure if you ask him the most common goal-oriented question children are always asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” he will have an answer. This is goal setting. You can take the lead, but be sure to involve your child and his aspirations. As he matures, he will be able to take more responsibility for his development.
Many of the listed PCDE’s have already begun to develop without you or your child even being aware of it. Imagery, the practice of seeing something in your head such as a soccer skill and practicing it there, is simply taking a child’s natural imagination and focusing it on something in particular. In order for your child to learn to walk, talk, kick a soccer ball, she has had to evaluate, educate and finally execute tasks.
The more you reinforce and point out the characteristics as you see them displayed, the more ingrained they will become in your child. When your child gathers his equipment for practice and is ready to leave on time, say something positive about how they have demonstrated responsibility and commitment.
The best time to learn and practice mental skills is before issues arise.
In my practice I often work with young athletes who have recently experienced a setback or faced an obstacle that has stopped them in their tracks mentally; they have lost motivation or confidence, or seem to be suddenly moving backward in their skill development. Setbacks are inevitable but manageable. Practicing mental skills such as imagery or emotion control, before setbacks occur, enables athletes to better cope on their own and perhaps even see obstacles as opportunities.
We want the best for our young athletes. You cannot go wrong when you equip them with the mental tools to excel, to handle setbacks and ultimately, to thrive.
Abbott, A., Collins, D., 2004. Eliminating the dichotomy between theory and practice in talent identification and development: Considering the role of psychology. J. Sports Sci. 22, 395-408.
Collins, D., Button, A., Richards, H. (Eds). Performance Psychology: A Practitioner’s Guide. London: Churchill Livingstone Elsevier, 2011.
Maybe the youth league reached out to you in desperation. Maybe you volunteered. How ever it happened, you found yourself coaching your son or daughter's team. Before you knew it, you were knee-deep in playbooks, video, drills and strategy, parents and kids hanging on your every word and looking to you for direction. You've acquired a new hat. No longer just Dad, you are COACH.
This can be one of the most rewarding times of your parent life. A time to bond, spend quality time with your child. You can watch him develop as an athlete. You can encourage her leadership skills. You have the best seat in the house from which to witness your child's greatest athletic successes or foibles. As fantastic as it sounds, it is not without risk of pitfalls. Through diligence and careful attention to your own behaviors, as well as your child's, you can ensure the experience is one you and your child will cherish for a lifetime.
So how do you manage your hats? How do you embody the best of "Coach" and "Dad?" It is tough, if not impossible to fully separate the two. But it is possible to adjust the volume of one or the other just a bit.
A good starting point would be to ask your child how he or she feels about you coaching the team. If he is less than enthusiastic, talk about his reasons. Does she think you will be harder on her? Is he afraid you will expect so much and he will never measure up? Maybe it is the opposite reaction. She is thrilled. Why? Is she excited to spend more time with you? Does he think he will get to play more or get special treatment?
Understanding these reasons can help you to define what kind of coach you want to be, and what type of learning or training environment you want to offer. This plan should be one that you explain at the beginning of the season, to both players and parents.
But first, have the talk with your child. Let him know you have two hats, "Dad" and "Coach." When you are at practice or games, the "Dad" hat comes off and the "Coach" hat goes on. Let her know what that means. No special treatment, but no exceedingly higher expectations either. You might want to ask what your child expects from a coach. If your child is very young, she may not be able to articulate this. If your child is older or has played for other coaches before, ask him what he liked or didn't like about other coaches' styles. While you can't necessarily custom-make yourself to suit your child's needs, since you bring your own experiences and personality to the job, it may be helpful to know what has or hasn't worked with your child. Likely he isn't the only one who felt that way.
In your discussion with the team and parents, outline clearly what your expectations are of each of them. Let them know how you plan to run your practices, what level of involvement and commitment you expect from them, and what you will give, yourself, as their coach. Tell them in clear terms that if they are committed, participate fully and do well, they will play and will be successful. Let them know, too, that if they fall short in these areas, they may not play as much or be as successful. Some coaches, for example, have a rule about being on time to practice (this shows commitment). If a player is late or misses a practice without valid reason, he or she may not play at all in the game, or at least may not start. As with parenting and making rules for your children at home, a coach should be clear with expectations, and with consequences. When these are laid out, they are objective and clear cut. Everyone follows them, including your own child. This can help you to avoid the appearance of favoritism, which is often perceived by others, parents and teammates alike.
Assuming you have passed these hurdles, you are now COACH. Your child knows the rules and expectations. Oh yes, you are also DAD. The line between the two can start to blur anytime ("Hey, that was an illegal hit on my son!!" "Did my daughter just totally blow that scoring chance?"). Resist, resist, resist. If you need to, have some word or phrase that can bring your mind back to Coach-mode. For the time being, all players on your team are just that. You as coach will be equally excited or concerned no matter which player is involved. Encourage everyone, often. Provide positive feedback often. Teach, redirect, inspire everyone, often.
So when do you get to wear the "Dad" hat again? You can decide on a physical line, if that will help, when "Coach" turns into "Dad." The parking lot, the car, leaving the sidelines. Whatever works for you and your child. Let your child know what that point is, and stick to it. No post-game analysis from "Dad." No tirades in the car on the way home. No strategy session. Those are the responsibilities of "Coach." No, "Dad" has a different job. Support. Encourage. Understand your child and what he needs. Allow a wind-down period before even talking about the game. Maybe wait until your child brings it up, whenever that might be. If you let your child know you are there to talk when they decide to talk, they will feel more free to open up. It will be on their terms.
When they do talk, listen. Ask open-ended questions. Encourage them to think. "What do you think the team did well today?" "What was your favorite part of the game?" "What did you do best?" "What made you proud?" Let them know you are there for them anytime they want tips or extra help with any skills they might want to work on. You can even ask them what they thought you, as coach, did well or poorly, too!
If your child wants to talk about specific players, let them--but be sure you, in "Dad" mode still, temper your own comments. It is best not to discuss specific players' performances or any "insider" information you may have. This can put your child in a very uncomfortable position the next time she is with her teammates, knowing "secrets" you may have shared or opinions you offered. If you and your child discuss strategy, do so in general terms, again without mentioning specific players. Remember here you are "Dad."
Above all, let your child know that you love them unconditionally, and that this is in no way tied to their performance on the field. The double-whammy of feeling they let down both coach and dad in one, can be an overwhelming feeling for kids. Encourage your child with praise, reward with smiles, hugs, high-fives. Offer feedback at every opportunity, in a positive way, and be specific. You may even notice your child emerging as a leader on the team, thanks to your example of commitment. Teammates may start to look to the "coach's kid" for guidance. This would be an excellent thing to point out.
And enjoy yourself. Time is fleeting. The days may seem to go slowly, but the years fly by. Your mini-mite will be a full-grown behemoth before you know it. Embrace this opportunity for the gift that it is. Good luck!
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!!”