Among the items needed for a child to excel on the field is a healthy “sporting relationship” with his or her parents. That is, the dynamic created around the child’s sport – how parent and child interact before games, during games, and after games – is important. The fact is parents heavily influence their child’s self-esteem, particularly at a young age. And a healthy self-esteem can increase athletic enjoyment, dedication to training, determination on the field, and ultimately boost performance. The ways in which parents interact with their child, then, can make or break them as athletes.
A child with a strong sense of self-esteem will feel worthy and valuable, regardless of the outcome of today’s game. “I’m still a good person, even though today wasn’t my day.” This child will know that he is NOT his performance – a loss on the field doesn’t mean I’m a failure of a human being – and will still retain confidence in his ability to be successful in the future.
Under optimal conditions, one’s self-esteem should be built by acknowledging all of one’s abilities and competencies – one’s collective accomplishments and value – to form a solid foundation. And yet, one of the most dangerous (and frighteningly common) things an athlete, particularly a young one, can do is base the entirety of his self-esteem on the successful accomplishment of THIS match or THIS practice. “If I do well today, that means I’m a good player and a good person. If not, I’m a failure through and through.” Young athletes won’t come out and say this directly, but when they view sports in this manner, it is precisely how they feel. Imagine the inherent pressure that accompanies this approach to sports.
Self-esteem surely would not be such a pervasively discussed topic if it weren’t so critically important to us. But it is. So important, in fact, that we find novel ways of protecting it. For instance, if I am engaged in an activity that matters to me – a baseball player playing in his league’s championship game, a soccer player trying out for an elite travel team, a cheerleader competing in a national tournament – and I’m doing poorly, it can be tempting for me to make excuses. I may blame someone else. I may feign an injury or illness. I may simply give up, and stop putting in effort. It’s a highly self-protective mechanism: if I have someone or something to blame for my poor performance, then the fault never lies with me, and my self-esteem never takes a hit. I simply put my shield up and deflect responsibility onto my annoying opponent, or crazy parents, or nagging knee pain. And while this doesn’t justify the behavior, we as parents must appreciate the purpose behind it and subsequently learn how to handle such situations.
Below are five ideas that may help parents build a strong sporting relationship and foster the development of healthy self-esteem within their children.
1. Poker chips – Educator and speaker Richard Lavoie remarks that to enhance our children’s self-esteem, we must give them as many proverbial poker chips as possible. Highlight their accomplishments, point out positives, note their competencies. In other words, be a talent scout: that’s not to say we must falsely or inaccurately inflate our child’s ego, but we must work hard to identify the stuff they’re good at.
2. Know your role – The role of the youth sport parent is to encourage, support, and offer reminders based on the coach’s instruction in preparation for playing. The coaches should coach, and the parents should parent. A young person needs this kind of role clarity. When a parent begins to adopt the language and posture of the coach, it may become confusing or frustrating for the child. Every youth athlete should be afforded the luxury of having clear, honest, direct expectations of the roles of his parents and the roles of his coach.
3. Offer the right support – Researchers recently asked successful college athletes what their parents said that made them feel great and brought them joy when they played sports. The six words they most want to hear their parents say: “I love to watch you play.” Completely devoid of ego-inflating feedback (“You’re the best! You’re an all-star!”), and discouraging instructional feedback (“Why didn’t you turn your hips while swinging?” or “Here’s what you should really be working on for next game”).
4. Align your behaviors with your values – A person who claims that eating healthily is important to him while clutching a bagful of Skittles is not aligning his behaviors (unhealthy eating) with his values (eating well is important). Youth sports parents fall victim to this, too. Most parents insist that winning is not a top priority in their child’s sports participation. Rather, working hard and adopting a positive attitude are likely of greater priority. It seems head-scratching when the poor performance of a child, who is clearly working hard and trying to stay positive, is met with disappointed gestures or frantic instructional declarations from his parent…the same parent who claims that winning isn’t all that important! We must align our actions and feedback as parents around the successful accomplishment of what we claim are the important areas. When, in a child’s eyes, parental love and approval depend strictly on the adequacy of performance (“The better I play, the more love I’ll get”) sports are bound to be stressful.
5. Understand how your presence affects your child’s performance – Does it tend to make them play better? Worse? No affect at all? The only way to reveal this is through an open, honest, direct conversation with your children. If how you are treating your child on the field during competition, no matter how well-intentioned, is steering them away from a successful path, something has to change. Again, even if your intentions are good, if it doesn’t work for your child, it doesn’t work.