Sport Parenting DO’s & DON’T’s | Q&A with Coach Rebecca

Today’s Topic – Sport Parenting DOs & DON’Ts

Hi everybody! I’m coach Rebecca Smith, and I’m here on the Complete Performance Coaching Facebook page for our weekly Q&A.

About Me

If we’re just meeting, I’m a sports psychology expert.

I specialize in helping individual sport athletes like gymnasts, swimmers, dancers, divers, and pole vaulters overcome mental blocks and get back in action.

I also help build confidence and help athletes tap into their personal flow.

This is done in two different ways:

  • Online in my mental toughness training center, the PerformHappy community. You’re welcome to join us because we’re actually taking new members right now.
  • The other way is through one-on-one coaching over Skype of Facetime.

If you’re interested, you can always reach out.

This week we are focusing on parenting

Being a parent myself… Man, you cannot read enough blog posts to figure this thing out. But I’m going to do my best to give you my perspective on what athletes need and want from you, and give you some ideas on what not to do.

First, I’ll answer questions. The priority always goes to the PerformHappy Community members. I’m going to answer a question from the community. If we have time, I’ll answer a couple of other ones too. Let’s dive in.

Our first question is from a soccer mom:

Q: “Try outs are in two weeks and my kid probably isn’t going to make the team. We honestly don’t want to deal with the cost and commitment, but if she doesn’t make it, she’ll be crushed. How do we deal with this?”


That’s a tough one. Because you really want to support your kid,  but you don’t think they’re going to make it.

You know they’re going to be upset.

Why send them in? Why even send them into battle if they’re going to lose?

Well, because there are a lot of life lessons available. That’s the hard part of sport parenting.

It’s easy to be a sport parent when your kid comes home jingling with medals and with a big smile on their face.

But if they’re crying, or upset, or stressed, or hating themselves (which I hear way too often), then you can’t help but think, “Why are we doing this?”

Here are my suggestions for our soccer mom, (and parents in general).


The DOs and DON’Ts of Sport Parenting

DO: Be neutral

The number one piece of advice that I give people is: be neutral. This is hard for parents.

This is so hard, because maybe you don’t want her to be on that team, and you would rather encourage her not to play for that team.  You worry about the cost and commitment, so it’s difficult to just say “good luck!” and send her off to tryouts.

But try to be neutral anyway.

Ask your child, “Okay honey, what do you want? Great. You want to try out, okay.” Then you can help her talk through the potential outcomes. “What if it doesn’t go well? What if it does? Okay, if it does, then that means you’re going to be traveling, that means that school’s going to be impacted.”

Ideally you will be able to say,  “Alright, whatever happens, we love you. We support you.”


DO: Feel for them

Some of you might be thinking, we’ve learned so many life lessons this year. Can’t we just have a break from the life lessons already?

I know.  I hear you.

I’ve had years like that.  Some years are lesson, after lesson, after lesson, after failure, after falling flat on my face.  Over and over and over.

I look back and I know now that it was necessary.  I can honestly, as an adult, look back and go, “I’m so grateful. I’m so grateful for those life lesson years, but God, I don’t want to be in one anytime soon.”

I feel for you.

And your job is to feel for them.

Sometimes the best thing to say is just, “that’s gotta be so hard for you.”  Even if you’re having a hard time feeling supportive, or you don’t like the situation your kid is in, show empathy.  Consider what it’s like for them.


DO: Praise their efforts

Often athletes show up and they work and work and work, but they still aren’t getting the outcomes they want.  They’re not getting medals, or scores, or moving up to the next level.  If you can see that they’re working, that’s the thing to praise. That’s the thing that you notice as a parent.

Here’s your job:

Notice that they’re trying hard, because effort is what’s going to build them into a good, strong adult. Not the fact that they’re “talented.” If you emphasize their talent, then they’re not going to think that their hard work got them where they are.

When I was a gymnastics coach, one of my favorite kids to work with could barely walk a straight line when she was younger.  Zero “talent.”  God bless her.  But she worked harder than anybody else I ever coached and that kid is flying now.  She’s getting ready to compete next year at one of the top NCAA Division I colleges.

If your child is injured and cannot compete, it’s same thing. You have to figure out: where can you put in the effort?

Where can she show up and feel like she’s done a good job? She can go and she can condition. She can go and she can cheer on her teammates. What effort can she put in, even though she’s injured and she can’t put in a lot of other stuff?

There’s always something you can do. As a parent, your job is to praise the effort, not the outcome.


DO: Be the soft place to land

Your kids are out in this tough world where things are not easy and your job isn’t to make it harder. Like, “Oh, come on. Pull it together. Pull yourself up. Let’s go.” That’s the coach’s job. You pay good money for coaches to push your kids out of their comfort zone, to make them uncomfortable, to make them work hard, to really show them what they’re made of (within reason).

We all hope we’ve chosen good coaches for our kids. But the parent’s job is to be the soft place to land at the end of the day, when it was a really hard workout, and they don’t feel like they can keep going. Give them a hug, you tell them they worked hard, they did a good job, and you feed them.


DO: Feed them!

I did a survey, of a whole bunch of teenage athletes. I asked them all to put a note card in an envelope answering the questions: “What do you want from your parents?” and “What do you not want from your parents?” It was overwhelming, most of the kids said they wanted one thing from their parents.

Do you guys have any guesses of the number one thing that these kids wanted from their parents?

It was not coaching, it was not yelling, it was not tough love.

It was food! They all want food.

That’s it.

What do you want from your parents? Food.

After the competition: take them to lunch, hug them, say they did a good job (because they tried hard). Feed them,  take them home, and let them relax.


DO: Let the good stuff in

Live question: “What does your athlete do when they don’t feel encouraged, and as a parent, what do you do?”

This one might go back to the last couple weeks I’ve talked about bummers, and coaches not being so nice, and not being so encouraging, and I talked about the screen. You put up a screen, you only let the good stuff in, the constructive stuff that will help you become a better athlete, and you bounce out the stuff that doesn’t help.

As far as being encouraged, a lot of it comes from within. Whatever you focus on grows. If you’re focusing on how things are not going well and “this isn’t working,” and “I don’t like this,” and “this person’s rude,” then you’re going to have that grow and grow and grow and grow.

But if you’re focusing on gratitude, you know, things that you’re grateful for, things that are going well, little successes, then that starts to grow.


DO: Let them fail

Do give them ownership. Let this be their choice. Half the time I’m asking kids, “Is it your choice to show up and do this sport?  Yes?  Ok.  Then let’s figure out how to make the best of that choice even though you don’t feel good right now, or it doesn’t feel fun.”

Let them fail…

My favorite example of this was with the mom of one of my swimmer clients.

This mom would always check his bag, and put his goggles in, and make sure everything was all set, because one time he forgot his goggles on meet day.

So I told her, “Let him forget his goggles.” That’s what that kid needs. He’s going to go to college someday. He’s going to need that experience of, “Okay, I have to write a list. I have to figure out how to remember my goggles. I have to figure out how to take care of myself,” because he even said to me in confidence, he was like, “You know, I have total learned helplessness.”

This kid even knew the term, “learned helplessness.”  He knew, “My mom’s going to do it, so why would I do that? Why would I spend the time to make myself lunch if my mom’s going to do it? Why would I check my bag if my mom’s going to check it?” Then this woman attended a parent session I was leading and told her, “Let the kid fail!” She was the one going, “I could never!”

Honestly, my dad said “no” to me once. Well, probably more than once, but there was this one specific “no” I remember that got me into action. It was the “no” I needed.

Sometimes we need a no. Sometimes we need a, “I’m not going to help you with this.”

(With love and food).


DO: Communicate

Communicate. Talk to them. If you want to know how they’re doing, talk to them.

If they don’t want to talk back, then don’t make them. But at least give them a chance and then be compassionate. My favorite line to use, especially when I’m really irked is, “That’s got to be so hard for you.” Even if you’re like, “Kid, you did this to yourself. I don’t know what to tell you.” To say, “that’s got to be so hard for you,” and just kind of bite your tongue, is surprisingly helpful.

Take a breather. Give them a hug. Feed them. It’s okay. That’s all we need half the time. Usually, if you say that instead of, “Well this is what you need to do. Come on, figure it out! You did this to yourself.” If you just say, “That’s got to be so hard for you,” they’ll be like, “Well it’s okay. Here’s what I’m going to do to fix it.”

You’ll be shocked. Try it out.


DON’T: Allow your self-worth to get tied up in your kid’s success or failure

Now onto the don’ts. This is hard because you don’t want to watch your kid out there failing and feel like people are looking at you like, “What didn’t you give your kid?” (By the way, it’s all in your head if you’re thinking that).


DON’T: Coach your child

The main reason here, is because that is probably the best way to confuse them. Because if they love and respect their coach, even if they just respect them, they’re going to be hearing certain things from their coach. You, even if you were an athlete and you actually know what you’re talking about, if you tell them something that conflicts with what their coach is saying, now they’re like, “Who am I going to let down? The coach or my parents? When I’m competing, they’re both watching me. Who do I choose, who do I let down?”

When I’m working with a kid one on one and they’re asking me technique stuff, I might know the answer to that, but I’m not going to talk about it because your coach needs to be right. Even if it’s not totally right or whatever, it’s better for the kid to be solid on, “this is how I do this skill”, versus going like, “do I twist late? Do I twist early? I’m going to let somebody down.”

Just don’t do it. Don’t give them any suggestions. That’s very hard, especially if you’re like, “Kid this is obvious.” Just don’t do it because you might be creating confusion.


DON’T: Compare them to other kids

Now this might happen even with the best of intentions.  You might say something like, “Oh my gosh, Claire had a great meet today.” Then your kid’s like, “my heart is broken because my mom just noticed that my friend did better than me and I already knew that, but I didn’t want my mom to notice.”

Just don’t talk about their friends. If they did good, bad, whatever… don’t say anything, because they’re going to feel immediately like you’re comparing them. That is the worst.


DON’T: Push against them

If they’re pushing against you, and you push against them, it’s only going to make the push harder. Loretta says, “Prefer to leave the coaching to the coaches.” Yes. Emotional support and encouragement by saying, “You can do it, keep trying, don’t give up.” Yes, A plus Loretta. Good stuff. Pushing, this is especially with teenagers.

If you give them something to push against, they’re going to push.

If you don’t, they’re going to be kind of confused. Like, “Wait, you’re not arguing with me?  What do I do now?” That’s where the whole neutrality thing comes in. If you’re like, “Okay, it sounds like you don’t want to go to try outs.” They’re going to be like, “I have to go to try outs. I really want to go to try outs.” From my experience, if you give them something to push against, they will push. Do the best you can to find a place of neutral curiosity.


DON’T: Be a distraction

Don’t go behind them if they’re a swimmer and tell them what not to forget, or talk to them about times or outcomes. Don’t be a distraction. Don’t be like, “Woo hoo kid! I’m over here!” right before they get up on beam.

Exception: if they specifically say, “You know mom, when you yell my name and I’m running down the vault runway, that makes me run so fast,” then do it. If they don’t say that, don’t do it. DON’T DO IT. They don’t want you to do it. I mean, maybe little ones really want to see where their mom or dad is in the stands. But for the most part, don’t be a distraction, because you are. They want your attention.

“How do I encourage my daughter to calm her nerves before a meet?” [Lucinda 00:21:03] that’s kind of a chicken or the egg one. Maybe I’ll tackle that next time because you kind of want to start back farther. You want to get it before the nerves hit. Why don’t I talk about that next week? We’ll finish up the don’ts here.


DON’T: Criticize the coach

Because then it’s back to that confusing things. They’re like, “Well I like the coach and you’re criticizing the coach.” Don’t say the wrong things or your kid will take your perspective, which might not support their training.

Q: “My daughter’s gym has taken conditioning up several levels in the last few weeks. It’s brutal to watch. My daughter cries before gym starts, during gym, and sometimes even on the way home. She complains to me that her chest hurts and it’s hard to breathe sometimes during the conditioning. Her anxiety has increased, her exhaustion level has increased as well. Every gym day her demeanor starts to change when she knows it’s getting close to gym time. Her stomach starts to hurt and today, she said, “Why do we have to condition so hard?” We’ve explained that it always happens in the off season to get ready for the next season, and that she survived last year, she’ll survive this year too. But honestly, I hate to see her so stressed out and it’s taking a toll on her. How, as parents, are we supposed to help get them through the physically and mentally tough times? Nothing I’m saying is helping her through it.”


Oh my gosh, you poor thing! I’m having flashbacks to being ten and in tears conditioning. The things that we are asked to do, and at the same time the things that we’re able to push through are pretty incredible as young athletes. Here are my thoughts on that:


Check with your doctor

First, check with her doctor. Make sure she doesn’t have a medical concern. That’s always number one.  You want to make sure that if there is anything like that, like chest pains or difficulty breathing, that you just check in. I had exercise induced asthma and that made all that stuff a lot harder for me. When we figured that out, it was very helpful. I’ve talked to a lot of swimmers, too, who get these really hard sets going and then they go to the doctor and they get an inhaler that makes things a little easier. First thing, check with your child’s doctor and see if that’s an issue.


Understand that your body doesn’t want to change

Something that you might want to explain to her is the theory of homeostasis. This is the body’s tendency to want to stay the same. Anytime your body changes, your brain goes, “No! Don’t do it! Don’t change!” Your body wants to maintain the same blood pressure, the same body temperature, the same functions. Your body wants to stay the same because the way it is right now is working — it’s alive.

It wants to go, “Okay. Let’s stay alive. Don’t change anything, because right now we’re alive and it’s working out.” If you start doing a really heavy conditioning set, your heart starts to pound, everything goes up and then your brain goes, “Uh oh, change detected!” Your body doesn’t want to change.

There’s this moment where you’re actually building muscle or building cardio, when your brain is sending messages to your body like, “Stop! Stop! Stop! Abort mission! Don’t do it! Don’t do it!” That’s what she’s hearing her brain say, is like, “Just don’t do it! Get out of there! Don’t go.” She walks in the gym and her brain’s like, “Uh oh, it’s going to happen again. I’m going to have to get stronger if I walk in there. I’m going to have to get more flexible, and that’s going to be uncomfortable.” It’s the worst. I empathize for you, girl.

Figure out the silver lining, together

Conditioning is not the fun part, but here’s what you can do, mom. You can help her figure out the silver lining. What is it?  Why would your coach have you do that?  Really great coaches actually explain to the kids. “All right kids, it’s June. We are diving in. We are doing serious conditioning for the next two months and then we’re going to do routines, and then we’re…”

They’ll kind of plan it out. If your coach hasn’t explained that and she’s like, “I feel like this will never end and I have no idea how hard it’s going to be,” it’s worth having a conversation. Just say, “Hey coach. Can we talk about big picture here?” Just so that the kid knows this is the plan, this is how long it’s going to be, this is the intensity, this is why, etc.

Not every coach obviously has time for that, but that can really help to know.  If I’m doing something uncomfortable and I think it will never end, I don’t want to keep doing that. You know? I want to find a way out. See if you can talk to the coach and figure out, is there a light at the end of the tunnel? What is that? Okay. You’ve just got to get to June and then you switch to routines or something.


What is conditioning doing for your athlete?

Also, what is that conditioning doing for her? I’m sure she can probably figure out some benefits. Like, “Well actually, I’m already getting better at this. Or I made my kip for the first time, because my arms are getting stronger.” I mean obviously, it’ll probably be a month before she starts to see some results, but you can help her track it. You can help her figure out, you know, like, “I did 20 today when last week I only did 10.”

I’ve also helped a girl who really hated conditioning. She passionately hated it. I was like, “Girlfriend, you got to learn to love it because it’s part of the deal.” Her coach would have her, every time she fell twice in a row on a skill, she’d have to go do 10 leg lifts. She was terrified to try anything on beam because she thought she was going to have to go do leg lifts, so she’d kind of just waste her time and walk around and never get anything done.

Then she wouldn’t do the skill because she was stressed. I was like, “All right. When every time you go to do leg lifts, you’re going to do 10 things you’re grateful for.” I think I’ve talked about that on here before. Or, “you’re going to do 10 things you love.” It’s like leg lift one, “I’m grateful for my cat, I’m grateful that I’m strong, I’m grateful that my mom drove me here,” you know.

You use it as a time to pump yourself up. “Okay, in the next five minutes, I am going to sing my favorite song in my head twice. Ready? Go.” You’re like doing your cardio. You can help her figure out ways to have more fun with it, because it’s a necessary evil. It’s going to be there. She’s not going to get out of it if she wants to keep doing gymnastics.


How can your athlete find their happy place?

Figure out, how can she get in her happy place? Keep track of the personal wins, make a gratitude list. And then, talk to the coaches and see if she can get an idea of the overall plan, so that she doesn’t get overwhelmed by the idea of it. Like I said in the beginning, check with her doctor. If she’s got asthma, if there’s something that’s physically getting in her way, that’ll be really good to know.

Moving on here, I’ll take one more question before we wrap up.

Q: “Recently I saw an article stating that parents shouldn’t talk to coaches except to thank them for their hard work. Is that really what coaches want or the best approach for our kids?”


I’m going to say that that varies. I was a coach, and I loved talking to parents. If you want to chat, talk to me. If you’re upset, talk to me. You don’t like what I’m doing, if you don’t understand it, ask me. You know, my biggest suggestion earlier was to ask the coach what their plan is and then go with that.

I would talk to the coach and say, “Hey coach! Is it okay if I check in?” I love it when parents email me. I’m not going to tell them what I talk to their kid about, but I’m fine with people saying, “Hey, how’s it going?” I would say, as a general rule, I don’t think that most coaches are like, “Don’t come talk to me,” but they also don’t want you to come talk to them while they’re spotting a yurchenko. You know? Make sure that the timing is right. Maybe shoot them an email. If they’re hanging out in their office before practice, I don’t think there’s any problem with talking to them. But it’s communication, everybody’s different. If you don’t know, ask.

I’ve got a little cheat sheet you guys can download below. The five things you should never say to your kid after a meet. Check that out if you’re interested.

All right you guys. I’m done for today. I will see you next week.

Is your gymnast struggling with mental blocks or fear?  Check out my FREE resource for parents.