Communicate Better with Your Negative Athlete | Q&A with Coach Rebecca

Today’s Topic: Communicate Better with Your Negative Athlete

About Me

Welcome to Q&A with Coach Rebecca.  I’m Rebecca Smith, founder and director of Complete Performance Coaching and a high performance coach.  I specialize in helping athletes age eight to 18 perform happy, perform better, and enjoy their sport.  I’m a member of a team of fabulous coaches who are all performance enhancement and sports psychology experts, who love working with kids and enjoy helping people overcome fear and build confidence.

We do this in two different ways.  We do one-on-one coaching through Skype or Facetime. Then we also have a full service, online, mental training community that has courses and coaches and all kinds of support.  New trainings every week live with me.  Then we might even add other coaches to do other live trainings.  That’s all, just all getting better and better every single day.  So that you can find at

Having a Negative Athlete

We have two different parents who are members of the Perform Happy community who have chimed in with a struggle that they’re going through with a negative athlete.  I’ve heard this a lot.  In the Perform Happy community, I see two ends of the spectrum.  There are the kids who are thriving – they’re doing the trainings, and they’re doing what I tell them to do, and they’re getting these incredible results.  They’re overcoming fear, winning state, winning regionals.  They’re thriving.

The kids who I see in the forums checking in with me, telling me their goals, telling me they’re excited, telling me they’re nervous, telling me what’s going on, those kids are all-star athletes right now.

Then there is the other side, which is the kids who are not engaging; their parents are so frustrated.  They show up and they’re asking, “What do I do?  How do I get my kid to do this?  I’m giving them what they need and they’re just not picking it up.”

“You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink, right?”

A lot of the time these kids are really struggling with negativity.  They even have this feeling of thinking, “Nothing’s going to work.  I’m just messed up.  It’s not going to work.”  The questions I got are kind of along those lines.

I’m going to give you some tips on how to help your athlete who is stuck on the negative side get over into the other side of these thriving, happy, excited athletes.

The first question comes from an All-Star Cheer mom.  She reached out and said,

Q: My daughter had a meltdown today.  She absolutely refuses to be positive.  I honestly don’t know what to do anymore.  She’s holding onto her negative belief system for dear life.  She refuses to believe that she can.  I really don’t know how she can dig herself out of this.  I’m desperate.  Three years of this and I’m just worn out.


Well, Mom, you are not alone.  I get emails like that all of the time, and people in the community as well who say, “Oh my gosh, please make this stop.  Can we just quit the sport?  Can we do something else?”  But then the kid says, “No, I don’t want to quit. This is my sport.  I love it.”  Then Mom is stuck in the middle going,

“Well, how do I handle this then if you’re going to be on this emotional rollercoaster, not accept any help from me? How do I deal?”

Then there’s another mom – I had put this out to the community that I was going to talk about this.  She goes,

“Yes, this is the number one issue I deal with with my 12-year-old figure skater.  Once she sets into negative thoughts all her skills go from bad to worse and there is no helping her.”

I know, it sounds awful, but there’s hope.  What I’m going to do is give you a couple of different perspectives on it.  I’ll first give 10 tips for coaches and parents who are trying to help an athlete get to the positive side.  Then I’m going to give a couple tips on how to communicate a little better so that you can start to bring that positivity out of them.  Then I’ll talk to athletes and give 10 tips to get the positivity flowing for yourself.

10 Ways to Help Your Athlete Think More Positively

Parents and coaches, here are 10 ways to help your athlete think more positively and to communicate better with your athlete:

1. Be a Great Role Model

Model positivity.  Now, you’ve heard the exasperation in these parents’ emails, in their voices, that they’re cooked.  They’re done.  They’re saying, “I don’t think this is going to work out.  We should just call it quits.  Can we just be done?”

If that’s the energy that you have, you’re not helping the situation.  I don’t mean to pick on you, and it’s hard.  It’s easier said than done to say, “It’s okay.  Let’s try again,” when your kid is completely miserable and driving you crazy and not helping.

You feel like you’re between a rock and a hard place for you to just be like, “Everything’s fine.  We’re going to be great.”  It’s easier said than done, but what I’m asking you to do is just find the silver lining.

Look on the Bright Side

Is there anything good in this situation?  Is there anything that you can dig deep and find?  Maybe it’s something like, “Wow kid, this is really challenging you and I think the universe has a lot of faith in you that you’re able to keep showing up to practice.  The fact that you want to keep going shows that you’ve got a lot of grit, that this really means a lot to you which means to me, the mom, that there’s hope.

The fact that you can keep showing up and that you haven’t given up and that even if your mom feels like giving up, you’re not giving up, that means to me that you’ve got something special and that you’re a tough cookie.”

There’s always something good, and if you can get in the habit of focusing on that, even if they roll their eyes, even if they don’t want to hear it, let the positivity flow from you as much as possible.

2. Help Them Get Comfortable with Their Emotions

Now, even as an adult, I don’t like feeling sad, I don’t like feeling scared, I don’t like feeling mad.  It depends if I feel super justified, but for the most part, I don’t really like to feel feelings.  I like to feel happy.  I like to feel satisfied.  I like to feel appreciated, but I don’t like the bummer ones.

For example, I was trying to deal with my daughter yesterday.  I was literally taking deep breaths.  “Do not drop kick her off the deck.  Oh my gosh, this kid.”  I had to take a second and feel my own frustration and feel my own anger.  I don’t like to feel it, I just want it to stop.  I want to say, “Stop doing what you’re doing because it’s frustrating me and I don’t want to feel this way.”

Well, I have to be willing to feel those tough feelings.  Take a pause, check in and go, “What does this kid need from me?  She needs me to connect with her.  She needs my attention.  She is acting like a crazy person because she needs my attention.  She needs more than I have to give right now,” and I need to just feel my feelings around it, take a breath, and then do what’s in front of me and just do the best I can.

Feel Your Feelings

That’s something that we have to teach our kids to do.  Instead of saying, “Don’t cry.  Don’t be mad.  Don’t feel that way.  Come on, move.  Get on with it.”  That is a lot of what I got growing up.  “You’re fine.  Get up.  Keep going.  Don’t cry.”  Sometimes, you know what?  They need to cry, and if your kid needs to fall apart, then you just go, “Let it out, honey.  Let it out.  Let’s be so mad.  This stinks.”  You just feel it and go, “Where do you feel that in your body?  When I get angry I feel it in my chest.  When I get nervous I feel it in my stomach.”

Talk them through it and find out where they feel it.  Let them feel it and then they’ll have more ability to deal with it instead of just going into this dark place of, “I will never get out of this place,”  you just say, “Yeah, that’s anger.  Okay, now what can we do?  Yeah, that’s anxiety.  Okay, what can we do?”

Get yourself and get them in the habit of not pushing feelings away.  That can be tough for us.  You start with you and then you can teach them how that works too.

“Yes, you are feeling angry right now.  Now what can we do?”  Instead of, “Don’t feel that way. Figure it out.  Get it together.”  You have to let them have their experience.

3. Be Motivational and Encouraging

Even if your kid is driving you absolutely insane, like mine was yesterday, you are their biggest fan and their biggest cheerleader.

If you can keep going back to that place of they don’t believe in themselves, well then dang it, I’m going to believe in them twice as much.  I’m going to believe in her so much, anytime she so much as sees me she can’t help but mirroring back hope and if you’re not giving up, I’m not giving up, okay?

“You’ve got this girl.  Don’t worry.  Yup, you had a tough practice.  Let’s try it again.  I got you.  I’m with you.  This is hard.  Let’s do it together.  I believe in you.”

Again, if they’re rolling their eyes the whole time, you just keep sending the goodness out.  They can’t help but feel it and let some of it in.  You, their parents, have such a big impact, so do it even if you don’t think it’s working.

4. Focus on Solutions

Now, with this one there’s a caveat, but don’t try to solve their problems for them.  What I mean by this is if you’re seeing a tornado coming towards your house, are you better off to stare at the tornado and say, “Oh no, a tornado,” or are you better off to find your way to safety?

If you’re being chased by a tiger, should you stare at the tiger and go, “A tiger!  A tiger!  A tiger!”  Or should you get the heck out of there?  Climb a tree, jump in the water, close the door?  What are you going to do about it?  That’s always a better focus than the problem.  If you can take the focus off of the problem together, you can start shifting focus to the solution.  You’ve established that there’s a tornado.  Now what?  What are you going to do now?

Instead of kind of dwelling on, “Oh my gosh, the fear.  The skill isn’t working.  Regionals is coming up,” and all the things, just go “Okay, what’s the solution?  Work hard today.”  That’s it.  That’s all you can control today.  You focus on the solution.

Don’t buy into the whole problem-focused conversation.  Try to help them to keep going back to, “Okay, what’s the solution here?  What can I control?  What can I do?  What can you do right now that’s going to make it a little bit better or a little bit more possible?”

5. Allow them Freedom to do Things They Love

I know I’m telling parents who have athletes who train 30 hours a week and go to school, so I know there’s not a lot of free time, but if you can, figure out a way to get things you love into your life.  If sport is a rough spot for you right now, are there other parts within your sport that are fun?  If this one skill is causing trouble, can you work some other skills?

Can you go on a special weekend getaway with your family?  Do something just for fun, another activity or something that’s just going to make you feel happy?  Can you draw?  Watch your favorite movie?  Help them to do things that feel great instead of just school is hard, social lives are hard, sport is hard.

Give them something fun.  Give them something to do that isn’t so hard.  Try to do it regularly if possible so that there’s a bright spot and there’s this recharge for their batteries so then they can go back into battle and have some reserves to pull from.

6. Surround Them with Positive People

I always say you are who you associate with, so if your whole team is complaining that “I’m never going to get this, my coach is a jerk,” then that’s the way they’re going to talk too.  If you’re that way, if your spouse is that way, if their siblings are that way, then you’ve got to get them around people who are positive.

First of all, be a person who is positive.  That’s the thing you mostly have control over, but if there’s a particular person who really drags them down, don’t encourage them to spend time with them.

Try to set them up with other people or other training groups or other coaches or other situations that are a little bit more positive so that that whole system of positivity can really start to rub off.

7. Show Interest in Them

Show interest in the kind of young people that you want them to be. This reminds me of a girl I used to coach when I was coaching gymnastics.  She was the kind of kid who needed attention constantly.  Very high energy, a lot like my little kid.  She would take any kind of attention, negative attention, positive attention, you name it.  She was always messing around and always getting in trouble.

I made a decision that I was going to completely ignore any of the bad behavior and I was going to go nuts anytime she did anything good.  She would be completely messing around on the low beam, not doing the assignment, and then she’d do one good thing and I’d react with, “Oh my gosh, that was so good!  You guys, did you see what she just did?  That was amazing!”

Then she was like, “What?  Okay.”  Then she starts doing that again. When you see this poo-poo, negativity, blah, this vibe that you do not want to encourage, you can ignore it, but then when you see any silver lining, any solution, any extra effort, anything like that, you throw a party, you say, “Yes, oh my gosh, you’re right.  You really did try hard tonight.”

Whatever you can identify as behavior that you’re looking for, the type of young person that you want them to be, when they act like that even this tiny little bit, make a big deal.  Really reinforce that.

Comparing Athletes

Then when you see somebody else showing up in a really positive way,  like, “Wow, the effort on that kid is pretty strong.”  Now this one’s a tricky one because if you’re dealing with an athlete who’s insecure, the last thing you want to do is compare them or make them feel like they’re less than this other person, so use that one very sparingly.  But you want to make sure to just point out, “That’s the kind of person that you are.  That’s the goodness that I see in you.” That’s more the way you want to spin it.

“You see how that girl was really being helpful?  You do that too and that’s a really good quality that I see in you.”  That’s the way you want to use it instead of saying, “Well, she’s being great and you’re being awful,” because otherwise they’ll pretty much hear it that way even if you don’t intend them to.

8. Notice the Beauty in the Surroundings and in Your Athlete

Just pause and take notice.  That’s just stopping to see a rainbow or a sunset or a beautiful flower or the ceiling tiles at the gym.  It really doesn’t matter what, but pausing to just be present and bring up that, “Wow, that was so peaceful,” or “That was such a nice moment that we just had together.”

Help to get them rooted in the present because the present, everything’s really okay.  No matter what stress is on the horizon or what just happened 20 minutes ago, this moment that you’re in is always just okay.  If you can pull them back to something that’s good in this moment, that will help.

9. Listen and Care

Now this is probably more like number one.  I talk about it all the time in the community.

Listen and care about how they’re feeling, not just how they’re doing.  This is one of the biggest things I notice.  The kids that come to me for help often are these very high achievers, these very talented athletes, these extremely skilled athletes who have put so much pressure on themselves to succeed and their parents are always bragging about first all around and first at state and this and that, it’s got to be about their feelings.  It’s got to be listening to the happiness, the peace, the joy that comes from the experience of that competition rather than the outcome.

That’s what you want to listen for and repeat back to them is allowing them to really become aware of their own inner experience and letting them know that no matter what that is, it’s okay with you and that you’re just there to listen and that you care about how they’re feeling even if it doesn’t make any sense to you.

10. Focus on the Gratitude that you Have for Them

How do they bless you in this moment?  Even when they are the most difficult, what can you be grateful for?  I can write an unending list of things I’m grateful for in my daughter, but in those moments it’s really hard to find them when I’m so tired and I just cannot hold a boundary any longer.  But if I stop and think, like her little squishy hand, that to me is enough to put up with it all.  Just that feeling of holding her squishy little hand.

You can always find something that you can be grateful for and if you start to do that, then you create that as the context that they can start seeing themselves through.

Tips on Communication

Communicate Better with Your Negative AthleteAll right, so some quick tips to help you communicate better with your athlete.

Slow Down

Just the act of slowing down the words that you use will help to calm down an anxious or angry kid.  If you’re ramped up and you want to just solve the problem and get on with it, you tend to speed up and get a little urgency.  If you can just slow down, that will take any extra anxiety or anger out of the situation, the conversation and it deepens the connection with them.

When you slow down and you look them in the eye and you show them that you’re really there and you’re not in a hurry to solve anything, you just want to be there with them, that will definitely help.  One suggestion that’s another difficult one is just to try to say yes whenever possible.  Of course, if their question is, “Can I stay out till 3AM with this dangerous crowd of kids,” you’re not going to be like, “Sure honey, that sounds great.”

Create the Connection

But what you could do is use that as an opportunity to open a positive conversation.  You could say, “Okay, that’s an interesting request.  Let’s think about if you were the mom what would be the reason why that would sound like a good idea to you?”  You keep your tone really positive and you kind of slow it down and look them in the eye and let them be heard and say, “Okay, I’m curious.  Let’s talk about why that sounds like a good idea.”

Then your answer might end up still being no, but you’ve created a moment for connection with them.  Then laugh and hug and share those moments with them, those physical connection moments are really important.

Okay, now athletes, 10 things you can do to become more positive.  It goes along with what I talked about for parents, but number one, this is something I got from a meditation teacher that I’ve had and he calls it OPT.

It’s just one pleasant thing.  If you can find one pleasant thing right now, everybody take a second and find one pleasant thing.  Maybe your chest feels tight but your hands feel kind of light and tingly. Maybe the chair you’re sitting in is particularly comfortable.  Maybe the temperature in the room you’re in is pleasant.  No matter what’s going on, try to find one pleasant thing.  I really like the lighting in this room with the sun shining through.

Find one pleasant thing, OPT, and that in any moment is possible.  I really like the song that’s playing.

Learn How to Have a Great Day

Okay, now it’s similar to the first one, but you just try to find those positive experiences throughout the day.  If you’re having a bad day then you can start a new day immediately.  You’ve got another 24 hours.  You can start right now and you can decide okay, that bad day is over.  Good day starts now.  What’s going well?  What can I appreciate right now?  What’s something that’s going okay in this new day that just started?

Practice Gratitude

Just like your parents are going to be grateful for you, you could be grateful for your parents even if you feel like they’re totally crazy and out of control.  I always like to pull out your five fingers and come up with five things you’re grateful for.  You can do it real quick or sometimes it’s not so quick when you’re so mad or so negative, but pull it out and go, “Okay, I’m grateful for my family.  I’m grateful for the breakfast I had this morning, yada, yada, yada.”  Come up with five.

Number one, two, three, four, imagine yourself at your best.  That’s actually taking the time to close your eyes and see things working out.  Sometimes we get so afraid or even committed to things going wrong that you can’t see it, so what if you were to stop and go, “Okay, I’m going to imagine everything going right.  Me being positive, me being completely confident, things going well.” If you start to do that it actually will help your brain to believe it’s possible.  It will change the way you look at the situation, which allows you to be more positive and allows you to be more successful.

Doesn’t that sounds good?

Be Aware of Your Thinking

Just start writing down a thought journal. This is something that I recommend for all of my athletes is to keep a journal. Keep track of what are you thinking? What do you think before things go well? What do you think before things go poorly? You’ll start to see a pattern and the more you pay attention to it, the more you’ll be able to start to change it.


Another thing that you can do, which actually I have a free download, is a loving kindness meditation.  This is a particular meditation where you go in and instead of just being quiet and being still with your thoughts and your breath, you actually put good vibes out. There’s kind of a sequence of mantras that people use. Examples are you’ll say things like, you’ll think about a person you love and go, “May you feel safe.  May you feel happy.  May you feel healthy.  May you live with ease.”

Then you think about a person who you’re neutral toward and you send them the same good stuff.  What that does is just fills you up with goodness.  If you want to download my example of that you can go here and you can download that.  It’s about a 15 minutes meditation you can listen to on the way to practice. Not while you’re driving of course, but that’s something you can use.

Offer Your Help to Someone

The last few are help someone.  Anytime that you are feeling not so good, if you turn your attention to being of service, helping somebody else, that always will get you out of it.  Write down pleasant moments.  It’s like keeping a journal of your OPT moments, that one pleasant thing.  Just write them down.  I saw an orange cat walking slowly across the street and it was so cute.  Whatever the moment is, write them down.

Setting and Achieving Goals

The kids in my community have an opportunity to post goals every week and then let me know if they got them or not and they get little rewards for posting them and for achieving them.  If you’ve got a goal, that helps you, helps you to be more positive, so set a little easy goal and then just go get it.

Practice Positive Affirmations

Those of you who are in the community, you know I talk about how to do that.  I think that’s enough out of me for today, but thank you guys so much for these good questions and you can find me back here again next week on the Complete Performance Coaching Facebook page Tuesdays at 4:30 or on the Perform Happy Podcast. If you want to join us in the community the link to sign up is  I’ll see you again next week.  Thanks for being here.

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