Parents: How to help your athlete through a tough situation without losing your mind.

Hi everyone.  I’m Rebecca Smith, founder and director of Complete Performance Coaching.  I’m here today for our weekly Q & A where I answer parents, coaches, or athlete’s questions on how to get the best performances.

My question this week is from a sport parent and it’s a question that I was really grateful to get, because whenever I get questions from you guys, I go to my own experience, but I also do research.  I look into the articles, I look into what’s been published, and I also look into what is the professional opinion on this topic.  I am a parent, I just recently had my second daughter and it is not easy.  I can talk a good talk about how to be a good parent based on research, but then it’s when you get in the trenches with it, this is all easier said than done.

I’m going to give you my opinion/research on ways to help your athlete through a difficult situation without losing your mind, and without becoming so stressed and emotional and anxious that you are of absolutely no use to your athlete. This also applies to adult children who are going through a tough situation without losing your mind.

So here’s our question.  It comes from a gymnastics mom.  She says,

Q:  My biggest problem as a sport parent is getting way too emotionally involved.  My daughter is struggling a lot right now with mental blocks in gymnastics and my heart is breaking watching her go through this.  It is hard for me to take a step back and not be so emotional about it.  I’m sure my emotions feed into her emotions. She probably senses my anxiety and it does not help her.


Raise your hand if you can relate.  This is something that happens to every parent who cares. Your kid has emotions and you want to protect them, but you get stuck in this tug of war between wanting to love them, nurture them, and take care of them, and being afraid that they don’t have what they need – they don’t have the skills, they don’t have the support to get through the tough situation.


So, do we give them limits?  You might say, “Well, I don’t want to give them limits because then they’re going to get their little hearts broken.”  Just thinking about what my heart was like – I have felt the stress of the situation where your child is suffering and you don’t know what to do, so you dive into it.  You fight for them, you’re in it with them, and next thing you know, you are just as emotionally stress stressed out as them.

I took my little three-year-old to the doctor three months ago and I am terrified of shots.  I was one of those anti-vaxxer families, and my family was a hippie family that didn’t get any vaccinations, so I didn’t have a shot until I was 16 years old.  I’m a mom with no frame of reference for what this was going to be like for her.  She had never gotten a shot since she was two years old when she wouldn’t really remember it, and my kid is super strong willed now.

What Your Body Language Says

So we go into the doctor’s office, we’re getting ready to get a shot.  I am shaking, shoulders up to my ears, saying, “It’s going to be great, we’re going to be fine.  Don’t worry.  Why don’t you play with that?”  I could tell my intensity was high.  I even took grandma with us because she’s so calm and wonderful and I still couldn’t keep it together.

So what happens?  My kid will not be weighed.  She will not be measured.  She is super tense. She will not take her clothes off.  She just saying, “Nuh-uh, I don’t want anything to do with this.”  Meanwhile, I don’t know what to do because this is a point of stress for me, personally.  I didn’t know how to behave.  It turns out she wasn’t even due for any shots, so I didn’t even need to be nervous.  Meanwhile, she didn’t even get any of her checkup done because she was so stressed.

You’re the Role-Model

That happens.  Our kids, if you’re a parent, our athletes, if you’re a coach, they look to us to know how to feel.  If you’re stressed, angry, or sad, even if you’re not saying it, they are feeling it.  They’re probably aware of it on a molecular level.  They know what’s going on.  If you’re in a bad mood, especially coaches, do you notice how all of your athletes become in a bad mood after awhile?  If you’re stressed, if you’re thinking, “Season is coming, we have to get it together,” then everybody starts falling off the beam because they all have their shoulders up to their ears, thinking, “I can’t let them down.  Oh my gosh!”

So guess what I’m doing now?  I sent Ruby, my daughter, to the dentist with grandma alone recently because I struggle with any doctor.  I was terrified of the dentist when I was a kid for years.  I’m just really not the person to send her with.  That’s one solution, but you can’t just say, “Okay, grandma, do life for us.”  I wish we could because we have a couple of the most amazing grandmas in the world.

If you’re caught between these desires to really take care of them, to teach them limits, and help them to be individuals and help them to be strong, you end up on this rollercoaster.

Let me give you guys some tips on how to keep from getting so sucked into it.

Know Your Role

First of all, you want to know what your role is.  I have a three-year-old and a five-month-old.  My role with them is attachment – letting them know that I’m here, that they can come to me for absolutely anything, and letting them know how to discover their feelings.


For anyone who has an adolescent or a teenager, your job is actually the opposite – it’s detachment.  I remember when I was young and I was coaching, I adored the 12, 13, 14, and 15-year-olds.  If I had those ages all day I’d be in heaven because they’re my favorite people on the planet.  I would chat up with their moms after I was done coaching.  They would say, “Gosh, you get the best of them.  We get the worst of it when we get home. We have such a hard time.”  I’d respond saying, “I hope I never have daughters.”

What irony.  I was so scared having girls would be so hard, but these moms would say, “You know what, if we didn’t hate them a little, we’d never let them go because we love them so much.  We kind of have to hate them or we would never ever let them leave.”

That kind of made sense to me, and it echoes in my mind as I’m raising these little girls.  Of course I adore them, but I want them to be able to go out and be their own people some day.  If I just adore them more than anything, that might be hard.

With that in mind, your instruction, or my recommendation, is to aim for emotional detachment.

Enmeshment vs. Empathy

There’s a difference between enmeshment and empathy.  Let’s say that your young athlete daughter became injured and she’s devastated.  She’s depressed, she can’t do the things she loves, and she is so sad.  You’re going to feel that sadness, too.  Even when my little three-year-old falls and bumps her elbow, I hug her and I feel it.  I put myself in her shoes and go, “Gosh, that was rough,” and that’s what you do for your athletes, too.

If you go, “This is so hard and I really feel for you.  I am so sorry that you’re going through this,” you feel it, but know that those feelings are not free.  They’re not emotionally free.  They come at a cost.  So if you are enmeshed with them, that means that you are not only feeling sad when they’re grieving, but you’re feeling angry when they’re angry, anxious when they’re anxious, depressed when they’re depressed, and you are on this roller coaster that is completely draining and exhausting.  That then turns you into a very short, snappy, impatient parent because you’re so exhausted that you can’t handle it anymore.


Now they have no support and you have no support, and everyone just wants to go climb under the covers.  So what you have to keep in mind is you have to put your oxygen mask on first before helping them.  If you are not in a position to give and give and give emotionally, you’re going to lose all control of your emotions.

There’s this acronym I always remember: halt.  It’s an airline reference from a movie.  If you’re hungry, angry, lonely or tired – if the passenger on the airplane is hungry, angry, lonely or tired, halt, they’re going to be awful.  So if I, the parent, am hungry, angry, lonely or tired, I’m going to be impatient.  I’m going to be short, sad, angry.  I am going to have less control over my emotions.  So you have to make sure that those things are covered and you have to get enough sleep, you have to get food correct intervals, you have to do the basic needs.

I know this sounds ridiculous for me to be mentioning this, but we forget.  I mean, how often do you cook your kid dinner and you didn’t make something for yourself.  Especially when you have athletes that you are carting to and from, you don’t think about yourself.  You’re so in give mode that you don’t have enough to give to yourself, which then turns you into a crazy person when everything hits the fan, which doesn’t help anybody.  You do not want to ride the rollercoaster.

Placing Blame

The other indicator of enmeshment is that you basically blame your feelings on your child.  From talking to people during consultations (I always have a free consultation before I take a new client and I talk to the parent and the athlete), I always know we’re in for it when mom says, “We’ve been dealing with this issue for this long and this is what we’ve done about it and we’re doing this.”  And I’m thinking, “Ok, it definitely feels like a family issue, but it’s not.  This is the athlete’s sport and this is her journey.”

So if you’re a “we” person and you’re really, really invested, just notice that.  Also notice if you say things like, “She’s driving me crazy,” or “That makes me so angry,” or “That makes me feel anxious,” or “She’s making everyone else unhappy.”

Giving Your Child Control

What you’re doing when you use those sorts of statements is you’re giving that 12-year-old the power to affect you and your emotions.  You are giving your child complete control over your emotions, which is unhealthy because first of all, your child is already suffering.  It’s guaranteed they’re suffering because they’re going through whatever the issue is.  Once you give them the power to control your emotions, it automatically puts the pressure on them.  Now they feel like they have this injured, this emotionally injured parent, and they are carrying their issue and your issue because you’ve given it to them because you’ve said, “You’re doing this to me.”

That just makes everything worse.  So here’s how we want to do it.  We want to know that her emotions are up to her and your feelings are your decision.  You are free to decide to feel crazy or not to feel crazy, to feel upset to not to feel upset.  I know this sounds way overly simplistic, but if you’re being realistic about it, you get to choose how you behave just like she or he gets to choose.

Your Child Can Make Their Own Choices

If your athlete is struggling and has a mental block and is avoiding it, which is what their brain wants them to do, you don’t have to say, “You have to go for it.  You can’t avoid it.  You can’t do this.”  You know what?  Yes, they can avoid it.

They can make the completely wrong decision – that is all available to them.  Your child can do completely the wrong thing.  They can make the wrong choices, and you’re giving them a gift by letting them suffer the consequences.

When I talked to a specialist in college recruiting for athletes, she said, “The number one thing that parents can do with young athletes who have collegiate gymnastics or collegiate sports in mind, let them fail young.”  I know.  Does that sound awful?  An example would be, let’s say for swimmers, let them forget their goggles, let them forget their grips.  Whatever you need to do, they need to learn the lesson so they can become resilient.

You also need to learn how to start to detach.  If they’re so mad at you and you make them so mad, well that’s them.  You’re not in charge of their emotions because that’s also not helpful, but it’s the truth.

You’re not in charge of their emotions and they’re not in charge of yours.  You are individuals who have your own paths.

Dealing with Stress

With that in mind, how do you deal with the stress?  Because the stress is real.  You see your athletes suffering.  I’m going to give you one tip that you can really focus on – breathing.  We already talked about halt, hungry, angry, lonely, tired, make sure those are in place.  The next thing to do is breathe.

Take a second right now and notice where you feel your breath in your body.  Do you feel it in your chest, your throat, your nose, your lungs, your diaphragm?  Just kind of breathe normally and pay attention to it.

Whenever I feel stressed, it’s like in my throat and my chest.

Now try to move it down into your diaphragm and just notice as your diaphragm feel tight.  As I’m talking, continue to move your breath down, down, down into your diaphragm.  Take nice, full deep breaths, because if you notice your breath is only in your chest, you’re not using a whole lot of your chest capacity that is there to reinvigorate you, to get the oxygen where it needs to go to refresh your body.

Also, when you’re focusing in on your breath, you’re calming your mind.

When you’re breathing deeply, you’re calming your body.  Just by doing that, by taking a couple of minutes, ideally five minutes a day you’ll spend breathing, paying attention to your breath, and it will help lower your stress level.

Second Nature

Now whenever I go to the dentist or any of those things that scared me in the past, I naturally just do a big breathe in, breathe out, because I’ve trained myself.  I don’t even have to think about it.  It’s like a knee-jerk reaction.  Anything scary?  I just breathe in and full, deep breath out because that initiates the relaxation response.

You have to remember your oxygen mask goes on first so that you can better assist your child. Breathe.  When all else fails, breathe.  You are not responsible for your child’s emotions and they are not responsible for yours.  You can choose how to feel, how to act, and how to behave.

Breathe & Read the Situation

My challenge for you is to try to just breathe.  Try to acknowledge, “Okay, she has this problem.  Am I equipped right now to give her sustained empathy?  Is it going to deplete me? If so, do I have people I can lean on?  Do I?  Can I go to a family member?  Can I talk to a counselor myself?  Can I get the support I need so that I can continually support her?  If not, I just need to detach a little bit and let her go through her experience because it’s going to be the best thing for her.”

Worst case scenario, the fears get the best of her.  They got the best of me and look what happened.  I have an entire career based on the shortcomings of my past and the lack of tools and the anger.  You know, it all comes full circle, so you can’t do anything wrong.  You can’t parent wrong if you’re coming from a place of love.

All right everyone, thank you for being here.  Send me questions to rebecca@perform  If you want to join our amazing parent community in the perform happy community, you can join us at  It’s also where your athletes can go for one-stop training –  everything they need to build their confidence and get through fear.

I will see you again soon.

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