The Dos and Don’ts of Sport Parenting
Q: “Tryouts 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?”
In response to this mom, I’ve come up with a list of dos and don’ts for how to respond to your athlete when you want to be supportive, allowing them to learn some difficult life lessons along the way.
This is the number one piece of advice I give, and it is very hard for parents. Maybe you don’t want her to be on 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? 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.”
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 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 look back as an adult and can back and say, “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, “That’s got to 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.
Praise their efforts
Often, athletes show up and they work and work and work, but they still don’t get 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.
Notice that they’re trying hard. Their 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, they’re not going to think their hard work got them where they are.
If your child is injured and cannot compete, it’s the 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. Your job is to praise the effort, not the outcome.
Be the soft place to land
We all hope we’ve chosen good coaches for our kids. Let them push. 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, tell them they worked hard, they did a good job, and then…
After polling a bunch of athletes, asking what they want and don’t want from their parents, do you have any guess what the number one thing was 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. After the competition, take them to lunch, hug them, and say they did a good job (because they tried hard). Feed them, take them home, and let them relax.
Let the good stuff in
Put up a screen and only let the good stuff in – the constructive stuff that will help you become a better athlete, and then 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, then you’re going to have that grow and grow and grow. However, if you’re focusing on gratitude, the things that you’re grateful for, things that are going well, little successes, then that starts to grow.
Let them fail
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? 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.
I remember 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,” in order to learn to do things on our own.
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 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 want to say, “Kid, you did this to yourself. I don’t know what to tell you,” if you bite your tongue, it’s surprisingly helpful.
Take a breather. Give them a hug. Feed them. It’s okay. That’s all we need half the time.
(Don’t) Allow your self-worth to get tied up in your kid’s success or failure
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
This is probably the best way to confuse them. If they love and respect their coach, even if they just respect them, they’re going to be hearing certain things from them. 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 thinking, “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.
(Don’t) Compare them to other kids
Even with the best of intentions, if you say, “Oh my gosh, Claire had a great meet today,” your kid may be heartbroken, thinking, “My mom 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. When you give them something to push against, they’re going to push. If you don’t, they’re going to be confused, thinking, “Wait, you’re not arguing with me? What do I do now?”
That’s where neutrality comes in. If you’re saying, “Okay, it sounds like you don’t want to go to tryouts.” They’re going to respond with, “I have to go to tryouts. I really want to go to tryouts.” Do the best you can to find a place of neutral curiosity.
(Don’t) Be a distraction
Don’t tell them what not to forget or talk to them about times or outcomes. Don’t say, “Woo-hoo kid! I’m over here!” right before they get up on the 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 it.
(Don’t) Criticize the coach
This can be confusing if they like their coach and you’re criticizing them. Don’t say the wrong things or your kid will take your perspective, which might not support their training.
When in doubt, just be there for your kid. Now you know how to do that, and that’s half the battle. Take the dos and don’ts as best practices for a healthy relationship with your athlete, and remember to listen. They will tell you what they want and don’t want.