Returning to Your Sport with Confidence
Hi everybody. I’m coach Rebecca Smith, founder of Complete Performance Coaching and the PerformHappy community. I’m excited to be here with you today. I’ve been hearing a lot of questions from sport parents whose kids are starting to go back to practice. For some, that’s great news. For others, that’s terrifying. I’m not here to judge any of that. I just want to give some tips on how to help your athlete re-enter their sport in a confident way.
Preparing for Things to be Different
Maybe you’re child went back and all of their teammates are in tears and they’re just so happy that they’re back together and they get to be back in their home away from home. But then you notice that your kid’s tears are not happy tears. They are actually going back in and feeling stuck. Maybe they are not able to do skills that they were doing successfully last season. Maybe they are struggling in ways that you haven’t seen them struggle before. I want to give you a little bit of context as to why that might be happening, then offer tips on what not to say when they’re in that situation. Then finally, what you actually can do to help them come out of this more confident.
Does your athlete feel like they are the only one who’s not thriving right off the bat? Are they really frustrated because they felt like they conditioned so hard, they did everything they could, and they should be doing better and they’re not? Are you both worried thinking, “Oh gosh, what does this mean?” Let me explain why this happens.
Needing Time to Adapt
Sometimes people go into skills that are well trained – they have a lot of experience doing it and all of a sudden they freeze up and they aren’t the same athlete that they once were. Sometimes they can’t even get themselves to do and the skills that they should be able to do without a whole lot of extra stuff, like a lot of warmups. Maybe they have to visualize. Maybe they have to spend a few minutes fixing their hair and wiping their sweat and talking themselves into it and then finally they can force out three reps and they say, “Okay, I did it, but it was a miserable experience.”
Maybe they do all that and they still freeze up and can’t do the skill. Now they’re just going down the toilet of negative thinking. What’s happening is that the brain has gone into survival mode. There are a lot of different threats that would send the brain into survival mode, and I’ll go over a couple of them here.
1. Social Threat
Athletes, especially around the ages 11 to 17, specifically the adolescent years, if they feel like they’re going to be left out, that is devastating. All they want in the world is to feel like they fit in and they belong. If they feel like there’s a risk, “Oh my teammates are doing their skills and I’m not doing mine, I’m going to be left behind. I’m going to be left out.” That is almost as devastating as actually falling and hurting yourself when you’re 13. That might be happening. Their brain might go, “Not safe, not safe. There’s a threat,” but it’s not actually a threat of doing the skill itself – it’s a threat of what failure would mean.
2. Emotional Threats
Emotional threats come from feeling, “If I can’t pull this together, I’m going to be so disappointed that I might die. I may feel so disappointed that I just can’t handle it.” They don’t have the right emotional coping skills to deal with those failures, those setbacks, those disappointments. Then, their brain is actually going to compute that there’s a threat. There’s a safety threat here which is, “If I fail, I’ll be disappointed and it will be so devastating that I won’t be able to handle it.”
When you say it out loud, it seems kind of crazy, but that’s the reality within an athlete, especially in these hormone fueled adolescent years where there’s so much on the line about their future and their social life and their sport career. There’s a focus on, “Who am I? Who likes me?” It’s amazing how much has wrapped up into one stupid back hand spring on the beam.
3. Physical Threat
This is the classic threat. If you get up and start walking across a tight rope strung between two high rise buildings, your brain’s going to go, “Not safe,” and it’s going to freeze you up and you won’t even be able to take a step. That’s good, right? Say you’re walking toward a cliff – you’re walking along and you don’t realize it’s there. The second you realize “I’m about to step off a cliff”, then you freeze up. That’s what’s happening in your athlete. When they get ready to do a skill and then they freeze up and they can’t go, the brain is telling them, “That’s not safe. You’re going to hurt yourself. You’re going to hurt your body.”
The brain’s job is to keep the body safe and alive, so it does this intentionally, which is good. We don’t want you to not have this thing in your mind that’s preventing you from walking out into traffic or preventing you from touching a hot stove.
Combination of Threats
While it’s good, it can get a little amplified when those other threats are in place. We now have this new physical threat that we haven’t had to deal with, which is the threat of illness, the threat of germs, the threat of spread, the threat of being touched. All of those things that are in this pandemic have never been an issue before. Now add another layer, especially for any kid who is already a little germaphobic, there’s going to be another layer of not safe.
Even in the environment where you’re seeing coaches with masks on or you’re seeing chairs spaced out six feet and everything is staggered, and the class sizes are small and classes are short, everything’s different. The brain is also going to be registering that.
Back to “Normal”
Those are all the things that you have to consider when looking at the fact that your kid is not as confident as they once were. Now, all that to say it’s pretty understandable and I’m sure you know that of course your kid’s been out for two months. They’ve been in this weird life with weird school, and then they go back and hear, “Everything’s normal again,” but it’s not. So how do you support a kid who’s in that situation?
What Doesn’t Work
This might surprise you – telling her (and I say her just because the question I got was from a mom of a female gymnast) how she should react. Saying things like “be patient” or “it’s going to take time” or “don’t worry, you’ll be okay” or “have fun”. Anything telling her how she should react, that’s going to immediately throw up the wall of, “You don’t understand. Don’t tell me what to do!” Let’s face it – even if it was not a pandemic and there was no back-walk-over on the beam, a 13-year-old doesn’t want you telling her what to do.
So telling them to have fun is actually not productive. Telling them not to worry, well, that’s nice, but they’re still going to worry. It doesn’t make any sense. Telling them to be patient, well, I’m a grownup and I have trouble with patience. Telling an adolescent to be patient is like talking to a brick wall.
What Does Work
So those are things that although yes, have fun, be patient, don’t worry, that is the right answer, it’s not the right delivery. So here’s what does work.
1. Trusting Relationship
It’s all about the relationship. When in a sport-parent and athlete relationship, there has to be massive amounts of trust. They have to know that you’re not going to tell them what to do. You’re not going to try to convince them or bribe them or threaten them or anything, that you have no agenda. This can be very hard when you’re spending a mortgage payment on a sport, but they need to know that they can trust you completely to support them no matter what. The best thing you can do right off the bat is to just listen. No advice, no feedback, no “here’s what you need to do” or “it’s okay or it’s fine”. Don’t worry, just listen.
If she is saying, “I can’t believe I didn’t do this. I used to compete this. I’m so messed up. Why are my friends doing it?” You are going to respond with just what she’s saying to you. You just let her know that you’re listening.
2. Repeat Their Words
I actually go into this in detail in the Peak Performance Parenting course in the PerformHappy Community, but a little snippet of it is that we actually use the same words that they use now. If she says, “I can’t believe everybody else can do it and I can’t,” then you’d say, “Oh, how frustrating to feel like everybody else can do it, but you can’t.” When she hears those words, she might go, “Well not everybody, because my teammate over there was also was a little bit freaked out.”
If she’s saying “everybody this” or “I always this” and you say you feel like you always get that, she might then use her 13-year-old powers of pushing again and go, “Well, not everybody. Not always.” So just using her words back to her can give her a little bit of perspective and allow her to hear what’s coming out of her mouth and you’re not judging it.
That’s the thing. You can’t expect there to be no sarcasm allowed in this type of conversation. It’s going to just be total compassion, empathy. “It sounds like what you’re saying is this, it sounds like what you’re feeling is this,” and you’re literally using exactly their words. Now, this may sound weird to you, but all they’re going to hear is my mom is listening for once and not just telling me what I need to do to fix it. Then empathize. Even if it is so, so crystal clear to you what she needs to do, that’s not what she needs in this moment. All she needs is for you to say, “Oh honey, that has got to be so hard. I’m so sorry you’re going through that. What a bummer.” Just allow her to feel heard and empathize with her.
4. Don’t Make it a Thing
This is a little catch phrase that me and a bunch of the athletes at PerformHappy have come up with.
Don’t make it a thing.
Just don’t make it a thing. What happens is athletes will have a bad day. They’re thinking, “Oh no, I lost my skill. This is terrible.” They make it a thing versus when they have a bad day or they’re not throwing a skill and they say instead, “Oh, whatever. It’s fine. So weird. Let’s get back to it tomorrow.” They don’t make it a thing, and this is what I’ve seen – the athletes who are going back effortlessly, seamlessly, or even better than they left are the ones who didn’t make it a thing. They were like, “Okay, eight weeks of Corona Virus, summer vacation, where I’m going to strengthen my mind. I’m going to strengthen my body, I’m going to get some more sleep. This is awesome.” Then they go back and they’re say, “Yeah, let’s get to it. Let’s see where we are. Let’s ease back in.”
They never made it a thing, and they know that when a day like that inevitable day happens, it’s not a thing. It doesn’t mean the mental block has returned. That’s so dramatic. It just means, “Oh, confidence is down today. What can I do?” And then they have a whole bag of tools that they can go to and say, “Okay, I’m going to do this.” So don’t make it a thing, mom. Just don’t. It’s not worth it.
Three Key Ingredients
Now here’s what I definitely want you to be able to do. This is what they need in order to not have fragile confidence. I see fragile confidence all the time. An example is where they’re doing great, they’re doing great, and then one little thing happens and boom, they can’t tumble or boom, can’t jump. Whatever the sport is, they’ll have this moment where something rattles their confidence and then they’ve lost their skill. That only happens when you are missing one of these three key ingredients that bolster your confidence no matter what. So you can’t not make it a thing if you are missing one of these and these three things. This trifecta of lasting durable competence is self-worth, self belief, and self-trust.
That is the knowing, “I have value. I’m worthy of love. I’m worthy of respect. No matter if I have a good day or a bad day, if I’m likable or not likable, even if I am a whiny stink and brat, I still deserve love. Even if I fall a hundred times in one beam routine, I deserve love. I deserve respect and I’m okay.” They have to have that foundation because so many athletes, especially ones that I talk to, they truly believe, “I’m okay if I perform well. I’m okay if I’m a good girl. I’m okay if my coach likes me. I’m okay if my mom is proud of me.”
Even you sport parents can probably say, “Oh, I know. I know what that feels like for me.” I have had plenty of my life where I didn’t value myself inherently. I only valued my output, my outcome, my whatever, whatever, whatever I was showing the world. That’s what gave me value. They have to know that they have value no matter what.
They also have to believe in themselves. That is that deep knowing “I can do hard things” so when they go into pandemic and they say, “Okay, I can do hard things. I had a mental walk. I came back from an injury, I dealt with a pandemic. What do you got, life? I can do it.” That’s that deep self belief. That’s like, “Oh, a bad day. Oh how about a week, or year.”
I was talking to Olympian Jonathan Horton the other day and he’s said you he had two bad years and 17 bad competitions and a couple of terrible levels, but that guy, he believed in himself and he believed in his goal so much that he knew he could do hard things.
Self-trust, is usually where my athletes arrive sort of near the end of their mental training adventure. At this point, they not only have that bag of skills that they can pull from to boost their confidence when they need it, they not only know that they have value no matter what, but they also know when it’s time to let go and just perform. They know when they’ve put in the numbers and they’ve put in the time. Their body’s ready, their muscle memory is ready. They no longer have to think and they definitely don’t have to overthink. They don’t have to be perfect and they can just release all of the expectations from themselves and others and just fly. That is self-trust – when you can trust yourself above all else and you know exactly what you’re ready to do and when you feel ready, you go.
Can You See It?
So parents, I want to ask you, do you see your athletes self-worth? Do you see their worth? Do you know how valuable that that little girl or that boy is? I’m assuming that the answer is yes. Do you believe in her? Do you believe in him? Of course, right? Can you imagine your athlete going for skills confidently, consistently, almost effortlessly? Have you seen it before? Can you see it again?
The final question – will you love your athlete, your child, no matter what the outcome? Will you love them to the moon and back regardless of if they compete level five or if they can beat level six? Will you love them if they quit their sport? The answer is yes, so that’s what you model. That’s what I want them to have. I want them to see their worth. I want them to believe in themselves.
I want them to imagine the future being so beautiful and bright. I want them to love themselves no matter what. So you model it. See their value and reflect it back to them. “Girl, you are working your butt off. I’m proud of you. But you know what? If you need to have a lazy day and you need to just cry it out, I’m proud of you too,” and then you just keep believing. “I believe in you. I believe in you. I see this working out.” You don’t make it a thing, they won’t make it a thing. That’s really all you can do. You can listen, you can empathize, you can model for them those deep confidence boosters that they really need in order to not just be successful in their sport, but to be successful in their life.
Let it be Natural
Don’t try to force it. Don’t try to fix it. I know, I have two little girls and I want to say, “Do this, do that. Great. Okay, moving on,” But that’s not how it works. Let her feel heard. Let her know you love her no matter what. Give her all the hugs in the world because she can’t hug her coaches and she can’t hug her teammates, she should get extras. Double, triple, quadruple family hugs and just know we’re all going to get through this together.
If you have any questions or you need support, please reach out. You can find me at Rebecca@performhappy.com. We are not currently taking members into the PerformHappy community, but we have a waiting list going, so if you feel like, yes, this is what my athlete needs, get on the waiting list performhappy.com and you’ll be the first to know. All right, we’ll see you soon.