7 Tips For Helping Your Athlete Speak Up

Ever wish your athlete would learn how to speak up?

Hi, I’m Coach Rebecca and today I’m talking about how to get your athlete to speak up.

I know speaking up is a big issue in sport because I found I lost my voice as a result of my childhood.  A lot of what caused me to lose my voice was the very well-intentioned concept of not making waves. It was the idea of not disappointing people and of not asking for help.

I was on a free consultation call recently with an athlete who was dealing with some overuse injuries. When I asked her what she would normally do when things started to hurt she told me that she would keep going, hoping the pain would stop. Otherwise she just tries to get through the pain so that she can just get the “assignment” done and get onto the next thing.

When I asked her what her coach would say it sounded like her coaches were lovely. Even still, she feared the general negative consequences. That’s what I hear in these athletes. They don’t want to look like a sissy. They don’t want to look like they’re not tough. So instead of causing waves they just do what they’re told and don’t speak up. Even though it hurts, they do the warmup, they do the tumbling, and they do their beam series.

Unfortunately what happens is that their brain starts to go “Hey, that hurts.” And instead of listening to their brain they think “I just got to get it done and then I can move on to the next thing.” And then the brain’s like, “No, really, that hurts a lot.” And they’re like, “Yeah, but I don’t want to get in trouble. And I don’t want the coaches to think I don’t care or I’m not trying hard enough.”

And then finally the brain’s like “Fine, then I’m just going to stop you. You’re not tumbling.”

In this athlete, in fact, that’s exactly what happened. She noticed that she actually started freezing up on the skills that were painful.

Broadly speaking, there are two reasons why athletes develop mental blocks.

One is fear of pain and one is not enough information.

So if your brain thinks that you’re going to be in pain, it’s going to start putting the brakes on for you if you’re not putting them on for yourself.

And then if there’s not enough information about whether or not you’re going to be okay, your brain is going to take matters into its own hands and just kind of put the brakes on and have you slow it on down.

So yes, there’s this thought of not wanting to upset people or of not wanting to inconvenience your coaches if you speak up. But what happens is that this leads to low confidence. It leads to anxiety. It leads to low self-esteem and feeling that their voice isn’t that important and that they’re not going to speak up.

But let’s say this athlete really wanted to speak up. Maybe the doctor gave her a really clear guideline of this. On a pain scale, she needs need to be here and if she’s not, then she’s advised to stop. Sometimes it’s very helpful for these athletes to have very specific instructions from a doctor or a PT. So if you have an injured athlete, get specific instructions, such as reaching a certain level on a pain scale and then stopping. Then the athlete knows if they are at that pain level they need to have that conversation with their coach. And that way they can start to have a solution rather than feeling like they are the problem and that their injuries are inconvenient.

So then let’s say the athlete knows she has to say something to her coach. But she might wonder, how do I act like an adult speaking to an adult when I’m not an adult? And instead of speaking up, she might just say things like “I don’t know” when her coach asks her a question in fear of saying the wrong thing.

Maybe in the past she’s had a negative experience around speaking up. I saw this once with an athlete I was observing in the gym. I told this girl to go ask her coach if she could do something slightly easier, because what she was doing was a little too much for her. She went over, she asked, her coach said no, and she was in tears. And so now this athlete was like, “I spoke up. But then the coach said no. Now what? Now it’s even worse than if I had never spoken up.”

So these athletes might have increased anxiety because they tried to speak up in the past and it didn’t go well.

What I often find in these athletes who are fearful of speaking up is that they have this strategy. They decide to wait until their coach figures out what they need and offers it to them.  And until then, they choose to tough it out. And hopefully while they’re sticking it out they won’t cry. But if they cry, their coach will probably figure it out faster.

As you can imagine, that’s not a very effective strategy!

Especially when an athlete is dealing with overuse injury or is dealing with fear or anxiety. All of those things end up getting worse and worse and worse.

Eventually the coach may figure it out. But then they’re like “What’s wrong?” And all the athlete can say is “I don’t know.” So then the coach is unable to help them.

You can see, then, that this communication skill is critical. Communication skills are critical for sport success, for safety, for health, for happiness. Athletes must be able to communicate. It is absolutely a pillar of confidence.

For some parents, being assertive is also difficult. The best way to teach assertiveness is to model assertive behavior. If you struggle with this yourself as a parent, these tips may help you as well.

Here are some tips to help your athletes speak up:

Tip #1: Talk About Boundaries With Your Athletes

Talk about boundaries in terms of “Here’s our property line and here’s our neighbors property line. And we don’t go over there and they don’t come over here unless we have permission.”

Something that’s huge in my family is we talk about bodily autonomy. My two and a half year old knows the phrase – bodily autonomy. I don’t know if she knows what those words mean, but she knows what it means in our house, which is no means no. If you don’t want to hug grandma, you don’t have to hug grandma. You’d rather not have a kiss from dad? You don’t have to have kiss from dad. If you don’t want your sister sitting on your shoulder, you get to say that.

In our house, no means no immediately.

If dad is tickling and they say stop, he stops. If your sister is being rude, it is within your right to say, “Please don’t speak to me that way. I don’t like when you talk to me that way.” And if your friend is still making jokes that hurt your feelings, it’s also within your right to stop being friends with that person.

These are things that I want my girls to know. Because if they know what their boundaries are, then they can stand up for themselves. If they know this is what’s right for me, and this is what’s not right for me, then when someone’s crossing that they are empowered to speak.

If they don’t really know what the boundaries are and they think that coaches can do whatever they want because they’re just a kid then they won’t feel empowered. But if you are in charge of your body and nobody can make you do anything that you don’t want to do, including a backhand spring on a beam then they know they can speak up. This might be inconvenient for some coaches, but athletes have to know that this is my body and this is what I can do with it.


Tip #2: Talk To Your Athlete About Why Assertiveness Is Important

I know a lot of very sweet, very kind, very respectful girls and boys who feel like being assertive is the same as being rude or being direct is being rude. And I have a couple friends in my life who will tell me that they didn’t like when I did something.

And my first thought is that I don’t like her and that she’s so rude. That’s typically the reaction when somebody’s direct.

But really they’re not rude. They just have firm boundaries. And as I’ve evolved as a human I’ve begun to like the girls with strong boundaries. I like the friends who are going to say no, if they are not available rather than being like, “Yeah, I’ll come” and then they cancel last minute.  I like to surround myself with people who have boundaries.

And my little girls are learning boundaries too. You know, for example, if one of my girls is trying to snatch something from the other, and she says “She’s not sharing” my first thought is that she doesn’t have to share if she’s got that.  You don’t have to be passive. If you don’t want to share yet, you can be respectful and say, “No thanks. You can have it next. ”


Tip #3: Respect and Praise Assertions

I want to make sure that my girls know you do not have to give something away that you don’t want to give away yet. You can be respectful about it. But you are allowed to say “No, thank you.”And as a mom I praise that. And praising assertions is something that you can do with your athletes.

If your adolescent or teenager is giving you an assertion, you might have to make them do something they don’t want to do. But not without acknowledging that they don’t want to do it and that you can totally relate to it.

You can say things like “I’ve been there where I didn’t want to do it either. I love you. And this is what we have to do. Now we have to do that thing you don’t want to do.

This allows to be assertive and speak up and doesn’t shut them down about it.

You can tell them how much you appreciate their enthusiasm on this topic and how much you appreciate their point of view. And this is my boundary as your parent but I am praising them for standing up for what they believe in. Even if it’s not quite right. Even if it’s not something you agree with, that’s something that lets them know being as sort of as good, as long as you’re respectful.

But it doesn’t always get you everything that you want.


Tip #4: Encourage Them To Express Their Feelings

So I, along the same lines, encourage them to speak up and express their feelings.

In my house we don’t ever say stop crying. At least we try not to. When you’re at home that’s where you do the crying. That’s where you do the venting. That’s where you do the yelling.

I’ve talked to athletes who are like, I just want my parent to not get mad at me for venting about practice. They come home and they had a bad day and they’re venting and saying things like “Oh, I hate my coach. And this is so stupid.” The parent is often like “Why are we paying so much for this?”

Don’t do that. Let them have their venting. Give them time to be angry. Let them be sad in that safe place that you’ve created for them to feel, process, express, and then move on.

After they let off that energy, then they’ll be okay and ready to go back tomorrow. Rather than trying to squash them down,  allow the assertiveness and the emotion because that’s what’s going to help them become confident communicators.


Tip #5: Put Your Athlete In Charge of Decisions

Recently in the PerformHappy community, one of the parents was frustrated with her daughter not making any decisions. And while it can be frustrating as a parent, what that’s about is fear. The athlete doesn’t want to make the wrong decision so they defer the decision making to their parent and the parents get in the habit of always making the decision for them.

I’m going to challenge you to put your child in charge of those decisions instead! Instead of jumping in to save them, you can use your active listening. You can repeat back what you’re hearing from them. You can kind of weigh the pros and cons with them, but you let them come up with their own conclusions. Even if it’s a stupid plan or you know it’s not going to work, you let them come up with their own conclusions and lessons. And they get to then grow as a human when they realize that was the wrong choice.

When this is the case, they’re not as afraid of putting themselves out there. They learn that even if they make a mistake they’re going to survive it and realize that in the end they are okay. Also, don’t place your self worth on your child. Their mistakes are NOT your mistakes. If your child makes a mistake, it’s not because you failed. It’s because you encouraged them to take a risk. You encouraged them to do something challenging. That truly is a success.

I will never forget one of the swim parents I worked with years ago who was concerned that her swimmer would  forget his goggles. I encouraged her to let him forget his goggles because then hopefully the next time he won’t forget them because he’ll remember how terrible it was when he forgot them.  You’re not going to be with him in college packing his swim bag, right? So allowing your athletes to make their own mistakes is one of the best things you can do for them that will set them up for success in college, that will set them up for better coping skills, allow them to make decisions, and allow them to make mistakes that will help them to become more positive risk takers.


Tip #6: Teach Your Athlete To Manage Emotions and Handle Disappointment

So I mentioned earlier how the coach said no to the athlete I was observing in the gym. Afterwards, the poor kid comes to me and is in tears after she spoke up and her coach said no.

If you teach your athlete how to manage emotions and handle disappointment, then they’re still going to be willing to take those risks. I said to that girl in tears, “You succeeded! You asked, she said no. That’s all you can do.” And then guess what happens? Maybe 10 minutes later coach tells her she can grab the mat. Her coach had a change of heart!

And she gets up and she’s successful. And it was this whole amazing learning experience that happened in that moment. The coach learned something, the kid learned something, I learned something. I mean all of those moments that are challenging, especially that require up-leveled communication, cause the kids to grow so much.

So teach them thinks like: how do you communicate anger respectfully? If your sister takes your thing, you can say “I did not like when you did that, can you please not do that again?” Obviously we work up to this. It’s not always that easy. You teach them how to communicate sadness: “Ugh, I just feel so sad. Mommy, can I have a hug?”

You teach them how to be respectful and say to the coach, “You know, I don’t think I’m ready for that yet.” And then learn how to handle the disappointment when people don’t give you the answer that you want. If you have great coping skills, you have better confidence and you’re willing to take more steps out of your comfort zone. And you teach them to have a plan.

If the coach says no, here’s how I’ll deal. I’ll ask her about this. I can try it this way. I’ll do this. I’m all about having a plan A, B, C, D, and E. So then if plan A doesn’t work, we don’t have to be in tears. Feelings happen. But then you’re onto plan B and you just keep at it.


Tip #7: Empower Your Athlete To Do The Communicating With Their Coach So They Learn How To Speak Up

And then my favorite little tip here is to empower your athlete to do the communicating with their coach. If your athlete is above age nine, you no longer need to be the liaison. Maybe it depends on the maturity level, but I would start the baby steps at age eight or nine, giving your athlete opportunities to practice speaking up.

And this doesn’t even have to just be around sports. You can, if you’re calling in takeout, have your ten-year-old call in the order. If you have to relay a message to a friend’s mom, have your 10 year old or your 11 year old relay the message. This gets them participating in the communication.

And then my favorite thing to do is to role play. So let’s say that your athlete has a difficult conversation coming up. Maybe they’re coming back from an injury and they’re going to have to manage their training a little more than usual, or they’re dealing with fear or a mental block and they’re going to have to speak up a little bit so that they can manage their own fear and build their confidence at their own pace.

If that’s coming, then have a little role-play where mom plays the coach and the kid plays the kid and then switch. Make it funny. See if you can just have different moments where you’re the really nice version of the coach who says “Yes, go get the mat; absolutely anything you need.” And then be the mean coach and say “No, you may not ever have any help.” And then ask your athlete what they are going to do now.

That way they have an idea of their Plan B and can see how it might actually go so that they can walk into that situation feeling empowered. And if the coach says no, they know they’ll be ok. If the coach says yes, they’ll be ecstatic.

And then one last thing that they can do is actually imagine the conversation in their own mind going well. And we’ve done this with an athlete in PerformHappy who had to have a tough conversation with her mom. She was so terrified that her mom was going to get mad. And we told her to do her imagery and to role-play with us in the group. Everybody was on the little group chat encouraging her. And then she texted the group that it went amazing and that it couldn’t have gone better.

Having all of that in your back pocket can make those difficult conversations all the better and allow your athlete to speak up.

7 Tips For Helping Your Athlete Speak Up


So that is my two cents for ways to get your athlete to speak up. Baby steps, little challenges. Allow them to make their own mistakes, make their own decisions, help them to be empowered, to have those slightly challenging conversations now so that the harder ones get easier and easier over time.

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