How To Support Your Athletes And Maintain Sanity As A Sport Parent

Today I am going to be tackling a question from a gymnastics mom about how to support your athletes and maintain your sanity as a sport parent.

This mom’s biggest problem as a competitive gymnastics mom is getting mad when her gymnast doesn’t get a skill and her trying to be more supportive, but not wanting to miss any opportunities.

So this is really common. We have these little angels that we parent and we see all this potential in them.  And then we see them making mistakes or not applying themselves or just not giving full effort. And it can be really frustrating to be like, “Oh my gosh. If you tried this much harder you would have that.”

I will never forget my first foray into gymnastics parenting. When my oldest daughter was maybe two and a half, maybe three, she was doing what we call a safety fall. She would climb up on the little table trainer and then they’d have them give themselves a hug and fall backwards on the mat so they’re learning how not to put their arms back. It’s an important skill. And so she gets up on that thing and she just will not do it. I’m like, “Okay, this is important.” Also, I work at that facility with their high level athletes working on mindset and working on high-performance and then I’ve got this little kid that cannot sit still in class, doesn’t want to do it, and will just flat out say, “No, I’m not trying that.” She’ll even skip stations.

And I’m feeling like, “Okay, my need for things to be perfect, my need to look good, my recognizing that this kid comes from two athletes and that she’s probably going to be good at whatever she tries so I want her to try and she’s not even trying.” That was such a blood boil moment for me. Our kids trigger us because it wasn’t about her doing that skill. It was about 9,000 other things that I was carrying around in my parent brain.

Learn When To Back Off

What did we do? I had to back off. That was the only thing that worked. I was like, “Okay, let’s try some baby steps.” I was going to pull out all my sports psychology expertise on this two and a half year old. And she was like, “No, I’m not doing that. Nope. Not doing that. I’m skipping this. I’m not doing it.” And I just wanted her to do something. But I finally had to surrender.

And you know what? As soon as I back off, she’s gone to like two or three classes where they have this station and she either just totally won’t do it or she does the most low effort version of this thing. But then when nobody’s looking, she’s on the couch at our house practicing it, because guess what? She doesn’t like the spotlight. She also got a little perfectionism from her mother. So she doesn’t like to do things that people are watching, that she’s not going to do well. That feels scary which I can a hundred percent relate to.

But what I learned from that was that she did not need my help. She needed to have her own process, which for her was three weeks of watching other kids do it and not needing to be pushed to try it. Then she needed me to back off and stop giving her suggestions. She needed to be able to choose whether to go for this or not, which is hard for me. Because I want her to do all the stations. And everyone does all the stations and all the other kids are doing all the stations. But she had to be able to have some agency. Her little two and a half year old self  had to practice it at home, get a little more comfortable. And then next thing I know she’s doing it. And she’s so stinking proud of herself.

Loving Detachment

So to bring it back to a high level gymnast, there is a theory that I want to share with you today called loving detachment. This is where we let your teenager or your athlete of whatever age, learn from their own decisions. So we have this natural inclination to give advice and suggest because we want life to be smooth. I just want her to fit in. And I want her to feel successful and be happy. I want her to love the sport that I love. And I’m like, “It’s fine if you don’t love it, but I want you to love it but it’s okay if you don’t.” But I want life to ultimately be smooth for her.

That help that you’re giving, is it really about the growth of your athlete or is it about your own need to control to lessen your own anxiety or your own discomfort with her making her own mistakes and her having her own consequences?

When my 3-year old started doing gymnastics, she was terrified. She hadn’t left the house because it was a pandemic and she didn’t know how to do humans and she didn’t want to do the trampoline. And, you know, I was like, “Yeah, it’s okay. We’re just going to sit and we’re going to watch and we’re going to let you have your process and you’re not going to look perfect and I’m not going to look good. And I am okay with that.” I could surrender that I don’t need to be in control. I don’t need to call my own anxiety about you looking good. I’m just going to be neutral.

So your question is, ‘Am I able to let my athlete have the dignity of their own life lessons rather than feeling like I know best and I need to help all the time?’ The other part of this is compassionately allowing others. Maybe it’s not your athlete, maybe it’s your husband. Allowing others the opportunity to learn how to care for themselves, better learn how to participate in a group, learn how to have that downfall or disappointment, and to navigate disappointment so that they don’t fear it. So that they try harder things, so that they go bigger because they know that they’ve failed before and it’s okay. I got disappointed before and I got through it. That is an incredibly important skill.

Just to give another little vignette here, my dad is the most “yes” person I’ve ever met. He’s just like my kid’s dad. He’s like, “Yes, yes, yes. Here’s all your sugar and all your TV and all your stuff.” And I’m the bad guy. But my dad was like, Captain Yes! He was Disneyland dad. He was anything you want kiddo.

And then there was this part of my life when I was 19, maybe 20. And I was like, “Oh, what am I going to do with my life?” I kind of already screwed up on college and I bailed out of a marriage and I’d basically blown up my life up by age 22.

And I was like, if I go to college my dad will pay my rent. So I was like, maybe I’ll go back to school. And I call my dad and was like, “Can I go back to school? Will you pay for it?” And he was like, “Nope, sorry. We already did that.” And I was so mad at him. I was so mad. I was like, “You’re not gonna pay for my college? You have to pay for my college.” He’s like, “Sorry, I can’t do it right now. We already did that.” It was literally the first time my dad had ever said no to me in my life. And you know what that did for me? It made me go, “Okay, what do I really want to do? I’m not just going to be on the dad train forever. What am I going to do?”

And so I got two jobs and I was coaching gymnastics. I was working in a restaurant. I remember counting my pennies to put gas in my tank. And I found this little apartment, this little basement apartment with these plywood floors and exposed plumbing. I had my little dog and my little truck. And I was like, “Okay, I’m going to figure this out.” I found this job waitressing. And I was like, “Okay, I’m going to go to community college. I’m going to take one class at a time while I work.” And I did it.

Then I took two classes and I realized that based on my income, I could get free community college. I was like, “Great. I’m going to get all my prerequisites.” And then I transferred to another school and I did it myself, a hundred percent myself. I put myself through college. I didn’t even know that was possible. And you know what I did when my dad was paying for college? I got a 1.8 GPA. When I was paying for my own college I got a 4.0.

And I mean thank goodness my dad said no to me. Thank goodness he did not help. Because then I was forced out of the nest and into my own consequences. I had to actually steer my consequences in the eyes and then go make a decision for myself based on, ‘I don’t want to feel this way anymore so I’m going to do something different.’

Stop Doing These Things For Your Athletes

So if there’s a responsibility that they could take on that you are preventing them from taking, then you’re not actually being helpful. Here’s a little list of 5 things you can stop doing if you’re doing them:

  1. Remembering for them. If they forget their grips, they’re gonna remember them next time.
  2. Organizing for them. If they can’t find their homework. Well, hopefully they’re going to come up with a better system planning ahead for them. If they don’t have time and  everything got all messed up, well they’re going to be more likely to go “I don’t want to repeat it. That that was bad.” You know? And that’s how humans operate. We make the same good choices again because it feels good. And we stop making the bad choices because they feel bad. But we don’t know that if someone’s always in front of us like that snowplow parent, who’s clearing the way. Okay, here you go, kiddo. Just go have this nice, easy life. No, what if you got to get your own snow shovel out, then you’re going to figure out the way that works best for you.
  3. Making peace for them. Don’t apologize for them.
  4. Keeping track of things for them.
  5. Anticipating consequences for them. So that’s this one that this parent is doing. She’s anticipating the consequences. If you don’t get this skill, you don’t get to move up. You don’t get to be with your friends. Those all might be true, but that’s up to your athlete to learn. And the younger that they can start learning this the better they’re going to do in college. The more likely that they’re going to actually stick with college. I had people clearing the way for me when I was younger and it created this whole ‘I had to blow my life up’ to actually have a moment to go, “Okay, what’s important to me? What do I care about? And what do I want to be good at?”

 

So if you can give them those opportunities that’s good. For example, you can let your swimmers forget their goggles, let them bring the wrong suit. Obviously we’re not being malicious, but you don’t need to go over and above taking care of everything because you are actually depriving them of life lessons.

You Have Two Options

So here are your two options. For example, here’s a situation. You have an athlete who needs to get this skill or she won’t move up. And you know that will be devastating for her. She talks about it all the time.

Option A – You can nag, lecture, explain, guilt, try to motivate her.

Here’s what usually happens. She doesn’t want to talk about it. And she does not ask for help because she feels like she’s bombarded by help. She feels ashamed and like there’s something wrong with her. She gets mad at you. And she feels bad about herself. Her confidence goes down, not up because then she feels like she’s not only letting herself and her coach down, she’s also letting you down. She blames other people for her lack of success because everyone else is putting pressure on her. And then she doesn’t end up taking responsibility when she doesn’t get her skill because you were so helpful.

Option B – You can let her have her journey and stay neutral.

This is very hard. I’m doing that better with my second kid. I’m like, “You know what? If we get out there today, we get out there today. It’s okay. Nobody’s perfect. Nobody here needs to go to the Olympics for me to love them. I love them no matter what. And I’m neutral.” And then the next thing you know, she’s up there, she’s popping up, she’s trying stuff. It always works that way.

So if you’re just letting her experience it and you’re staying neutral, she either gets the skill or she doesn’t. It happens either way, right? You nag her. She either gets it or she doesn’t. If you don’t nag her, she either gets it or she doesn’t. If she gets it, celebrate with her! She earned it. Talk about her progress. And talk about her effort. Talk about how proud you are that she’s had a goal and she reached it and it wasn’t always easy. And she wasn’t always motivated and she stayed with it. You’re so proud if she doesn’t get the skill.

Help her find those life lessons and help her keep moving to help her cope. Like, “Yeah, this is a disappointment. What can we learn? What’s the message here. What can we do next time?”

I’m going to rewind. It’s not a WE thing. I talk to parents a lot who were like “We lost our back handspring.” I’m like, “Mom, you have not done a back handspring on a beam.” This is not a we thing. This is her. She’s either doing it or she’s not. It’s not us.

But if you have stayed neutral and you have backed off enough that she actually is willing to talk to you about her sport, then you can be that neutral sounding board where she can be sad. She can be disappointed. You can give her hugs and love and food and rides and tuition and that’s it. And then she can come to you and you can help her unearth those lessons of, “You know what, mom, I’m scared. That’s why I wasn’t going for it. Maybe I need to talk to somebody or maybe I need to do something differently.” And you’re like, “Okay, what do you think you should do? Other than you throw all these ideas at her and then she just shuts down and resists.

So I’ll wrap up with this. I want to tell you the nos and the yeses. So this is what not to do. If you’re doing any of this, just stop it: No guilt, no shame, no corrections, no personal agenda on what your athletes outcome will be. So if you’re like “My kid’s going to get a college scholarship,” you can erase that off the whiteboard of your mind and go, “I love my kid.”

If you have a personal outcome goal, they’re going to feel it. And they’re going to feel disappointed if they don’t please you.

If you can find neutral and let go of any of those things that you think need to happen or should happen or could happen. Be with them, just be present, praise progress, praise their effort. That’s it. So no personal goals for their outcomes. No time pressure. No “only Six weeks. Only two weeks. You got to get this together.” No time pressure, no rhetorical questions – what, why are you not doing it? No shaming again, no coaching.

Even if you know what you’re talking about, no taking it personally, no getting angry about their performance. If you’re getting angry about their performance, that is your work to do. Not theirs because ideally we will be these totally Zen mamas and daddies who love our kids no matter what, feel our feet beneath us, stay in the moment and help find those great lessons that help these kids to have that are character to weather those storms. So they don’t have to blow their lives up at 22.

What do we say yes to? So those were all the no’s. Yes to rides, hugs, food, tuition, the end, that’s it. The rides, hugs, food, tuition. Everything else you may remove off your shoulders, off your plate. That’s it. You praise their efforts and their attitude and that’s it. And you notice when they’re making progress and then the rest, you can just take a sigh of relief and go “You don’t have to do it and they’re gonna be okay.”

Hope that’s helpful. I will be back soon to talk more sports psychology sport parenting, and until then feel free to send me a DM if you have any questions or shoot me an email if you’re on our email list and you’ll have plenty of opportunities to email me back.

 

How To Support Your athletes and Maintain Your Sanity As a Sport Parent