How to Raise a Happy Young Athlete…
You know the scene: you are standing a few feet away from that “crazy” parent yelling at the referee, cheering wildly any time their child touches the ball, wins a point or hits a good shot depending on the sport. You think to yourself how “nutty” that parent is acting and you even feel bad for their kid. You thank the heavens that you don’t act or behave in a manner that could embarrass yourself or your child. However, you may unintentionally be acting in a similar fashion to that crazy parent, just in a more subtle and less obvious way. If this is the case then you are most likely impacting your child’s love for sport participation and, more importantly, you may be indirectly hurting your relationship with him or her for years to come.
After 14 years of coaching and 10 years of competing as an elite junior, collegiate player and competing on the pro tour in tennis, I have most certainly seen a lot. Now I am currently raising two young boys that have high aspirations for their own sports careers. I am committed to avoiding all the mistakes I have observed other parents make while I have been coaching their children, attending junior tennis tournaments and watching my own kids’ games.
Here are a list of mistakes that parents commonly make and some solutions to help you raise a happy, confident young athlete.
Get out of your head that your child will ever make a living playing their chosen sport as a professional. You know the statistics, so please don’t think your child is special. The other 20 parents on the sideline with you also think their child is that one in a million future star, surely they can’t all be on the same pitch on the same day? I could name off the top of my head about 40 elements that need to come together to make a world class athlete and it is far from just good genes and hard work! Yes, there are athletes that have been bullied by their parents into greatness but I assure you it was not one bit enjoyable for the child or the parent and I am sure most of them would do it very differently if given the opportunity.
Know your child! If your child is not that invested in the outcome of the game or is just playing for a medal or because his/her buddies are doing it, then understand that and just embrace the fact that he or she is playing sports. Maybe this exposure will lead to a lifelong love for exercise, health and an interest in sports. If you are more invested in the outcome of your child’s game than they are, then that is a major problem. All of the best athletes I have been around still have a child like excitement, passion and love for their sport. If your child doesn’t have that or loses it, then they are not going to be the star you hoped they could become.
Drop your kids off and let them play without you, Grandma, Auntie Julie and the next door neighbor coming to cheer them on. Let the child build independence and trust that the game is for them and not for your amusement and bragging rights.
Never ask your child if they won or lost. Let them tell you how it went. Ask them if they had fun, if they worked hard and what they learned. Maybe from time to time ask them two things they thought they did well and two things they can work on before the next game/match. I am not saying that winning is not important; it depends on the age and the level. Inquire as to what adversity they faced and what failures they experienced. Always celebrate failure and what they can learn from it. I never ask our children if they won, I know they want to win and I know that every other person is talking and asking them about winning. I only talk about trying your best at all times and focusing on improvements.
If you are truly interested in raising a happy athlete and more importantly, a resilient child, then read, “Mindset” by Carol Dweck. Parenthood does not come with a manual but this is the closest thing we have to it. This book will teach you how to raise a child with a “Growth” mindset which is critical for success as an athlete at the highest levels. Basically, when you tell a kid they are amazing, brilliant, the most incredible basketball player you have ever seen because they made a pass that set up a pass that set up another pass that scored two points in the 6th minute of the first quarter in the u-8 YMCA winter league, then you are most likely raising a child with a “Fixed” mindset. If you are praising something like that, then you are probably praising every move they make. As soon as this child faces any adversity in sport or has a bad game they are likely to withdraw effort as they can’t live up to the expectations you have set forth for them and it is much easier for them to say they did not try, fake an injury or make some other excuse. The more you praise outcomes, the more destructive you are being. I know you think you are aiding their self-esteem but trust me from personal experience, you are damaging their psyche and sending confusing messages that they can take very literally. There are also plenty of scientific studies out there debunking the value of focusing on the development of self-esteem in children. Praise effort, hustle, coachability, sportsmanship, but please don’t praise or overhype outcomes. This is not just true for sports, this true for every area of your child’s life.
Ultimately, you need to understand that both your positive and negative emotional outbursts over your child’s athletic pursuits are having an impact on their love for their sport whether you realize it or not. Do your best to be even-keeled before, during and after the game. Let the other parents get over anxious about the ups and downs of the sporting fixture and keep your emotions in check as hard as that might be, because in the end, it’s really not about you!