Today, parents spend a lot of time, money and energy on their childrens’ athletic development. They also derive a great deal of pleasure from watching their children learn the mechanics of a sport and then apply those skills during a game regardless of the age of the child.
Honing those athletic skills and forming relationships with other kids and with coaches can be a marvelous experience for a youngster as they building self-esteem, develop social skills, learn to win and to lose with grace. Yet, every day, as a therapist, I receive calls from parents who want their children to perform better at sports.
Today, excelling at sports can lead to athletic scholarships worth thousands of dollars. Some elite young athletes will get free rides to the college of their choice and so in addition to playing on many sports teams and travel teams, buying the very best equipment and working out on their own, many young athletes will also have personal coaches and personal trainers. Some have their own nutritionists, flexibility coaches and strength coaches. Many attend camps, clinics and tournaments on a regular basis. And some work with mental toughness coaches and with sport psychologists.
Often, the friendly nature of early childhood sports can turn quickly into a time of great stress and anxiety for young athletes who feel the pressure to excel on the field or suffer the mental anguish of disappointed parents, teammates and coaches. Some of this pressure comes from themselves. Some of it comes from teammates. Some of it comes from coaches. Some of it comes from the competition. But and a great deal of the stress and pressure may emanate from parents who want their kids to perform their best not only because it makes them feel a sense of pride and accomplishment but because they are hoping for that ‘free ride.’
Understandably, many youngsters enjoy doing well as they want to earn the praise and attention of their parents, their peers and their coaches. Over the years, however, I have counseled many kids who are overwhelmed by this kind of sports expectation and the related pressure. Some can develop significant symptoms of anxiety and depression when they perform poorly or simply aren’t ‘the best’ at their sport of choice or despite trying their hardest, aren’t living up to mom or dad’s goals for them.
Frequently, they feel terrible about letting others down. They strive for perfection and when they fall short, they beat themselves up with a significant amount of self-criticism and doubt that can bleed over into other areas of their lives including school work and relationships.
Some will simply give up, feeling as though they will never measure up so why try? They may also give up on all physical activity if they can not learn to manage these kinds of stressors in a healthy and positive manner.
However, there is a simple tip that I have communicated to many moms and dads who have brought their stressed-out youngsters to me for counseling regarding sports. And while it may sound simple, very often it is over looked or simply assumed and not verbalized.
No matter what sport your child participates in, and regardless of whether you have a very young child just starting out or you are nearly done raising that senior heading off to college in the fall, he or she must know, on a very deep level, that they are loved by you whether they perform well or perform poorly.
This exercise may be uncomfortable for some parents who have spent the better part of the last few years or seasons coaching from the sidelines, reviewing tapes and talking all the way to the next personal training appointment, but try it. Take your child aside in a quiet moment, look them in the eyes and reassure him or her that your love for them is deep and unconditional. Emphasize that no matter what happens during any athletic event, regular season play or championship final game — they are loved deeply by you for who they are.
So, if your youngster plays baseball, tell him that he is adored whether he bats a thousand or a hundred. Likewise, if your child plays golf, remind him or her that the score is merely a number and that his or her value as a person is based on many things which are totally apart from the game of golf. Tell the young tennis player that on your scorecard, he is a champ for being out there and trying and that you love him whether he wins or loses.
Communicating to your kids in this manner is invaluable no matter what sport your child participates in. I have had many parents reaffirm their unconditional love for their child in my office, prior to a game or after a game. This kind of simple but effective communication often takes pressure off the child immediately and is frequently helpful for the parents as well.
Once a youngster hears this heart-felt sentiment from his mom and or his dad, he or she is often freed up to play and to enjoy their activity. And in many instances, this simple reassurance can help your child to perform to his or her potential.