These days, children seem to be given every opportunity by their parents to experience success in sports and every other performance activity (e.g., school, the performing arts). Many young athletes receive extra help from personal fitness trainers, private coaching, and training camps. They are given the opportunity to develop every possible sports skill necessary to achieve success. Many parents spend thousands of dollars each year supporting their children’s athletic dreams.
Despite all that so many parents do for their children’s athletic pursuits, they often fail to provide them with what I believe is far more important than private coaching and sports camps for their athletic success and acts as the foundation of all of the other efforts: perspective. Children are left to their own devices to find that elusive piece of the athletic success puzzle and many don’t. The result? Many children fail to achieve their goals because they lack the attitudes that enable them to put all of their physical, technical, and tactical skills to great use. Given the inevitable challenges of sports, the ability to develop and maintain a healthy perspective toward the many challenges they will face both within and outside of their sport is essential to success in sports and life.
The ability of your children to have a healthy perspective begins with a firm grounding in their feeling loved, secure, and competent, in other words, their self-esteem. If children feel valued and capable simply for who they are, they are more likely to approach their sports with confidence and commitment and free from doubt, worry, or fear.
Another important part of self-esteem is the ownership they feel toward their sports If children are driven to succeed by their own passion, motivation, and determination rather than, say, pressure from their parents, they will see their sports participation as a challenge to pursue instead of a threat to avoid.
Unfortunately, many young athletes come to see their sports participation not as a part of their lives, but as rather life itself. So whenever they walk onto the field of play, they are putting their lives (or, more accurately, the life of their self-esteem) on the line. That is a truly threatening experience that will inevitably lead to failure, disappointment, and shame. Your goal is to help your children see that their sport should be a healthy part of your self-esteem, but that they will still be loved and valued no matter the result.
If your children have the right perspective, your children will also have a more positive emotional response to sports. Instead of frustration, anger, and fear dominating their athletic lives, positive emotions such as excitement, joy, pride, and inspiration will propel them toward their goals. This healthy perspective will also help them react constructively to the inevitable obstacles and setbacks that they will experience as they pursue their sports goals.
Success and Failure
There are many unhealthy perspectives about both success and failure that can hurt your children’s efforts to become successful. One of the most damaging is the idea that successes never fail and failures always fail. Yet the reality is that “successes” fail much more often than “failures.” People who are failures fail a few times and quit. But successes fail many times, learn from the failures, and begin to succeed because of what they learned. In time, the many failures and the lessons learned allow successes to succeed regularly. Learning to fail and learning from failure are essential perspectives to success and can act as an emotional buffer to the many challenges of sports.
Failure provides benefits such as information about your children’s athletic progress. Failure is the best means for your children to clearly see the areas they need to improve. Failure also indicates to your children what not to do in their efforts, which narrows down the possibilities of what they need to do to be successful. And failure teaches the essential lessons of perseverance and the ability to overcome setbacks.
Experiencing failure alone, though, will not help your children achieve success. Too much failure and your children will become discouraged, lose confidence and motivation, and come to view achievement as an unpleasant experience to be avoided.
Your children also need to experience success because, if combined with a healthy perspective, success can provide invaluable lessons for your children’s pursuit of their sports goals. Success builds confidence and trust in your children, which helps them to overcome adversity and obstacles on the road to their goals. It validates the dedication, hard work, patience, and persistence that your children devote to their goals. Success acts to motivate them to higher levels of achievement. Success also generates positive emotions, such as excitement, joy, pride, and happiness, that further reinforce their confidence, motivation, and passion for their sport.
With this perspective, success is not such an intoxicant that it inhibits further growth, and failure is not a such monumental loss that it diminishes your children’s desire to pursue success. Rather, success and failure are both inevitable and necessary parts of the process leading toward fulfillment in their athletic goals.
As we all know, sports requires that children take risks to realize their fullest abilities and attain their goals. These risks can include trying a new technique without knowing for sure whether it will make them better, using a tactic that may not pay off, or deciding to throw caution to the wind and simply give it everything they’ve got.
Taking risks is an essential part of your children’s developing a positive emotional response to their sport. Only if your children are unthreatened by failure will they be willing to take risks because, by their very nature, risks increase the likelihood of failure. If your children see sports as a challenge to pursue, they will understand that risks also provide the opportunity to achieve even greater success.
Risk taking will enable your children to move out of their comfort zones, test their capabilities, gain confidence in themselves, and achieve new levels of success. When you look at great successes in all walks of life, you also see great risk takers. They know that only by taking risks are great rewards possible.
As the best-selling author Leo Buscaglia, observed, “To try is to risk failure. But risks need to be taken, because the greatest hazard in life is to risk nothing. The person who risks nothing, does nothing, has nothing and is nothing. They may avoid suffering and sorrow, but they cannot learn, feel change, grow, love and live. Only a person who risks is free.” Now that is a perspective to live by!
How your children come to understand the meaning of mistakes will have a dramatic effect on their ability to improve and find success in their sports. As the poet Nikki Giovanni states, “Mistakes are a fact of life. It is the response to the mistakes that counts.” Unfortunately, parents sometimes communicate a very different message. What happens if you convey to your children that mistakes are bad and reflect poorly on them? You are placing them in the vise of being expected to pursue success—which inevitably involves making mistakes—but knowing that they will be criticized for their mistakes. Your children may then become fearful of making even the smallest mistakes and eventually come to believe that if they make a mistake, they will be viewed with disappointment. Says Dr. John Gray: “To expect children not to make mistakes gives them a cruel and inaccurate message about life. It sets a standard that can never be lived up to.”
Many parents and their children hold a negative perception about mistakes in spite of seeing the world’s most successful athletes in the world make mistakes routinely. Serena Williams double faults, Tom Brady throws interceptions, LeBron James misses shots, and Simone Biles bobbles on the balance beam. Because great athletes make mistakes, it is not only expected but also acceptable that your children would make mistakes too.
You need to communicate to your children that mistakes are a natural and necessary part of life. Your children must accept and learn from their mistakes. Mistakes are guides to what your children need to work on to improve. Without them, betterment will be a random and undirected process. Mistakes can tell your children that they are taking risks and moving out of their comfort zone. If your children never makes mistakes, they are probably not pushing themselves hard enough, they will not improve, and they will never become truly successful.
The road to success is a bumpy one. It’s filled with many barriers, setbacks, and struggles. Some of this adversity is external to your children—overinvolved parents, demanding coaches, challenging conditions, tough competition. Internal obstacles exist too, including loss of motivation, decline in confidence, distractions, negative emotions, impatience, and the desire to give up. To often, I see parents trying to protect their children from adversity in the belief that these difficulties will hurt their self-esteem, slow their progress, and prevent them from achieving their goals.
Yet, adversity is essential to children achieving their goals because only by experiencing adversity will they develop the skills necessary to overcome challenges in the future. “How can we grow without struggle and doubt and a misstep or two? If we spare our children that—or try to—we’ll not be successful anyway; we’ll end up prodding them toward other kinds of troubles, the kind we may not have anticipated,” writes Robert Coles.
How your children learn to respond to adversity depends largely on how you respond to adversity, and the perspective you teach them about the inevitable setbacks they will experience in their lives. You should be keenly aware of your reactions to your children’s setbacks. If you show frustration, anger, or disappointment when they face obstacles, you will be modeling this behavior for your children. If you remain calm, positive, supportive, and loving, they will learn this healthy reaction from you.
Dr. Peter Goldenthal suggests the following ways to help your children respond positively to adversity (plus a few additions from me):
- Make sure that you role model a healthy perspective.
- If you can’t control your emotional reactions to your children’s sports successes and failures, stay away from them until you have them under control.
- Put the situation in perspective: Show your children that a setback is not the end of the world.
- Don’t rush to the rescue: Let your children figure things out themselves.
- Play up the positive: Point out to your children all the good things that happened besides the obstacle.
- Suggest step-by-step success: Help your children set goals using the setback as useful information.
- Admit your own mistakes: Share with your children difficulties that you have had and how you overcame them.
So what will it be? Neglect such a fundamental component of your children’s athletic and personal development and pursuit of success and leave them ill prepared for the future? Or give your children the perspectives necessary to master the challenges of sports and beyond? The answer is obvious.