Here's What Young Athletes Really Need

I have seen parents who are far too excited when their kids do well and far too disappointed when they don’t.
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I come to this article from two directions. First, as a sport psychologist who has worked athletes and their parents for decades. There is no doubt that my experiences in helping athletes to achieve their goals and assisting parents in best supporting their children has informed my ideas here.

At the same time, perhaps more importantly, I come to this article as the father of two burgeoning athletes (ages 11 and 9) with whom I am sharing their journey. These experiences, which are much more personal, immediate, and visceral, inform this article in a much deeper and more meaningful way.

Let me preface my thoughts by sharing an emotion with you: humility. As many of you know by now, I’m a fairly opinionated fellow who is all too happy to share what I believe is right and wrong, good and bad. However, in my advanced age and growing experience as a father, I have adopted a degree of humility in the face of the massive responsibilities we have as parents. Though I don’t always voice it, I recognize that there are many roads to raising happy, successful, and value-driven kids. In my own growth as a person and as a parent, I realize that I don’t have all the answers for every family. Instead, my goal is not to tell you how to raise your children, but rather to ask essential questions, raise important issues, and challenge you to be conscious and deliberate in the choices you make about your kids as they pursue their sports dreams (or just try to have as much fun as they can).

This article is aimed mostly at the beginning of the sports pipeline, that is, 12 years and younger, where the foundation of young athletes’ attitudes are laid which often determine how long they stay involved in organized sports and the degree of success that they have as athletes.

So, here goes.

Focus on the process. As I noted in a previous post, your focusing on results actually interferes with your children getting the results that you and they want. In the short run, a result focus prevents kids from focusing on the process of sports and thinking about results is what makes them nervous before competitions.

In the long run, results at this age mean absolutely nothing. If your kid is winning now, good for him or her. But it says absolutely nothing about where they will be if and when they reach the national level or higher in their sport. For example, only a very small number of baseball players who competed in the Little League World Series ever made it to the big leagues.

In fact, if you think you have the next Serena Williams or LeBron James on your hands at eight, ten, or twelve years old, the chances are that he or she won’t even be in their sport in five years because they will want to do something else, such as play an instrument or act in plays, stay home with their friends, or their sport has gotten too expensive and time consuming for your family.

My advice: Never talk about results… ever! It serves no purpose. If your kids do, change the subject to what they did to get the results they wanted or what they need to do to get the results they want or, even better, change the subject completely.

Your equanimity on game day. At the many youth sports competitions I’ve been to this year in several sports, I have seen parents who are far too excited when their kids do well and far too disappointed when they don’t. These parents have entered what I call the “too” zone, where their kids’ sport has already gotten, well, too important and they are too invested in how their kids do.

Your most powerful influence on your children isn’t in what you say or even what you do with your children. Rather, the most potent messages you convey to them are your emotions because they are processed at a very intuitive level. So, when you are really nervous before a competition, or excessively excited or unusually despondent after a competition, your kids get the message that their results are REALLY important to you. And that creates expectations and pressure that sucks the fun out of sports. Plus, I see far more tears from young athletes on competition day than should ever be seen at this age. Kids cry because they have also entered the “too” zone and guess who led them there?

My advice: Chill out! Sure, get vicarious pleasure from your children’s successes and feel empathy when they crash or go slow. But keep yourself calm and together on game day. If you can’t, stay away from your kids!

Your undivided attention at competitions. I see far too many parents shooting video on their phones during competitions and looking at statistics on line after competitions rather than watching their kids play and sharing in their amazing experiences in real-time and with real presence. When you do this, you send unhealthy messages to your children and you miss out on what being a sports parent is all about, namely, seeing your kids face and overcome the many challenges that sports present and seeing that huge smile on their face because sports is so fun!

My advice: If you want to send the right message to your children about sports, put away your phone, smile, cheer (but not too loudly), and give lots of hugs and kisses.

Your unconditional love. Those overly strong emotional messages that you may be communicating on game day can send an even more harmful message to your children: conditional love. Of course, you love your children, but you don’t always communicate that message to them. Your extreme disappointment can be perceived as “My mommy (or daddy) doesn’t love me when I do bad.” I know it sounds hard to believe that your kids might get that message, but I can assure you that it’s not an uncommon perception from the young athletes I work with.

A related message is that your happiness (or unhappiness) is on your children’s shoulders when they walk onto the field of play. Your kids don’t need the crushing burden of your happiness weighing them down.

A frequent question I’m asked by parents is: What do I say to my kids before and after they competition? First, let me say that you don’t have any magical power over how they will perform, in other words, nothing you say will help. But what you say before their competition run can hurt. Don’t remind them to do anything technical. It’s not your job and you have no legitimate authority (unless you were an elite competitor or coach yourself). Don’t tell them to win; they already know that’s the goal.

After their competition, you feel like you have to say something. Common things I hear from parents are: “You were so good!”, “Did you have fun?”, or, even worse, “You beat Johnny (or Suzie)!”

My advice: Just say three words before and after their competitions: “I love you!” That’s all your kids want or need from you. Okay, after they’re done, you can also say, “Do you want something to eat?”

Do you want your young athlete to become the best they can be and perhaps compete for a D1 college or even become an Olympian or a pro? Then look long and hard at what they really need and don’t need at this very early stage of their sports participation.

Everything you do at this very early stage of your children’s sports experience should be devoted to instilling in them sound physical, technical, and tactical skills, healthy attitudes (e.g., competition is fun, failure isn’t the end of the world), positive habits (e.g., confidence, determination, focus), great experiences (e.g., travel, friends, adventures), and a deep love of their sport. That foundation is the only way that they will go far and high in their sport and, even more importantly, become the great people that we all want our children to be.

Want to learn more about being the best sport parent you can be? Download my free Prime Sport Parenting e-book.