Five Questions for Effectively Parenting Kids in Sports

This past weekend I watched an episode of ESPN’s Outside the lines regarding the suicide of 25-year-old LPGA golfer Erica Blasberg. Certainly this episode resonated with me as a psychologist, as I often deal with these kinds of issues in my practice. But, this piece touched me more as a dad of three kids who play sports (one heavily so). So, I thought I’d devote a blog entry for sharing five questions for a parent to consider when his or her child plays a sport.

1.     As a parent do I insist upon outcomes, effort or both?

I would argue that it is effort that we should encourage and allow the outcomes to fall where they may. The capacity to give effort when one doesn’t feel like it is a very important psychological muscle for promoting success. Thus, common messages relayed in sports along these lines generalize well to other areas in life (e.g., practice well when no one is watching, try your hardest even if your opponent is dominating you and try to improve no matter where you stand relative to other kids). Alternatively, emphasizing the win, the hit, the points, or other outcomes, especially without regard to other important considerations, can promote unwise philosophies, practices and outcomes.

2.     Does my child enjoy the sport?

Sure, there are rainy Mondays and valleys of weariness that all of us experience in the areas of our lives that typically produce joy. But, for at least a considerable portion of the time, is my kid having fun playing the sport? If not, there may be more downside than upside in continuing and/or my kid’s involvement in the sport may be more about my satisfaction than his or hers.

3.     Does the sporting experience support or interfere with adaptive character development?

This question may be especially important for athletically gifted kids. One father I know recently started to lightheartedly ride his athletically talented son for holding back during a rec basketball game (his son was a top player on two very competitive basketball teams but the rec team was made up of boys who played the sport only one day a week); his son explained that he could have scored more points, but not without cutting down on how much he passed the ball to open teammates, something that he thought would have been wrong to do. This is an illustration of how sports can engender and highlight character development.

Alternatively, it is possible for a sport to become a venue for consistent eruptions of anger, verbal or physical bullying, despair and cheating; in such instances, and left unchecked, the sporting life may be doing more harm than good. Relatedly, and as a parent, what is my emotional reaction to each of the following scenarios? Scenario #1: my child turns in a dominant athletic performance that leads to a win for the team, but he or she intentionally shames another child along the way. Scenario #2: my child tries hard but turns in a subpar athletic performance, which then facilitates a team loss, but along the way he or she lifts the spirits of a child who was feeling down. Understanding my emotional response to these scenarios (you know, the one we have when we’re being honest with ourselves and no one is looking) can tell me a lot about what I’m communicating to my child about priorities (either directly or indirectly) and also let me know whether an adjustment is in order.

4.     When academics and sports compete against each other, which wins?

Granted, those of us who value both academics and sports do what we can to keep them from coming into conflict. But, inevitably, when they do, what happens? Can there be any doubt that efforts spent towards becoming a good student stand to leave many more doors open in adulthood than efforts spent towards becoming a good athlete? Moreover, and for those who are playing at a level in high school where this concern is relevant, recruiters are more-and-more disinterested in students with a compromised academic record (i.e., they don’t want to deal the hassles that result when a student they recruit cannot perform academically).

5.     Does my kid realize that my bond with him or her cannot be threatened by how he or she does in sports?

As I review in chapter two of my book, self-esteem appears to be comprised of at least two core elements: of a sense of worthiness (i.e., I have inherent value and am loved) and a sense of competence (i.e., there are important things that I’m good at). Our kids benefit when they know they have a loving bond with us that can’t be severed when they stink at things, make poor choices or otherwise experience negative outcomes. Having this bond is more important than just about anything else we can provide for our child as they grow up.  So, one could argue that just as most sports require donning protective physical equipment, we do well as parents to require that our child dons protective psychological equipment, in this case a sense that his or her connection with us can’t be threatened by a score.

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