Tag sports

A Dozen Tips for Supporting Kids’ Athletics

soccer character, coolIt is a widely promulgated recommendation that youth spend one hour each day sweating and breathing hard. However, if we think of this exclusively as getting our kid to climb onto a treadmill or a stationary bike, we will probably not reach that goal and torture our kid and ourselves trying. A generally more effective strategy is to engage our child in sports. Moreover, some of the most important lessons in life can be learned on fields of play: it requires effective teamwork to reach most important goals, learning to do things when you don’t feel like it promotes success, learning how and when to use, redirect or suppress emotions promotes effectiveness with others, learning to cope well with injustice and unfairness keeps one from getting derailed, learning to manifest character when someone else isn’t marks high road life and so forth. All of these lessons, and more, can be found in athletics. To facilitate kids learning these lessons, allow me to offer 12 recommendations for adults:

#1: In your heart-of-hearts, which is that place that will come across no matter what you say, try to believe that a good quality effort matters more than a win. I know that there are agenda for which a win is more important (e.g. a coach keeping a paid gig, media attention). But, when it comes to a kid’s development, a win is usually a pleasant but subordinate matter. Moreover, if your lips say one thing but your heart feels another, your kid will often perceive the difference, if only unconsciously.

#2: Offer your time to promote your child’s skill development. Encourage going to dad teaching boy baseballthe field or court or pool or wherever to practice, offering whatever kind help you may. It’s remarkable how mundane these moments can seem in the here-and-now but how critically important and precious they become across time.

#3: If you have objective evidence (i.e., objective ≠ your opinion) that the sport represents a top strength for your child, try to provide additional opportunities or supports (e.g., one-on-one high quality instruction, access to higher quality competitions).

#4: Don’t bug the coach. I think there is a place for sharing relevant information that your kid’s coach may not know, and which could be helpful for your kid’s coach to know. But, provide this information gently, infrequently and only if the coach seems open to it; and, do so less as your child ages as s/he does well to learn the art of effective self-advocacy. Also, try to leave the coach alone regarding strategy issues. It’s a tough enough to coach youth sports without having a parent ask why the runner was sent in the bottom of the 7th when the team was down by five runs.

#5: Listen to your child and provide what s/he needs after a competition. Of mom and daughter shadowcourse, this will vary depending upon how s/he did, how the team did and his or her temperament. Sometimes there is cause for celebration. Sometimes there is cause for empathy. Sometimes there is cause for shutting up and providing space. Rarely is there cause for second-guessing and offering unsolicited advice; such learning is usually best acquired after some time has elapsed (even then, the learning may take deeper root if planted through means other than a parent lecture).

#6: Proportionately and authentically salute the following behaviors: supporting a teammate in victory and (especially) defeat, getting back up after getting knocked down (metaphorically speaking), not displaying frustration when feeling frustrated, remaining polite upon defeating an opponent, appropriately congratulating an opponent who is victorious, not responding in kind to poor sportsmanship, hustling when not hustling might be accepted and displaying selflessness (e.g., helping to clean up, carrying equipment for the coach).

#7: If you’re a parent coach, strive for this goal: try to make it that a stranger watching the competition cannot correctly guess who your kid is or to which kids’ parents you have ties. With younger kids make it about equal playing time, including across desirable positions (as long as no one stands to get hurt or humiliated), even if you’re up against coach ra-ra (most parents will know what’s going on and respect you for a high road stance). With older kids make it about whose performance (including practice behaviors, character and attitude) warrants positioning as you do. In my years of watching, and coaching with and against parent-coaches, it is a small minority who consistently pull this off. And, man, do we parents love you, you small minority!

#8: If you are the administrator of a school sports program, make it against the tennisrules for a coach to accept paid coaching gigs from kids who attend that same district. It’s amazing to me how often this happens and it is wrong, wrong, wrong.

#9: On the sidelines, only make encouraging remarks to players, and try to think of such as a spice: a little is nice, too much draws attention to the spice and away from the main course. (I attended a baseball season once where a mom incessantly rang a cowbell throughout the baseball game. You know that song “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover?” Well, the parents on the other team collectively scripted “50 things you can do with….”). It is also elegant to compliment a kid on the other team for good performance.

#10: Try to avoid yelling critical remarks to coaches and officials. Such behaviors often embarrass a child and come across as oafish. And, very, very rare would be the circumstance when it would be appropriate to yell something negative at a player, especially one on the other team (of course). Oh, and this includes yelling something like: “c’mon boys, lets get the defense going!” after a kid makes an error.

"just breathe" in clouds#11: Try to be supportive of other parents by you. Like you, they are probably experiencing large mood swings based on how their kids are doing. It’s often comforting to have another parent make an encouraging or empathic remark. I think it can also be helpful, if you know each other well enough, to talk each other back off of cliffs. I know of many instances when a drive home was made more tolerable for a kid because another parent helped a mom or dad to embrace a wise perspective.

#12: Encourage your kid, the team and other parents to join you in celebrating and recognizing good coaching, officiating or booster behaviors (e.g., team moms/dads). After a long game, or a long season, a few authentic and kind words or a simple artful gesture can mean a great deal to the adult(s) while simultaneously modelling an important life lesson for your kid.

Oh, and, IMHO, practicing these strategies makes watching youth sports more fun. And, for me, at age 54, it’s becoming more and more about what’s fun!!


Ten Guidelines for When an Adult Treats Your Kid Poorly

cocky teacher chastizingThe caption of this entry refers to situations in which it seems like a teacher, coach or some other designated authority in your child’s life treats him or her poorly or unfairly. What follows are 10 guidelines for responding to this maddening situation.

Guideline #1: Try to remember that your child will likely have a long stream of these kind of events happening in his or her life way off into the future (i.e., someone with authority over him or her exerts such ineffectively or unjustly) and that this event, while painful and unfortunate, provides a wonderful opportunity for on-the-job training.

Guideline #2: Keep in mind that all of we engaged parents are lunatics. So, we have to realize that we are, much of the time, disposed to over-reactions and/or efforts to over control things. That’s okay and even inevitable. But, we do well to humbly admit that our perception(s) and reality can be different.

Guideline #3: The older your child, and the slighter the infraction. the least likely it may be advisable to intercede, or at least not without clearance from your child. The younger your child, and the more significant the infraction, the more it may be advisable to intercede, sometimes even over your child’s objections. For instance, a coach publically screaming profanity at your elementary school aged child would likely call for you to intervene, while a teacher grading your high school student unfairly on an exam would likely not call for you to intervene.

Guideline #4: Get a full vetting from your child about his or her thoughts and mom and kidfeelings about what happened. Provide empathy. Stay at that place, not sharing your perspective(s), until your child is finished. Then, state any agreement you have with what your child has said before pointing out any alternative perspectives you hold. (Keep in mind that empathy and agreement are different things.)

Guideline #5: Decide if an intervention is warranted. This can be a complicated calculation based on factors like the odds of it happening again (including to other kids), the age of your child, how much the event has upset you and/or your child, the apparent maturity of the adult in question (as best as you can tell), the effectiveness of the administration above the adult in question and the seriousness of the infraction. In figuring this out it’s often a good idea to consult with at least one kind and wise person who is willing to keep your confidence and who is as equally likely to disagree with you as to agree with you.

Guideline #6: If an intervention is warranted, decide who will be on point: you/another parent/another adult or your child. Regardless of who is on point, decide if the other person(s) will follow up in some way (e.g., your child follows up with a teacher after you’ve had a meeting).

conversation teacherGuideline #7: If the child is on point, here are some possible interventions:

√ Asking for a meeting with the adult and your child; consider whether some other adult should be there or not, including you. Consider whether it be over the phone or in person, impromptu or scheduled.

√ Coach (e.g., through role playing) your child on how to get the adult’s perspective on what happened first, on how to provide empathy for the adult’s perspective and how to find common ground with what the adult asserts. This makes it more likely that the adult will be receptive (I know it feels odd to need to coach your child on how to manage the potential defensiveness of an adult, but that’s, unfortunately, how things often work here on planet Earth). Also coach your child that many points can be made more effectively with sentences that end in question marks than with sentences that end in periods or exclamation points. Look at two different ways to make the same point. First method: “coach, I’d love it if you’d let me play center field sometime!” Second method: “coach what could I do to increase your confidence in giving me a shot in center field sometime?”

√ Coach your child on how to get his or her position across kindly, calmly and clearly.

√ Consider what it is your child might ask of the adult or offer to the adult or both.conversation

√ Discuss what your child might say to the adult about your potential follow up (if you’re not to be at the meeting, that is).

√ Consider whether it would be advisable for your child to write something to the adult.

√ Consider whether it is a good idea for your child to be in touch with the person the adult reports to.

√ Consider whether your child should ask his or her peer(s) to be involved in some fashion.

Guideline #8: If you (or another adult) is to be on point, the principles in the previous guideline would be essentially the same. Most of the time it’s advisable to try to find common ground, provide empathy, share your perspective as kindly, calmly and clearly as possible and see if you can reach agreement on a follow-up plan. If the latter isn’t possible, then you could agree on which other adult(s) you might bring into the conversation, assuming what’s at stake is worth it to you.

crisisGuideline #9: Teach and model crisis = pain + opportunity. Do this all the way through the process, including after the fact, at which point it is often a good idea to do a psychological autopsy of what happened.

Guideline #10: If the situation is too painful and/or if the issues are more than you’re prepared to effectively negotiate on your own, seek out help. For example, to find a psychologist in your region, click here.

Who said parenting was easy, right? But, don’t you wish, on some days at least, that someone would have made it EXACTLY clear what it was that you were signing up for? And, can someone please tell us all where the guy lives whose job it was to have done that?! 😉

Failure: An Important Part of a Psychologically Healthy Childhood

Recently I was on a sports field and overheard heard this conversation between a mom and a coach:

Mom: “Coach Jim didn’t make the all star team. Did they tend to pick older boys?”

Coach: “Ahhh, not really. Older boys are often more skilled, and so more of them were chosen, but some younger talented boys were picked too.”

Mom: “What do I say to him? I don’t want him to be crushed. I think I’ll just say that they were choosing older boys this year”

Coach: “Whatever you think is best.”

On this same ball field, as is the case all across America, children are routinely praised for poor outcomes. A kid grounds out weakly without advancing a runner and hears “good hit Colin!” A girl pitches ball four to load the bases and is told: “good pitch Sarah!” Moreover, kids receive positive feedback on a very high proportion of plays (in my neighborhood, well over 90%).

Is it easy to understand why this happens. No engaged parent is more happy than her least happy child. When one of our kids hurts we hurt worse, so it’s natural to try to avoid the pain that failure brings. Moreover, we are very interested in making sure that our kids have a solid self-esteem and are concerned that failures, or an absence of consistent positive feedback, may leave our child falling short of developing well.

However, what we sometimes fail to realize two things: (1) failure is a critically important part of a psychologically healthy childhood and (2) too much praise dulls it. I once asked a panel of child mental health experts on a TV program I host. “If it were possible to raise a child into adulthood and make sure that she never failed at anything would you want to do it?” Everyone on the panel instantly declared “no” as such an adult would be handicapped when inevitable failures come along. Moreover, praise that is vague, inaccurate, overdone or overstated loses its impact and can actually have detrimental effects.

Let me focus a little bit on failure and review some of the benefits it offers:

√ Failure helps a kid to understand what her true talents are (i.e., if one is praised for every outcome, even the bad ones, it is more complicated to discern one’s true capacities).

√ Failure provides the opportunity to learn how to think adaptively about failing and how to respond effectively to it. Sure, I might be able to protect my child from the notion that he has failed (e.g., by stating falsehoods) for much of his childhood, but at some point the world will visit failure upon him. Better for him to learn how to think about it and respond to it early on, before dysfunctional attitudes and coping styles might develop, and when I can have a greater impact on how he responds to failure. Moreover, I certainly don’t want to condition my child to believe that she is owed a good outcome simply because she is a good person who means well and tries hard.

√ Failing offers the opportunity to learn a very important psychological formula: crisis = pain + opportunity. None of us likes pain, of course. But is it not woven into the fabric of all of our lives? Part of being resilient is to recognize that pain, to paraphrase a poet, is like a dragon guarding treasure; and, the fiercer the dragon the more valuable the treasure. However, the dragon must have its way before the treasure can be accessed. Time after time I’ve seen examples of resilient kids and families taking the hit and, because of the hit, coming out on the other side stronger, wiser, more effective and happier.

A few suggestions for those moments when your child produces a poor outcome:

√ Sometimes no comment is the best comment. For some kids striking out can be as upsetting as having a fly land on their nose. It may not need to be remarked upon.

√ If a comment is needed, sometimes waiting is advisable (e.g., for my child to become more responsive, so that it is less public)

√ Don’t lie or exaggerate. This is not the same thing as saying everything on my mind. But, when I do speak I want it to be truthful. This strengthens my long-term credibility and models virtuous behavior.

√ Provide empathy when your child is hurting without qualification. “That hurts doesn’t it.” “I could see why you’d be upset over that happening.” “It hurts to not be able to come through for your team.” Keep the butts off it initially (e.g., “…but you’ll get ‘em next time”). This can be especially difficult for we lunatic-parents to endure (i.e., we love our kids so much it makes us crazy), especially when our empathy leads to more opening up about the pain. But, tolerating this is a gift we give our children.

√ After feelings and thoughts have been vetted consider whether a plan of action is warranted: drilling, studying, problem solving, etc. If the failing represents a painful pattern think of it as a problem to be solved.

√ Value things like effort (e.g., your child hustles even when a losing outcome seems inevitable) and character (e.g., you child congratulates an opponent for a good play, lifts up a team mate who was feeling down) making sure that such comments are tied to specific examples.

√ Keep praise for effective performance proportionate, especially when around others from outside of the family.

I realize I’m hitting only some high points here. A much more complete accounting of these issues, together with stories that illustrate the points, can be found in my parenting book Working Parents, Thriving Families. I’ve also written a blog entry titled Five Questions for Effectively Parenting Kids in Sports. Finally, if your child has a pattern of responding to failure that is consistently impairing (e.g., public displays of anger, inconsolable and persistent sadness) consider seeking out the services of a qualified mental health professional.

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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