Parenting an Athlete

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Raising an athlete in today’s modern culture is a demanding proposition, with children experiencing more pressure to succeed in their chosen sport than ever before. The result is an increasing proportion of young athletes suffering stress and burnout symptoms, and from a much earlier age.

This makes it essential that, as a parent, you make a set of informed decisions which are in the long-term interests of not only your child, but also for the family as a whole.

Multi-sport or specialisation?

In recent times, it has become commonplace for children to specialise at an early age, as opposed to adopting the more traditional approach of playing a multitude of sports.   

The evidence suggests there are numerous disadvantages with the specialisation approach, with the increased likelihood of burnout being a major factor. On the flip side, children who play a variety of sports, for a longer period of time, will reap significant benefits such as:-

  • An increased level of overall athletic competence, movement control and coordination 
  • A reduced risk of suffering overuse injuries from high repetition of specific movement patterns
  • A greater ability for adapting to different cultures, personalities, and methods
  • A lowered chance of burnout, due to the pressure experienced by athletes who are only associated with one sport.

Joining a club

Being a member of the right sports club can make a positive difference in your child’s enjoyment and development, so it’s important that you choose carefully.

A good club creates a learning environment which has an appropriate mix of encouragement and challenge that is suitable for your child. Therefore, take into consideration what your child’s motivation for playing sport is – does she enjoy the social aspect of club life, or is competition her driving force? Perhaps she wants a balance between the two? Few clubs are entirely competitive or entirely social, but most will lean one way or the other. 

Talking after losing

No one likes losing, and that includes young athletes, so if your child has just been involved in a loss, or he didn’t produce a good individual performance, resist the urge to speak about the game until he brings it up. By coercing him into a discussion, you will only become a source of annoyance or frustration for him. When his emotions are running high, any well-meaning words of support or advice from you will probably never land.

If and when you do talk about the matter, try to listen more than you speak, showing empathy, and making sure to validate his feelings. Highlight the positives, and help him to understand that all-or-nothing thinking (i.e. “I didn’t do anything right today!”) is rarely an accurate perspective of sport – when we lose, we still tend to do some things well, and conversely, when we win, we don’t do everything well. Remind him of what he did well.

Know your role

Just as role clarity is imperative to the success of all teams and organisations, so it is important to your success as a sport parent. Therefore, take some time to figure out what your level of involvement will be in your child’s sporting life.

Pay particular attention to your role during practice sessions or competition, and let the coach do the coaching. If you’ve agreed for your child to be placed under the guidance of a coach, or coaches, you must avoid trying to coach your child yourself. Doing so places her in a confusing and impossible position – does she listen to you or the coach? There’s nothing wrong with wanting to help your child, but do so away from her games and organised practice.

Manage your emotions

Watching your child play sport can take you on an emotional rollercoaster, where sometimes you experience a euphoric high, whilst other times you may feel extreme anger or disappointment.

But to be the best sport parent you can be, you need to skilfully manage your emotions when watching, or talking about sport to, your child. And remember, if you find a situation where you’re struggling to demonstrate emotional control, walk away – it’s much better to say nothing than to yell, or to say something negative.

Speaking with the coach

As a general rule of thumb, it’s better to speak less, not more, to your child’s coach, with the simple reason being that the coach will have lots on her mind during practice sessions and match days.

If you do want to speak with the coach, ascertain beforehand if your child is happy for you to do so, and then choose an appropriate time, such as after training. Before or after a game is usually not the best time as competition tends to raise emotion levels of all those involved. 

When you eventually do speak, try not to be that parent who tells her how to do her job! Instead, simply ask the coach what’s the best way you can support your child’s sporting development.

Reward the controllables

Even though athletes can’t control the result of a match, they are able to influence their own game. Examples of what they can control include their effort levels, emotional management, how they handle pressure situations, degree of focus, communication skills, being a team player and so on. 

An important lesson for young athletes to learn is to focus on the process (i.e controllable) rather than the outcome (uncontrollable), so be quick to praise and reward your child for the things that he does well that are under his control. Through doing this, his self-worth will not be dictated by something out of his control, such as losing a match.

Allocate your resources wisely

Being a parent of a young athlete can be an expensive and time-consuming affair, but it’s important not to spend more time or money than you can comfortably afford.

Therefore, avoid a situation where your child’s sporting activities are stretching the family’s resources. If you’re constantly stressed because of financial costs relating to sport, it will negatively affect your home environment. 

As for the time you devote to your child’s sport, be fair to yourself and all the family – sport can be an important part of life, but it should never take over life.

Be open with your child about the resources you allocate to her sport, as it’s important for her to understand the levels of commitment that everyone is undertaking.

Highlight the life lessons

Sport is a great teacher of life skills, so take the opportunity of teaching your child these valuable lessons, such as:-

Life isn’t fair 
For example, umpires sometimes make bad decisions, the better team doesn’t always win, etc.

Hard work pays off 
In general, you get out of sport what you put into it.

Teamwork beats individuality 
Great teams accomplish much more than great individuals do.

Respect your role
All team members have an important role to play in helping the team experience success.

People are relying on you
If you fail to do your part, your team performance will suffer because of it.

Success requires discipline
Discipline is essential for achieving success.

It’s their life

If you find yourself being defined by your child’s wins and losses, try to take a step back and put things into perspective. To do this, it’s up to you to raise your own level of self-awareness, as it will be difficult for your child to tell you that you’re being irrational or overbearing with your expectations.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting your child to experience success, but there is a lot wrong with demanding that he carries the burden of your hopes.

Always remember that your child is a separate person from you, so don’t impose your dreams and motivations onto him – let him live his life by chasing his own dreams and motivations.

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