Watch Them Play

Over the past 30 years, Bruce Brown and Rob Miller of Proactive Coaching LLC have been conducting a survey of college athletes in order to better understand the experience of kids involved in sports. One of the questions Brown and Miller ask is, “What is your worst memory from playing youth and high school sports?” You might expect the answer to have something to do with a particularly painful loss or maybe grueling practices. But the main response is actually, “The ride home from games with my parents.”

The survey has revealed something that most people who have spent any time around youth sports already know: in their eagerness to see their children succeed, parents can become a source of anxiety. It’s natural to want to find a way to help children improve, but unfortunately attempts to do so are often counterproductive, distracting kids from the fun and learning of sport with worries about upsetting their parents. Even comments that may seem fairly benign–“You should have been more focused”, “You’re usually stronger in practice”, “If that other kid could do so well, so can you”–can have an adverse effect when coming from a parent.

In the same survey, athletes were asked what their parents said that made them happiest after a game. The answer: “I love watching you play.” Whether they win or lose (in fact, especially when they lose), kids are more interested in feeling accepted by their parents, than in any coaching feedback a parent might provide.

When their children don’t perform well, parents want to find a way to help. Perhaps if the parent can just say the right thing, give them that important insight, then they won’t make those same mistakes again? Though the intention is good, the approach is unlikely to work because:

Losing is a lonely feeling. Especially in an individual sport (like fencing). After a loss, parents have the power to affect how their child reacts to those negative feelings. Parents can lessen the impact by showing the child that they aren’t upset by the loss (and they shouldn’t be) or they can increase it by showing the child that the loss was a bad thing. What’s fundamental here–and a critical lesson for both parents and children to understand–is that losing is not in itself bad. Losing is a fundamental element of the learning process. It is entirely impossible to achieve anything near a high level without an enormous amount of failure first. Even when it seems that the athlete has reached a level of excellence, don’t be fooled. There’s still more losing to do. Since losing is completely unavoidable, it’s important that children learn the right attitude about it. No one can influence how a child views losing more than a parent. Research by Carol Dweck and others shows that kids who understand that losing is part of the process go on to achieve better outcomes.

Good coaching takes a lot of specific knowledge and experience. Finding the best advice to give, and the best way to give it, is not an easy task. It requires understanding the sport, the athlete, and the moment. The right thing to say changes with the circumstances, the individual, and the context in which it is said. As much as a parent might want to be able to provide the right coaching words, chances are they won’t be able to, simply due to a lack of the appropriate experience. Determining whether it will be most productive to say something about the child’s psychological performance, technical performance, or something else is very difficult. It’s best to leave coaching to a qualified coach.

It’s almost never an issue of motivation. And when it is, there is unfortunately absolutely nothing you can say to change that. Most kids really, really want to win. The idea that the winner “wanted it more” is very rarely true. Far more often, the winner was better able to handle the pressures of competition. Sport offers a wonderful opportunity to learn incredibly valuable stress management skills. The foundation of having a healthy relationship with stress is feeling that it’s safe to fail. When a parent tries to motivate a child to “want it” more, all he is really doing is leveraging the child’s desire not to disappoint his parent. This can create a lot of frustration and anxiety for the child and, over time, have a negative impact on the child’s relationship with the sport and with his parents.

Achieving a high level in most activities–and certainly sport–can cost incredible amounts of money. The assortment of fees connected to the travel and training of a top level athlete is not at all insignificant. Sometimes, particularly in light of those financial pressures, it can be easy to get frustrated when a child doesn’t perform as well as hoped. Parents can feel like they’re not getting a return on their investment. This, while not uncommon, is the wrong way to frame the money spent on a child’s development. It’s only possible to invest in experiences, not medals. The primary purpose of children’s sport is to give them an opportunity to learn and grow. Over time, this can result in competitive success–but it must be remembered that this is an effect of the goal, not the goal itself. If a child goes to a competition and doesn’t end with a high ranking, but can learn from the experience (and the learning is not limited to the sport specifics; emotional control, socialization, exposure to a different competitive environment, the opportunity to see someplace new, are all aspects of competition that a child gains from), it is far from a wasted effort. It is, in fact, the whole point.

Children can easily recognize how parents interpret their losses. Feeling like he’s letting his family down, making a parent angry, or wasting his family’s money will quickly start to work against a child’s ability to compete at his best in the future. It can also cause the child to learn the wrong lessons–lessons that undermine his belief in his capacity for growing and improving.

Watching children fail can be very frustrating for parents (and coaches). We want to help them. We want to spare them from failure. But we can’t. It’s their journey. We mostly just get to watch.