Here’s a recent email exchange I had with a parent of a high school basketball player, which I’m summarizing with their permission:
Dad: Our son is a straight A high school student who is also gifted in sports. He was recruited to play varsity basketball as a freshman. He complains about my regular urging him to play better. Our son has lost his starting position and is now sitting on the bench, even though he is very possibly the most talented player on the team. What can we do?
Dr. G: The BIGGEST thing you can do is to change your role with your son. This will have an immediate and dramatically positive affect on him. What our kids most need from us in relation to their sport is our unconditional love and support. They are hard wired to please us and when they struggle, they feel like they’re letting us down. This is exacerbated if you as a parent show your frustration or disappointment that he is not performing to his potential. When parents try to help by “coaching”, evaluating their kids play and making training suggestions/criticisms, (incidentally, all the jobs of a coach, not a parent), your son will end up feeling criticized by you. I have no doubt that you may be doing this because you love your son and genuinely want to help him. However, when parents get caught up in this role of pushing/coaching, it is never experienced by the child as helpful or supportive.
Instead I would suggest you be there for your boy, listen to his frustrations and disappointments and help him feel that you love him in a way that has nothing to do with the sport or his performance on the court. You can even ask him, when he struggles, what he would most need or find most helpful from you!
Remember, urging him to play better will not help him play better. Instead it will further undermine his confidence and stress him out even more.
Dad’s response, two weeks later: Dr. G. Thank you very much for your reply. My wife and I read it and took it to heart. After several weeks, our son seems much more at ease as we support him and leave the coaching behind. Since we put your advice into practice, his play improved to the point that he now starts again……what results! We’ve shared your email with friends who had similar problems. Thank you, thank you, thank you!!