In Handling Failure/Adversity, Parents' Role in Youth Sports, Problems in Youth Sports

There is nothing more emotionally devastating for a young athlete than to experience their mom and/or dad being disappointed in and unhappy with them. When a child-athlete gets stuck in an extended performance slump, has a bad game or loses to a beatable opponent, that child’s “parent radar” goes on “high RED ALERT.” That is, he/she becomes hyper-aware as to the kind of emotional reaction mom or dad are having in response to their less than satisfactory performance.

Frequently a child doesn’t need sophisticated radar to pick up on the obvious signals of parental anger, disappointment and frustration with a bad outing. They can see mom or dad’s posture and facial expressions on the sidelines, hear the angry, disapproving tone in their voices and/or feel the cutting words that directly or indirectly say, “You have disappointed me. You have let me down. I am very unhappy with you right now and therefore, I will be withholding my love from you until you can do a better job of earning it!”

Parents who use words to say the right things, i.e. “Remember honey, this is supposed to be fun, I want you to be happy, It’s OK that you lost or played badly today,” etc., but whose voice tone and non-verbals say the opposite, clearly communicate to the child-athlete that he/she must perform at a higher level to earn mom and dad’s love or else!

There is nothing that will give your child a more powerful and lingering case of disruptive performance anxiety than repeatedly communicating this message to him/her, i.e. “your lovability and self-worth in my eyes depends upon how well you perform.” There are few emotional traumas that will haunt your child throughout their life, negatively affecting their self-image, self-esteem and many of their future performances on and off the athletic fields than a parent continually breaking the emotional attachment with a son or daughter over the quality and outcome of their sports performances.

“You embarrassed me out there today boy!” “How could you lose to that kid, he had no backhand?!” “Your races just sucked and after all the money we spent this weekend to get here you’d think you’d have at least one good race!” “Your short game was just awful today and it’s obvious to me that you just don’t care enough to play better!” “Why can’t you just throw your back handspring? I don’t understand you. You’ve been doing this skill for two years now, so why won’t you just go for it?!

These kinds of verbal and non-verbal “conversations” happen every day between parent and child, leaving kids too emotionally devastated and alone to directly comment on them. It’s a rare kid indeed that can directly say to a parent, “I am terrified that you won’t love me as much if I perform badly, go “0 -fer,” lose or not throw my back tuck today.” Instead, most young athletes in this position keep their mouths shut, experience overwhelming anxiety because of mom and dad’s perceived disapproval and suffer in silence.

If your son or daughter plays competitive sports, my advice to you is simple:

Remember when they were first born and you held them in awe, when they were toddlers and you delighted in every simple discovery and developmental mastery that they progressed through, when you loved them unconditionally without the clutter, over-involvement and distractions of sports and academic performance. When they were that age you wouldn’t have dreamed of asking them to perform for your love or approval. You loved them for the amazing miracles that they were.

This is the emotional place that you need to return to with them. You need to put their sport in perspective and understand that their athletic struggles and failures are not what’s really important here. Do not make them regularly perform for your affections and approval. This is not how to raise a happy, well adjusted, self-confident child. Get rid of all of your competitiveness and desperate need to see them succeed. Most likely this is your story and not theirs!

Instead, hold them at night before you put them to bed, look directly into their eyes and let them know how you feel about them in a way that has absolutely nothing to do with gymnastics, tennis, golf, soccer or whatever sport they play. Reassure them over and over again that you love them unconditionally. Do this often. Do this when they least expect it.

Remember, it’s not about the sport and it’s certainly NOT about winning and losing! It’s all about how much you love and care about your child. It’s about their long term emotional well-being and future happiness. If you get into a regular habit of doing this, of emotionally holding them in an unconditionally loving way and you are 100% congruent in your non-verbal behaviors and interactions with your son or daughter, then the inner safety and love that they will end up feeling will free them up enough to really pursue their creativity and potential whether it’s on the athletic field, in the classroom, on stage or anywhere else!

If you find that you can’t do this, that you’re unable to emotionally separate yourself from your child’s sports and athletic outcomes, if you continue to struggle with strong feelings of anger, disappointment and disapproval whenever your son or daughter fails to meet your expectations, then do yourself and your entire family a favor: Go talk to a professional who can help you put this whole thing in perspective. Remember what’s at stake here: That little miracle that you helped bring into the world.


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