I specialize in helping athletes of all ages overcome performance fears, blocks and slumps. What quite often fuels these problems are spoken or unspoken parental expectations and the child-athlete’s inner response to them.
Here’s how it works: A parent may openly pressure their child to perform and respond unfavorably when that child fails to meet these clear expectations. They may get angry when he loses, ignore him or criticize his performance. Similarly, they may be too excited when he plays well and wins. This kind of overt pressure and tying of parental love/approval to a particular performance level will seriously mess up your child’s performance, kill his/her enjoyment of the sport and damage your long term relationship with him/her.
However, let’s say, that as a parent, you appropriately keep your own expectations out of your child’s sport. You are unconditionally loving and never respond negatively to your child’s mistakes, failures or poor performances. Even then, your child may still experience an inner pressure to perform because she doesn’t want to disappoint you. Our kids naturally want us to be proud of them. They naturally want to make us happy. This is just simply the nature of a child in the parent-child relationship. When that child fails, or becomes paralyzed with a performance block, she may take it upon herself to believe that she hasn’t lived up to your expectations.
When your child-athlete feels that he is letting you down by not performing to what he imagines are your expectations, it creates an internal crisis for him. The crisis operates on an unconscious basis and the very heart of it is, because he has failed you and made you unhappy, you will abandon him. Please understand that I am not talking about what is actually going on consciously for that child. I am not even talking about whether these messages are being sent from you or not. The child experiences them! This fear of abandonment operates outside of conscious awareness. Regardless, this fear heightens a child’s anxiety and makes it impossible for him to relax, have fun and perform well.
What can you do about it? Every day, as often as you can, sit your child down, hold her hands, look into her eyes and let her know that you love her and that your love is unconditional, that it has absolutely nothing to do with her sport and whether she is able to throw her reverse dive, go for her giant-giant fly-away or get her “AA” cut in the 200Free. When you say goodnight to your child do the same thing. Hold her hands, look into her eyes and let her again know that the only expectations that you have of her in relation to her sport are that she have fun and feel good about herself, that you will love her no matter what. This message may sound corny, maybe even a little obvious, but it needs to be said over and over again.