Parents: What do you say?

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Last week was "Parents in Sport Week" and I ended up having some chats with other parents and coaches about how to react to a kids' post-competition disappointment. Here are a few thoughts that followed.  

Let’s say Kiddo’s competition went poorly and they are disgruntled, grouchy and upset.  What do you do? Do you ignore them? Give them the stink eye? Try to find a solution? Threaten to withdraw privilege? Well…hopefully not...but what do you do? 

A parent’s reaction to failure and success is one of the most critical factors in a child’s enjoyment of sport. 

But, parents have a tough job…pay the bills and be the chauffeur, and then walk the fine line between being supportive and caring but not overly involved in their kids sporting lives.  Parents must let their kids be in charge of their own goals, regardless of their own personal aspirations for them…but that’s often harder than it sounds.

Often, it is easy for parents to become overly involved.  This often has negative and unintended consequences.  When kids continue to do sport because of the parents (ie watch “Trophy Kids” on Netflix for more insights) then a dangerous pattern emerges. The intent of sport has been lost: the kids must own their own goals and their own purpose for participation. 

Disclosure: I do have a dad who taught me, at the ripe age of 7 years old, the chant:  “Winning isn’t everything it’s the ONLY thing”.  When I found myself in a fight for the soccer ball his voice would carry to the next neighbourhood “I WILL BUY YOU A PONY if you score a goal”!!!  Thankfully, I always knew he had a sense of humour that bordered on exaggeration so it was ok.  He was encouraging, supportive and very proud of his athletic daughters. 

I cringe when parents ask me to coach their kid be fast enough to “get a scholarship” or “go to the Olympics”.  Although I was not a rebellious kid, I think that if my parents had pressured me to do sport for the outcomes, and not the enjoyment, I would have quit. Ambitious and driven kids put enough pressure on themselves as it is.  On the flip side, if a kid isn’t wired to be super competitive, but enjoys the sport for the sake of sport, then the additional pressure to “win a scholarship” or other recognition will set up a negative dynamic – and could be a reason for the high levels of sport drop-out.

Basically, kids need to know that regardless of the outcome, their parents love them. In fact, that was always my consolation prize when I was disappointed: knowing, that no matter what, the love  was abundant and non-conditional.  I may have really cared, and my parents may have been disappointed for me, but not in me. 

In a day and age where the life expectancy of future generations is at risk due to obesity and lifestyle decisions, we can’t afford to lose kids from sports because of the unintended consequences of overly ambitious parents.  Sports, first and foremost, are the gateway to a happy and healthy lifestyle – and this attitude is developed and maintained through largely through the attitudes instilled by parents.

One of my sport advisors in the area of sport psychology, Dirk Stroda (and father to four active and accomplished athletes) says there are ONLY two questions to ask your kids after practices and competitions:

Did you have fun? What did you learn?

If the answer is “no” and “nothing” too many times…then maybe it is time to find a new sport.  At the end of the day, sports are about having fun – even if sometimes it hurts – and about learning new things about self, others, the world. It must be fun and it must lead to learning about oneself and the world in which we live.