Sport is really important for children. The physical benefits are obvious but research has also found school children who exercise improve their sociable behaviour, their classroom conduct, control their emotions better and perform better on school tests. It also increases their self-esteem and confidence, improves their sleep, reduces stress and anxiety and helps improve communication skills.
So pushing kids towards sport can have tonnes of benefits. And yet often sports parents have an awful reputation. Taking Tennis as an example, Steffi Graf’s dad had her down to be a tennis star from birth. At 3 she was expected to hit the ball back to her dad 25 times before she was allowed ice-cream. At five she was competing. Andre Agassi’s dad was no better. He hung tennis balls above his cot. By seven he was expected to hit 2,500 balls a day. The dads of Bernard Tomic, Jennifer Capriati, Mary Pierce and Jelena Dokic all got into fights over their kid’s tennis – including at times directly with their kids. These players were successful despite their parents’ behaviour. Thousands of others aren’t including the 70% of kids who drop out of sport by the age of 13. Many because gentle encouragement turned into parental pushing and the sport they used to love becomes full of pressure and stresses and absolutely no fun.
So here are six simple rules to help you get the balance right so your child can become a positive, confident and motivated young athlete who loves sport long into adulthood.
Rule 1 – Help them develop a long term love of sport
Many adults do sport to release the pressures of everyday life. Kids need to do this too and sport should be a stress relief, not something that adds to their worries. So there are three ways to help your child develop this long term love of sport in a healthy way:
- Give them a range of sporting options. It keeps sport fun and their minds fresh. Trying lots of sports creates the building blocks for success in terms of health (movement, coordination, balance, techniques, strength) and life skills (working to capacity, understanding the science of practice, learning to accept and use feedback, learning from and moving on from mistakes and self-reflection). Even if you want your child to turn into the Federer or Williams of their generation, research has found that those who specialise in their sport too early are less likely to make it as an elite athlete than those who competed in a range of sports in their early teens.
- Remember children are not mini athletes. They are children. If they develop a self-identity as a type of athlete early in life it may stifle other facets of their personality.
- It is much easier to cope with the tough times in sport if your child is intrinsically motivated and really loves the sport they do. If they are competing because they love the rewards or accolades or to keep you as parents happy then they will be fine when they compete well but when they go through a bad patch (as almost every athlete inevitably will) they will really struggle and may well drop out.
Rule 2 – Be supportive but let your child take the lead
The need for intrinsic motivation means you want your child’s involvement in sport to be self-led. The Paralympic swimmer and now cyclist Sarah Storey has said her parents always made it clear they would never wake her up for swimming. If she wanted to go to training at 5:30am it was her job to wake them. So if your child is pushing to go to training then fantastic. If you have to issue threats to go then the intrinsic motivation is not there and eventually those threats will backfire and the child will refuse to continue playing. But go too far the other way and they will think you don’t care or don’t want them to do well. It is a difficult balancing act so here as a few ways to let them lead while making it clear you support them:
- Help them pack their kit before training or competition
- Encourage them to get a good night’s sleep and make the sleep environment as conducive to this as possible This will put them in a more positive frame of mind, feel more creative and help their concentration.
- Encourage them to eat breakfast as they will need the energy both physically and mentally to help them concentrate when playing and make good decisions.
- Be early to competitions so they don’t panic or get stressed.
- If they are worried about letting you down just remind them you love watching them compete and that no matter what the score is you are proud of the way they have shown up and put lots of effort in.
Rule 3 – Learn how your child performs best and create that environment
One of the biggest difficulties all athletes struggle with is comparison. So many compare themselves to each other. This is hard enough as an adult but in school, when you are continually being ranked in educational results and tests and are all developing at different speeds it is really tough. So it is important to help children understand we are each different and all bring our own talents and skills to our sport. Chat with them about all the things that make us different (age, genetics, medical history, bone, muscle, tendon structure, length of time playing sport, sleep, nutrition, school pressures, training history and our personality traits) and how this will mean they should not compare themselves to others in their sport.
Rule 4 – Focus on the process not the result
This is important for all of us – whether 6 or 60. We should focus on praising the effort someone has put into their sport rather than the outcome. Focusing on results simply creates pressure, stress and anxiety and increases risk of drop out. In focusing on the effort they put in, the way they played and their sporting behaviours they will continue to improve and develop a growth mindset. There are three ways as a parent to help your child learn this:
- Don’t focus on or discuss scores in depth. Focus on the skills they used, how they behaved, how well they bounced back from a difficult period.
- Help them reflect and self-analyse their competitions. What did I do well, what could I do better, what will I continue doing, what will I do differently. This makes every competition becomes a positive learning experience.
- In competitions your job is just to watch. Not shout advice, or yell at officials. Cheer and applaud when you should and celebrate hard work and effort.
Rule 5 – Teach them sporting failure is not the same as personal failure
Every time you catch your child making statements like ‘I failed’ ‘I’m a failure’ ‘I’m rubbish’ ‘My team sucks’ pick them up on the words they are using and reframe them to show that the behaviour that day, or the outcome of that single competition, wasn’t great but that it does not reflect on them as a person. Tell them it was a bad result, but that doesn’t make them a bad player. Dramatic language often comes into play when we feel we’ve not done our best but separating out the sport from the child helps to put it back in its place.
Rule 6 – Use evidence based research to keep them injury free
Finally, staying injury free will help keep your child active and improving. Research has looked at how to minimise the risk of injury to kids and following the six tips here will help:
- Total hours of organised sport each week should be less than their age
- Incorporate some age appropriate strength and conditioning work
- Compete in only one sport a season
- Make your child take at least one day off a week from organised sport
- Encourage them to take a month off after their competitive season ends
- Hold them off specialising in sport until 14 (as early specialisation increases risk of over-use injuries, burnout and losing motivation)
It is competition season. Working mainly with athletes in individual summer sports means everyone is currently slap bang in the middle of their seasons. While the sports call for very different physical skills many of the issues the athletes are dealing with come down to the same fundamentals prompting me to reflect on some universal tactics used by athletes performing at their very best.
- 80: 20 Training: 80% of your training sessions should feel doable and shouldn’t stretch you too much. They are building fitness and skills. 20% of your training should be pushing you into places you are not sure you can go. These are the adversity sessions which physiologically build your top end performance but most importantly from a psychologist perspective help develop your mental toughness.
- Build lots of little successes: We get our most robust confidence from two areas: knowing we have the skills we need and seeing the evidence of when we have done well before. So in your training find lots of small wins, lots of little things that you can tick off and feel confident you are getting closer towards your goal. That usually means breaking down your goal into the smallest elements possible and achieving each part bit by bit.
- Make as much as possible feel familiar: To reduce our anxieties we need to make the environment we are going into when we perform seem as familiar and welcoming as possible. So training on the course we are going to race on, or practicing at the club our next match is on helps. If crowds make you nervous get some friends and family down to watch a training session. While uncomfortable at that time it will make everything feel much easier come competition day.
- No black and white: If competitions become seen as a win or a fail you will have a miserable time. If you see each competition as an opportunity to learn you can extract far more from each competition, find far more benefits and possibly win along the way.
- Find your motivation first, then support: Having everyone else tell you how good you are is lovely – but it doesn’t give you the intrinsic motivation that is so important to mobilizing your drive to perform. So start with that drive, understand what it is that makes you love your sport, then go out and find others who share that passion to help you improve.
- Control the controllables: There is so much in competition you have no control of. And worrying about those things just wastes the energy you should be putting into your sport. But lots of elements you can control and worrying about those things, and doing something about them, is often what makes your competition successful. Winging it may give you a neat excuse for not doing well but it rarely creates the ideal environment for a successful performance. Instead, meticulous planning so no kit is forgotten, knowledge and having trained specifically for the course ahead and self-awareness to design the right mental strategies will all be beneficial and improve your chances of success.
- Stop focusing on winning: You can rarely control an exact outcome, there are too many variables involved. But you can control the processes you need to follow to be in with the best chance of winning. So focus on the processes, the day to day elements of your sport you will have been working on for years. This keeps you focused, stops you freezing when you realise the big picture of what is at stake and keeps you grounded in good, strong technique. If you get this right the results will follow.