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Joy is in the Effort: 6 ways to help your athlete perform their best

Whether it be football or basketball, dance or cheer, we all want our kids to succeed. And as a parent, we can have an important role in that process.

Sports Psychologist Dr. Tom Golightly shares six ways you can help your athlete perform their best.


6 Ways to Help your Athlete Perform Their Best

1. Winning or losing is not success or failure

Before you say, well, of course the sports shrink is gonna say this, everyone should get a trophy, right?! Tom says he is uber-competitive. He loves winning. He works with individuals who make their living beating others. There’s nothing wrong with having a winner and a loser. But, focusing on the winning aspect too early can an come at the cost of teaching athletes how to be competent. Competence in sport is associated with long term engagement. If a child perceives that she/he is good at something they tend to stick with it. As parents we help them manage the pressure of competition and comparison by focusing on individual improvement. These improvements are the successes which breed feelings of competence. As your little athletes struggle, be there to offer help outside of practice – have them teach you the skills they are learning and show them if you’re not good at it.

2. Effort in and of itself is joyful!

Emphasize skill building. We sometimes get so caught up in the competition that we lose sight of what youth sports are about – development. If we’re worried about winning as parents, we sometimes communicate that the most important thing is winning a competition, and lose sight of all the necessary physical, mental, and emotional growth that happens away from the actual game day.  Most of the “good stuff” happens while we’re practicing and there is real joy in that. Most of Tom’s biggest athletic accomplishments happened for the first time outside of games. Help them to love the journey in their process.

3. Show them how to handle difficult events

As in almost all behavior, our kids are going to do what we do, not what we say. If the adults in the situation aren’t handling difficult events or results well, then kids won’t develop a sense of how to manage those situations involving disappointment. This does not mean avoid the thoughts and feelings of sadness or a sense of loss. Showing them how to handle tough feelings can help them work through that initial sting of difficulty, which helps them more calmly evaluate what went wrong and what they can do about it.

4. Recognize what is control-able, and what isn’t!

Often over-thinking stems from worry about things that aren’t in our control. Which means we can’t resolve the issues we’re worrying about. It works the same way in sports, whether our kids are worried about their competition, officials, teammates, coaches, the weather, or whatever. When talking with our children about their worry, be aware of things they are mentioning that is outside of their ability to control. Remind them that the only three things that are always under their control is their attitude, their effort, and how they prepare for competitions. Encourage and coach them to set their own goals (that doesn’t mean set goals for them) so they can be the owner of their performances and be deliberate about how they can prepare.

5. Not all nerves are bad

Nerves help us know we’re excited and ready for something that’s important to us. We don’t want to take away all of the nerves associated with an event. We want a happy medium of anxious energy to perform at our best. We can help our young athletes re-frame their nerves and make those little butterflies fly in formation. We do this by helping them pay attention to relevant things, feel positive feelings (e.g., gratitude, fun, excitement) and enjoy the physical sensations that come along with that nervous excitement. An added benefit of helping our children be more comfortable with the sensation of nerves is that we are encouraging them to approach and manage their sport-related fears instead of giving too much power to nerves associated with fears and doubt.

6. Help your child set boundaries around sport

We have some say over how our children spend time. In order to avoid some of the developmental issues associated with over identifying with sport performance, parents can monitor the amount of time and energy their young athlete is spending in sport. Tom previously talked about the tendency of younger athletes to spend more time in sport than professionals. Parents can be a check to the system and advocate for their son or daughter to let go of the need for over-involvement. This can help problems later on with personal and family identity issues surrounding sport.

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