There’s a fine line between being too pushy and helping to empower children in sport and Dr Josephine Perry looks at how to be supportive
Raising a child is never an easy job. Raising an athlete means adding chauffeur, cheerleader, role model, nutritionist, therapist and cash point to your regular parental duties.
There’s little doubt that sport is important for children. American research has found that students who took part in sport over just a three-month period improved their sociable behaviour, their classroom conduct, controlled their emotions better and performed better on school tests.
Other studies have found it increases self-esteem and confidence, improves children’s sleep, reduces stress and anxiety and helps improve their communication skills.
Helping our children to become athletes can be beneficial, but balance of parental support is crucial. Tiger Woods, famously destined to be nothing else but a top golfer from birth, has talked about how his father withheld dinner until he’d hit a certain number of balls.
While in Woods’ case he went on to huge success, many junior athletes quit when they find their sport is no longer fun, sense too much pressure to perform, or feel they are no longer good enough.
Parents have a massive influence on these factors and psychologists have come up with seven golden rules to help them get the balance right. Follow them and your child will become a positive, confident and motivated young athlete who loves the sport for years to come.
» Be supportive, but let your child take the lead
If you are dragging a child to training or your enthusiasm is greater than theirs then they will feel pressure which may cause competitive anxiety or burnout.
Conversely, if you are too passive or disinterested they may read this as you thinking that their sport and their efforts in it are not important. Studies of teenage girl athletes have found those who carried on competing and felt confident in their sport perceived their parents as involved, warm and supportive. This means stepping back, facilitating and encouraging their involvement but not to the point where your child feels under pressure.
» Give your children lots of sporting options
Early specialisation is not only dangerous for a child (placing them at risk of longer term repetitive injuries) but surprisingly means they are less likely to succeed in that sport at an elite level. Research in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports looked at the difference between those athletes who can be classed as elite and those classed as ‘nearly elite’.
They found elites took up their sport later, didn’t train so hard when younger and entered international competition two years later than near-elites. Even if your child has obvious talent for sport and seems keen to pursue it at the highest level, letting them try lots of sports while prioritising enjoyment in training and competition will actually help rather than harm their long-term ambitions.
» Remember – you are not the expert
Listen to their coach, respect their decisions and your child will follow your lead and learn a lot more. If you yell from the side of the track or deride the coach’s decisions on the car ride home your child will be constantly trying to make sense of conflicting messages.
If they are frustrated by something the coach says then ask your child open questions, understand their perspective, but try not to offer an opinion as this will give your child the freedom to problem solve and the space and responsibility to develop their own views.
» Sport should always be fun for children
Children feel pressure from so many places so try not to add to it. If they start to talk anxiously about forthcoming competitions aim to steer their thoughts back to the fun side of the sport.
Some anxiety around competition is normal. We all get butterflies in our stomach when we are about to approach something we care about but to keep it fun help your child reframe these butterflies as excitement about their competition or the friends they will see there rather than fear of doing badly and they will enjoy the process a lot more. SportsCoach UK reminds parents and coaches that for children the focus should be on the ‘FUNdamentals of learning: mixing physical skills such as balance, agility or co-ordination with fun, enjoyment and positive socialisation’.
If you have a daughter, this is even more important as the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation has found that 45% of girls drop out of sport because it is too competitive, with a focus on winning at the expense of participation.
» Learn how your child performs best and create that environment
Every child will have their own emotional needs and preferences, so the support you put in place around them and their sporting ambitions needs to be personal to them.
Part of creating this environment is being keenly aware of your impact on your child’s performance. Ask your child how they would like you to behave when you watch them compete.
Does your presence pressure them or do they thrive knowing they have your full attention? Researchers from the University of Toronto have found that parents’ behaviours directly impacts on the way athletes deal with stress. Their research found that when young athletes feel pressure from their parents, they are more likely to avoid difficult situations and not deal with the stress effectively. Great sports parents will help their athlete child develop positive coping strategies.
» Focus on the process not the result, praise effort rather than outcome
Your child will learn a lot from their sport, from training and competing and from those they socialise with at their club. They will learn far less from the results they achieve. A much higher percentage of time is spent in training than competition so supporting your child to value and enjoy skill acquisition over one off competition results will boost the internal pleasure they get from their sport.
The fear of not being good enough that puts so many young athletes off sport can stem from over-emphasis on performance targets, results and medals. Instead, focus on the required effort (that will often lead to success anyway) which takes the pressure off expected results and gives children the space they need to build the right skills and enjoy their sport.
» Sporting failure is not the same as personal failure
Focus on encouraging positive sporting behaviours such as trying hard, supporting their team-mates and being a good sport, not competition outcomes. Your child should finish their competition knowing you will be proud of them whatever their result.
Healthy competition is great, and we can all learn a lot from both winning and losing, but competition results need to be separate from your child’s self-esteem or their confidence will take a nose-dive. To keep your child in athletics make sure it stays fun, keep the pressure off and focus praise and attention on the positive behaviours and skills they achieve.
» Dr Josephine Perry is a consultant sport psychologist at performanceinmind.co.uk