“Perfect little Rachel.” That’s how her parents described and introduced their child, a high school second baseman. That expresses pretty high expectations, and I was curious to know how long they had been calling her that. She was not mentally tough, but it had little to do with her. It was because her parents were setting her up for failure.
Rather than falling into this trap, build your young athlete’s mental toughness with these five tips.
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1. Call your child a competitor
How do you introduce and describe your kid?“There goes our little winner” or “Here comes Johnny, our star goalie.” Be careful about using descriptors that emphasize only part of their identity. They are not always winners, and they certainly don’t always lose. They are only athletes at certain times, not always. But, they can compete in everything they do. They can compete in grades, paying attention and playing sports. Emphasize that competing means against yourself, not anyone else.
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2. Love your partner
It’s easier for me to be a good father than a good husband. I can love my kids 24/7. With my wife, however, I have to listen, reflect, emphasize, budget, discipline, strategize and co-parent. It’s part of being in a relationship, and it takes more work. The most important relationships take place within the four walls of our home. How we interact, show affection and disagree with our spouse or partner models how our kids will see the outside world. Remember, you get to define what your children think is “normal” behavior.
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3. Allow your child to take ownership
There’s a big difference between ownership and buy-in. Buy-in means it’s someone else’s idea. Ownership is more powerful. If competitors take ownership of their game, they will assume ownership within the team. Before each season, define your role and ask you kids what feedback they want from you. Allow them to pack their own bags, schedule their additional practices and use their free time. After the initial conversation, don’t intervene unless their safety or health is at risk.
4. Don’t call, email or text
Kids develop mental toughness by overcoming adversity. They need to be able to communicate with their coach and other players, but if we don’t allow them to use their own voice, they won’t face their fears—and fear will win. Most coach-athlete problems results from lack of communication. Too often, we text important messages to our kids instead of setting a up a time to talk.
5. Don’t talk about other players, coaches or refs
Sports are about winning, but they’re also about losing and getting better. Losing sucks, but it isn’t fatal. We help build our kids’ mental toughness by allowing them to experience setbacks and deal with adversity. If we try to remove their ownership by blaming anyone else, we give an out, an excuse. If there’s an out, they will take it and learn to use it. Bad calls, bad plays and poor execution happen, but what lesson are we teaching when we say, “it wasn’t your fault, it was something else”? When our kids play well and win, it must also be due to something else. We can’t have it both ways.