An elite athlete and his parents came to see me because the athlete doesn’t “hustle.” The dad played pro ball, and hustle was his thing, so it’s creating heat around baseball. Dad said his son is killing it in practice, but in the game, he comes up short. He offered examples while the mom nodded along. The kid slumped in his seat and listened quietly. I asked the player if what his parents said sounded about right. He shrugged. I asked what he thought. He said his performance suffered because he was playing safe, pulling back, and tightening up. He is afraid of making mistakes, getting pulled from the game, and how that plays out with his dad. The problem isn’t hustle. It is fear of the car ride home. Ouch, right?
There’s something escalated about sports, compared to the other things our kids do. Imagine a kid screeching a wrong note at a recital and seeing a parent stomp out of the auditorium hurling curse words. It doesn’t happen. Our kid’s sports seem to represent us personally, and their failures can be tough to take. We emotionally invest in their performance for many reasons. Sometimes, like in the story above, our ego is involved as we live vicariously through our kid’s sport experience. We’re human. It feels great when our kid shines and not so great when they flounder. Other times we are frustrated because we see them underperform, get benched, or blow a big play. We hurt for them when they hurt. We don’t like the bad feelings we have any more than they like the bad feelings they have, so we kick into doing mode.
Doing mode and being mode are components of mindfulness practice. Being mode is mindful. We accept the current experience as it is without assessing it as bad and making commentary on it. Doing mode is mindless. We “awfulize” the current experience, stirring up a big pot of bad feelings. In the wake of a poor performance, powerful emotions create a problem focus. The freshness of the current failure leaks bad feelings into all areas. It compels us to do something about how we feel. The car ride home is often the first private access we have to our athlete and the first opportunity to process our own bad feelings. We want to solve a problem that can’t be solved, especially on the car ride home. There is a better way.
Step One: Understanding Your Reactions
Bad feelings and the connected emotional overload come from the story we tell ourselves about the strike out, fielding error, or loss, not the things themselves. The default story is negative because the emotional investment in our kid’s performance has us worked up. We compare the current under performance with their highlight reel and use the discrepancy between them as an indicator of future doom and gloom. There is an emotional, psychological, or physical reaction to this negative assessment, causing us to feel something bad. These feelings signal the brain that something is happening and influence the next thought. We are in a negative thought/feeling loop.
Get to know your reactions to your athlete’s poor performance. Instead of letting them roll, approach what you are thinking and feeling. When does the reaction start? Maybe on the car ride to the field, as you mentally explore what ifs? Is it a slow burn from the first error, or does it come on suddenly? Observe what you feel emotionally. Is it anger, disappointment, or something else? What do you feel physically? Really explore. Is it tight shoulders, butterflies, or something else. Notice your thoughts. What are you telling yourself? You will find that the story you tell and the emotional, psychological, and physical reactions you have are consistent across multiple situations. Look for comparison to your own experiences at the same age, and/or projection of how the current situation will influence your athlete’s future. These are common themes.
Step 2: Reframing - Managing the Story
Any situation has many potential stories. We apply a handful of tried-and-true ones to most situations. They are habit, often rooted in our own personal fears and insecurities, not accurate representations of what is really happening. There is always a better story to tell. For instance, the current bad outcome is one brick in the wall of a larger overall positive experience. It’s part of the foundation to building consistently high performance. That’s an accurate story. There is an infrastructure that supports this. In sport psychology lingo, a task involving climate is a motivational state in which mastery of the process is the goal. Focus is on progressive skill development over natural ability, comparison to others, or outcomes. It feels bad in the moment, but failure is a powerful and necessary learning tool in developing mastery of the process. Parents who keep this in mind will be less reactionary and more supportive when their athlete stumbles.
Managing your narrative allows for emotional peace and a reduction in negative reactions. This kind of reframe creates a better ride home, for sure. That’s not the only benefit. Kids who are process oriented (vs. outcome oriented) develop greater empathy, emotional regulation, psychological well-being, greater hope and happiness, and less sadness and depression. They bully less and care about their friends more. This isn’t an “everyone gets a trophy,” mentality. Winning matters. The best path to winning comes from a focus on skill mastery, the processes of peak performance, and physical and psychological development. When an athlete’s motivation is mastery instead of outcome, the outcome takes care of itself. Failure, meltdowns, and losing are a valuable part of the mastery process.
Step 3: What Do You Say on the Car Ride Home?
My favorite mindful question is, “What does this moment call for?” It sorts things out fast when you use it correctly! Apply it to the car ride home after a tough game.
The answer will never be:
- Process your own bad feelings
- Offer unsolicited criticism or advice
- Trash-talk other players, coaches, refs, or anyone else
- Stonewalling so you don’t say something emotionally charged
Sometimes the moment calls for nothing. This is being mode, as described above. That might mean silence. Silence is hard when we have things we need to process, but it isn’t about us. If the moment calls for silence, zip it, just be. Being mode also might mean talking about everything but the game.
- Are individually constructed nachos better than the mound of chips and cheese kind?
- How many bigfoots… bigfeet… (however you pluralize ‘squatches) realistically inhabit the Pacific Northwest?
- Who would win in a fight between ninjas and pirates? Obviously, it’s ninjas. They would infiltrate the pirate organization and take them down from the inside, but that’s a conversation for a different day.
When you’re worked up, your kid might be too. Let them lead and dictate when the game is discussed. They are probably worked up about something different from you. Ask them questions like, “How are you doing,” “What’s on your mind,” or “What would you like to talk about?” Offer a non-emotionally charged platform, they will fill in the space in the best way for them in that moment.
Besides being a mental skills coach, I’m a sport parent. The following quote has helped me out of a few jams, for sure. I think of it a lot. Maybe it will help you if you are searching for something to say or a reframed perspective.
In Changing the Game, John O’Sullivan says,
Children need to feel cared for and to know with certainty that they are loved regardless of the outcome of any game or match. Take a second and think about your actions and reactions after your child’s last sporting event. Did you smile and say, “I love watching you play?”
I love watching you play. How does that hit you? For me, it’s been an anchor. Occasionally it’s a pointy stick poking me back to the right perspective. My kid is playing her sport in college now. Looking back, it’s the hard times in sport that made her the person she is and taught her the most. While they’re nice if they happen, glory and achievement aren’t the goal of sports. Developing a well-rounded human being who can face adversity, work with others, and manage their emotions is.
Last month’s post was all about communication with your athlete, if you missed it check it out, it might give you some more ideas about winning the car ride home.
Hi, I’m Dr. J. I am a mental performance coach at Mind Right Sports Psychology. I work with athletes and their systems, building the mental processes that drive high performance. This includes individuals, parents, teams, and organizations, from beginners to pros. No matter what level of sport, mental skills training builds a repeatable approach to performance, enabling an athlete to perform at the upper levels of their ability consistently.