Each month, I teach a new facet of performance psychology to help you help your athlete be better.

What about you, though? How’s your high-performance parent game? This month is all about tuning you up as an elite-level parent. High-performance sports parents balance supporting their child's athletic endeavors while also ensuring they have a well-rounded life beyond sports. In this month’s blog, I'll provide some strategies to help you reach your full potential.

You want to see your children succeed in whatever they choose to do. It's especially rewarding to see them excel on the diamond. Like we teach our kids, the only thing you can control is you. Your environment is the only thing you can control in their athletic development. I’m going to give you some ideas on how to do that. Whether you're a seasoned sports parent or a newbie, just starting out, these tips will help you dominate the parenting game!

Building Sports/Life Balance

It’s easy to be consumed by highs, lows, and the daily grind of sports in supporting a competitive athlete. As a high-performing parent, remember that the real goal is to develop an excellent human. It may seem paradoxical, but the right time away from sports improves performance. Encourage, support, and facilitate your children pursuing diverse interests beyond athletics. A well-rounded life improves physical and mental well-being, prevents burnout and injury, promotes better sleep, mood, and reduces stress. Your athlete must have recovery time and fun away from sports to be their best. 

Family time away from sports improves sports/life balance, reduces stress, and promotes mental well-being for the whole family. Take advantage of a weekend off or a break in the schedule to do something fun instead of doing nothing. Considering the busyness of your schedule, doing nothing sounds appealing, and it has its benefits sometimes. Be intentional about fun and family, too. Add an extra day here and there at away tournaments to do something novel. As a sports dad, my daughter and I made it a point to hit the zoo in whatever city volleyball took us to. In addition, we would have the food we knew a particular city was famous for. I had a burnt-end brisket plate in Kansas City that had me rethinking Texas bar-b-que’s dominance. Settle down fellow Texans… I said, “Rethinking…” we’re still better.

When I work with athletes and families as a mental skills coach, athletes often complain that sports talk dominates family interactions. They are in it doing hard work nonstop. It’s much more of a grind for them than it is for us. Parents just sit and watch a tiny part of their experience, so there is a lot we want to talk about and process. Remember, sometimes they need a break from talking about it too! A high-performance parent learns when to talk about sports, when to talk about something else, and when to not talk at all.

High-Performance Parent Actions

This part isn’t for you, reader. It’s for other parents. A high-performance parent is mindful of their words, actions, and behaviors, knowing they have an influence on any set of ears that hears them. This includes what you say at the venue. And in the car. And at the dinner table. And at the hotel bar after a tournament. There is a lot to vent about in youth sports, that’s for sure. It's difficult to put aside feelings of frustration with the coaching staff or disappointment in your athlete's or team’s performance. There’s also the expense, playing time, crazy parents, last-minute venue changes, daddy ball, and the concession stand running out of cheese for nachos to complain about. Try not to. Those same things are exceptional teaching moments if you choose to go that route. Pay attention. Things you say flavor the environment you are creating.

Make fair play, being a great team player, and emotion management the focus when there are rough spots. Make finding the challenge hidden in adversity part of your system. This ability is a major component of a growth mindset. Optimism and pessimism are just how we explain our experiences to ourselves. Model optimism, it’s the better choice. Don’t read this as a call to “think positively.” It’s hard to find positivity when you are knee deep in a bad situation. Instead, consciously choose a description of the current adversity that promotes growth. Pessimism in the form of thoughts like “This sucks,” or “This is unfair,” might be objectively true, but they trigger a negative emotional, psychological, and physical response. Equally true, and more helpful, are thoughts like, “This is where I grow,” or “I’ll show them.” Same situation, superior emotional, psychological, and physical responses. Harness the good vibes with a good narrative.

Show your athlete how to manage troublesome people and situations by letting them watch you do it with grace. In sports, like life, we only have control over ourselves. Model that for your athlete by showing and teaching personal responsibility for thoughts, actions, and behaviors. You will help build resilience and new skills that go beyond athletics.

Infuse Motivation Into Your Environment 

As a sports parent, it’s important to make your environment supportive. It should help your athlete celebrate their successes, learn from their mistakes, and stay on task when it’s difficult. Remember that today, it’s not about being a professional athlete or about pushing them towards any goal they don't enjoy. It's all about creating an environment where your child can grow as a person and enjoy the sport they love. Over time, the motivational climate you build provides elite-level athletic development. 

From a sport psychology perspective, there are two kinds of motivational environments. You only control the environment you are responsible for as a parent. Here's a comparison of the two. Which one feels better to you?

Mastery Orientation:

  1. Athletes with a mastery orientation are process focused. They commit to developing their skills and improving their performance over time.
  2. They focus goals on self-improvement and learning, not winning or beating others.
  3. Setbacks and failures are seen as opportunities for growth and learning.
  4. Builds a growth mindset. The athlete knows they can continuously improve their abilities. 
  5. Enjoyment in the process of training and competing, not just the outcome.

Performance Orientation:

  1. Focused on winning and beating others.
  2. They focus goals on winning, beating others, or achieving a specific outcome.
  3. Setbacks or failures are weaknesses or lack of ability.
  4. Promotes a fixed mindset. Abilities are innate and unchangeable.
  5. Focus is on the outcome of the competition, not the process of training and competing.

A mastery orientation is focused on development and growth, while athletes with a performance orientation are focused on winning and beating others. As a parent of a competitor, “winning and beating others” might tickle your ears. If so, a performance orientation feels like a home run. Hold on though, tap the brakes. This whole deal is a paradox. We want to see our kids crush it, of course. To win more and beat others, a mastery focus is best. It is important to build an environment where the focus is on effort, process, and growth over winning alone. When effort is the currency of the system and the process is the focus, winning comes.

High-Performance Parent Words

If you’re going to be an all-star youth sports parent, you must know the right things to say! As a volleyball dad, I have learned when and where to talk. Never right after a butt-whooping, for sure. Especially not after a personal meltdown! When things settle, ‘I’ll ask, “You want to talk about it?” She’ll yay or nay me, and we move on.

Ideally, a parent supports and doesn’t offer much performance feedback. Especially negative feedback. There are coaches for that. Make the environment you build and maintain a safe place for communication when your kid wants to talk. While not the parent’s intent, advice and feedback often feel like criticism to your kid’s ears. The message intended, and the message received, are different. Negative messages hurt their confidence and cause stress, anxiety, and over time, lower self-esteem. Fear of further criticism discourages children from getting after it, enjoying the sport, and harms their overall growth.

If you must offer constructive feedback, make sure it’s ok at that moment to do it. Ask permission like, “Is it ok if I tell you what I noticed?” Respect the response. If it’s yes, go for it. If it’s no, respect that. Always prioritize relationships over saying your piece. Also, check your motivations. Don’t use “constructive feedback” to express your frustrations. Boy-oh-boy, is it hard to put aside feelings of disappointment with a performance or frustration with the coaching staff! If there is even a fiber of venting in your motivation to talk about things, sit on it for a while. It will probably come out better after some time has passed.

Suggesting minimal critical feedback isn’t a call for unmerited praise. Excessive compliments aren’t good either. They create a need for affirmation. Unconsciously, the athlete learns that value comes from being told they’re great. They don’t get after it for the sake of getting after it. Instead, they become affirmation monsters, gobbling up praise and avoiding things that might bring criticism. They're disrupted when they don’t get it because they learn praise equals value.

The real sweet spot is encouragement. While praise focuses solely on what they achieved, encouragement focuses on what it took to get there. Encouragement helps build resilience in difficult situations and creates a positive experience that goes beyond the sidelines. Encourage and praise effort instead of individual performance and winning. Avoid feedback like "great job" or "I'm proud of you." These phrases hint that value and worth come from achievement. “You worked hard and that showed on the field,” is much better.

Get Your Gear On, You're Going In…

As a mental skills coach, I only get an hour here or there with your athlete. Same with their other coaches. You get all the rest of the time. Becoming a successful athlete and well-rounded kid requires a healthy sports/life balance, an environment that nurtures growth, and effective communication. Managing that is on you. The better you do, the better they do. You are a high-performance parent, and this is your playing field! If you need some additional help with this, reach out.

Everything I teach athletes, I teach parents, too. Know that mental skills training isn’t just about fixing slumps or regaining confidence. That’s the smallest part of it. It is a systematic approach to developing mental toughness, confidence, and consistent high performance. Athletes and parents who train their mental game have a significant advantage over other athletes. This advantage benefits them from their first session through the end of their playing days. The skills developed also serve them well in life. 

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I’m Dr. J. I am a mental performance coach and founder of 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 enables an athlete to perform at the upper levels of their ability consistently. If you would like a consultation or to jump right into mental skills training for your athlete, reach out!
Email: doctorj@mindrightsportpsychology.com

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