Parenting is a challenge. Throw an elite baseball player in the mix, and it becomes even more so. Communication is key to keeping the entire system moving in the right direction, but it takes some work! I came across an old gangster movie on TV. A tough guy in a trench coat rapped on a rusty door at the end of a dark alley. A latch slid open with a screech. This exposed a space only big enough to reveal a pair of eyes. They darted back and forth, a disembodied voice said,
This is like communicating with a teenager. We trade information via a small crack, each misspoken word narrowing the window. If it isn’t done just right, nothing gets through.
During the middle school and high school years, kids experience individuation. They strive for uniqueness as they figure out who they want to be. They work towards autonomy, but they are ill-equipped, incapable, and still under the rules of our homes, school, and polite society. It’s clunky for them. As part of the individuation process, parents transition from all-knowing oracles to ill-informed dummies overnight. It’s a sign of healthy development, but it isn’t a ton-of-fun as it happens. Parents communicate the way they always have, but with a kid who is changing fast. The dissonance created feels like disrespect, noncompliance, and moodiness, but it’s a normal part of growing up. It’s often a parent problem in not recognizing the change and pivoting fast enough.
Parents know more than kids, have more life experience, and have solutions to many problems. As parents help athletes negotiate life and sports, ideas and information aren’t the problem. It’s the delivery of information that needs work. Positive affect is necessary for optimal performance. That’s a fancy way of saying your athlete will perform better if they feel good emotionally. Communicating in a way that minimizes friction supports high performance and athletic development. Before I show you how to tune up communication with your slugger, I will highlight some common parenting communication blunders.
The righting reflex is the bad habit of immediate correction of what a kid says. We feel like we are doing them a solid. We want to cushion the blow, or save them time, heartache, or embarrassment. No matter how well intended or factually accurate, correction feels like criticism. By righting them, we are also implying they’re wrong. No one likes to be told they’re wrong. If there is a finger wag in the delivery, it is even more offensive to the athlete’s autonomy.
The offering of unsolicited advice is also guaranteed to shut down communication. Sometimes it’s an addition to the righting reflex, but it also stands alone as a raw nerve plucker. Nobody likes being told what to do. It implies the teller knows better than you and what you are doing is wrong. Both tweak the ego. This is prickly to kids because of their emerging attempts at independence. They buck up against external control because they want to be the captain of their ship. The resistance is magnified as it pertains to advice on sports. Sports are their domain. What could you possibly know, right? Unsolicited advice is an affront to their growing independence.
Kids and parents bump heads. It’s part of the deal, right? So why the fuss? It’s because kids avoid what they perceive as criticism. Parents react to their withdrawal with a heavier hand. Constant friction around sports creates a problem focus, negative thinking, and fear-based play. The athlete disengages in communication about sports and loses the support of what should be a safe home base. Parents lose an opportunity to be part of the process. In the moment, none of this feels catastrophic, but accumulating negative feelings perpetuate the issue.
What’s the best way to communicate?
To improve communication, learn to listen.
To be clear, listening isn’t waiting until it is your turn to talk and then hammering home your message. That only creates resistance. Even if you are communicating A-game level information, if it’s not being received, what’s the point? Don’t rationalize, offer logic, or filibuster, so your kid will see what you know is right. Being right isn’t the currency of healthy relationships, communication is. Even when you disagree with what you are hearing, which might be most of the time, there is a better way.
Instead of correcting and offering unsolicited advice, reflect. Reflection is a simple technique. Use phrases like, “I think I hear you saying…” or “Tell me if I have this right…” followed by what you think you heard. Reflection shows your athlete you are engaged, and disrupts your tendency to fix, solve, and correct. It affirms what your kid is saying and keeps communication moving. It offers the opportunity to check for understanding and ensure the correct information is being received.
When communication is flowing, then offer information. Before you do, ask for permission. It might sound like, “I hear what you are saying. Could I tell you what popped into my mind?”
If they don’t grant permission, honor that. It will get you some points for the next time you try.
Here is an expert level tip: ride out the eye roll and sigh that comes when you ask permission. It’s a natural reaction, not a sign of disrespect.
As a parent, you have a solution or two and some good advice for whatever the situation is. Telling them, even with permission, isn’t the best way to communicate it. Instead, lead them there. It’s like bowling with the gutter guards up. Help your athlete build momentum by gently nudging them back toward the center of the lane. This builds their autonomy and confidence. There is also a neurological benefit. You know the prefrontal cortex you hear so much about not being developed until our 20s? It develops through experience. If you tell them what’s right, your brain is drawing on experience you already have. If they get to the solution under their own power, their brain connects the dots, building and scaffolding their own experience. Each thing they muddle through, every mistake and reset they make, and each problem they figure out creates and solidifies neural connections. This is why “right” isn’t important. Being allowed to explore wrong is a better teacher.
Here is the infrastructure for leading. Make it your own.
The Old Way
There is a problem that needs solving. There are a handful of solutions. Parents typically offer the dreaded unsolicited advice, stating, “The solution is: thing A + thing B + thing C.” Kids react by immediately doing something contrary because they think their parents are dumb.
The New Way
There is a problem that needs solving. There are a handful of solutions. Instead of telling their athlete the solution, a parent leads them by asking, “What are you thinking about solving this?” Maybe the kid says, “I was thinking I might do thing A.” The knee-jerk parental response is, “You also have to do things B and C.” Resist it. Instead, probe a little, nudge. Follow with, “Sounds like a brilliant solution. Any areas of thing A that might not work?” This leads to, “Not sure… maybe if I also do thing B, it will be better.” Because you’re really on it as a parent, you whip out some of your newly gained skills asking for permission to deliver advice, “I think you’ve got it… can I tell you a thought I had while I was listening to you? What if you also did thing C?”
Do you see the magic? They wind up in the place you wanted them to be. They get to the solution on their own, that’s huge. As you learn to lead, don't let your questions come from a place of judgment. “Why” has a touch of assessment and criticism built into it. There shouldn’t be an implication or evaluation in the question. Rather, an inquiry about the motivation. Use phrases like, “Tell me more about that,” or “Help me understand…” Use the A + B + C example above as a template. You will support their growth while bypassing resistance. Make leading and asking questions your default. You let them be the expert as they share the thoughts and motivations behind their actions. You will keep the conversation moving, and gain insight you would never get by telling them what to do.
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.