As parents, we want sports to help our kids learn teamwork, become leaders, build mental toughness, and develop social skills. We want sports to be fun. Sometimes this doesn’t align with the way we assess their performance. Instead, we measure by winning/losing, mistakes, and comparison to capabilities and expectations.
Viewed from the bleachers and the folding chairs, repeated mistakes, bad decisions, and perceived subpar performance cause us to heat up. Threat sensors in the primitive part of the brain fixate on what’s upsetting us. This information becomes brighter, louder, and crisper than everything else. We dive headfirst into a negative thought/feeling loop, creating a problem focus. Where there is a problem, we want a solution. We hang our hats on what we think the solution is and wind up focused on the wrong things. Parents know what their athletes are capable of on their best day and assess to that high standard. Comparing a kid’s highlight reel to their day-to-day performance creates the perception the athlete is falling short, and they need to do more. In the car and around the dinner table, doing more becomes the focus. Doing more usually isn’t the answer. It creates a misplaced focus and choppy waters between parent and athlete.
We want to help, we want to right the ship, and we want our kids to be flawless performers. Right after competing is the worst time to tell them how we think they should do it. To a stressed athlete, our energy feels negative, and our commentary appears finger waggy. Because the heat is up for the parent and the athlete, any hint of negativity in the post-performance discussion keeps the stress response active for both. The athlete’s receptivity is lowered because mental and physical tiredness and heightened emotion make it difficult for them to hold attention. Even if the parent is bringing A-Game level information, it’s being absorbed at a C-Game level. Plus, if it was a rough outing, they want a little distance from it.
To Be Better, Assess Better
The best thing for a parent to do after a tough performance is say, “We’ll talk later.” When you talk, ask for permission to give your thoughts. Especially if they involve you saying what you think your athlete should do.
Consider these 2 simple truths about a tough day. They are easy to bypass in the present moment, but feed what sports are about.
- When an athlete stumbles, then gets back up, that’s a rep toward resilience.
- When they fail but try again, that’s another rep for growth.
To assess better, reframe how you measure performance. This brings the heat down for you and your athlete and allows for more constructive conversations. Don’t view your kids through your own life and sporting experience. Thinking you had the wisdom and experience you currently have when you were their age is revisionist history. You earned your wisdom doing the same dumb stuff and making the same mistakes they’re making now.
Consider the following 4 anchors when measuring your athlete’s performance. They are a better measure than individual statistics, outcomes, and comparison to expectations.
Measure preparation by whatever the athlete’s normal day-to-day responsibilities are to the sport, team, and coach. This is opposed to what you think and feel they need to be doing. They aren’t usually the same things. Avoid the trap that the only solution to a performance that falls below your expectations is to put in more work. Instead of focusing on lapses, view things holistically.
If there is more to be done, discuss it. Build it up incrementally and let them lead the process with a nudge from you when needed. Remember, being hard to get out of bed, moody, and unmotivated aren’t signs of a subpar athlete. They are signs of a normal teenager. If there is a good plan in place, an athlete is showing up for practice, private training sessions, and doing what they need to do, they’re good. When you assess their performance, you will find what you are looking for, so look for effort in the right direction.
The Plan and In-Game Adjustments
Plans help us prepare, provide simulations for practicing, and provide a path to follow in competition. The teams your kids play on provide most of the plans for practice and performance so that takes care of itself. Have conversations with your athlete about what the coach’s plan is. That way, you can accurately assess their performance against the plan.
In-game plans are a little tricky because the plan requires commitment to a course of action over time to see a result. It’s tempting for an athlete to pop out of the plan and use their individual talent to do something cool.
For parents, it’s more exciting to see our kid do this, of course. As a volleyball dad, when my kid is on a hot streak, I think she should get every set (obviously). When I mention it after the game, she reminds me that the plan is a balanced offensive attack. Remember, the plan differs from the parent’s preference. Measure their alignment to the latter accordingly. The discipline to stick to the plan is a sign of a dialed-in athlete.
Now for the other side of the coin. Mike Tyson famously said, "Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth." That’s a wisdom mic drop, for sure. Locking into a plan too rigidly creates slower processing and reaction times because what’s happening doesn’t line up with what’s supposed to be happening. If they are entertaining thoughts like, “This isn’t how it’s supposed to be going,” they compromise their performance. I’m not sending out a call to abandon plans or go against coaching directives. Have a plan and know it inside and out.
A well-rounded athlete (and their parent) can pivot, accepting things rarely go as planned. To measure this beyond the eyeball test, look for the ability to discuss their reasoning for sticking to a plan or pivoting away from it. If they can explain why (even if you think something different), they’re doing good. Above all else, an athlete needs to be present in the moment of action.
Managing the Internal
An athlete must manage their activation levels, self-talk, and anxiety and emotion. These are internal states, so I caution parents not to assume what’s going on. Some signs of internal distress are negative self-talk, dazed look in the eyes, increased muscle tension, and butterflies. These are normal stress responses in competition, so if they have them but still do ok, they are managing them. Body language is a good indicator of what’s happening internally, so pay attention. You’re a parent, not an FBI profiler, so form a flexible hypothesis. Observe your athlete’s body language, reactions to mistakes, and demeanor. Make a mental note about what you think you see. I am intentional in stating what you THINK you see. Your perspective is filtered through a lot of your own biases, opinions, and preferences. Let your hypothesis guide your discussion, but DO NOT go in guns blazing with it at your first opportunity. Even if your perspective is dialed in, it’s a bad approach.
Have a conversation about it when your athlete is ready and there is no heat. Instead of saying, “I noticed your negative body language, I can tell you were frustrated,” ask, “What were you thinking and feeling out there?” It’s a much better way to assess their internal stuff. Resist the urge to jump into problem solving. “Tell me more,” is a better approach than, “Let me tell you what I think.” If this is the structure of each debrief, it becomes more informative and less hostile. When you string a few of these constructive conversations in a row, you will gain insight into their internal states. This allows for constructive conversations about managing them. It will also tune up your powers of observation as you compare your hypothesis to their experience.
How your athlete handles mistakes, failures, and losses says a lot about them as an athlete and as a person. The same is true of parents. An athlete who makes excuses, blame pushes and has tantrums, is outcome focused and ego-driven. In psychological terms, ego is our sense of self, so when part of what we think makes us valuable is winning, anything less is hard to deal with. An athlete who can say, “They were better than me today and that’s ok,” is on the right track. Look for the ability to give credit to others and take responsibility for their own actions: win, lose, or draw. This is a sign of a healthy kid. Nurture the idea that failure is not a demoralizing event, it’s feedback. To measure success, look for characteristics of a growth mindset. This would include things like approaching difficult things as a challenge, the confidence to take risks, and persisting through adversity. An athlete who can take the lesson provided when they fall short as an opportunity to try again, try harder, or try something different is doing great.
Celebrate great performances and victories. Don’t let them become the standard you measure all others by. Avoid letting anything less than a great performance be a method of judging your athlete’s motivation and commitment. They grow more as athletes and people from friction than smooth sailing. This growth is cumulative, so pay more attention to the things presented here than to individual statistics and outcomes. When you do, enjoyment is increased because you see a complete picture of performance. Don’t forget, you see things through more experienced eyeballs than your kids. They don’t have the context you do. Even if you’re nailing the parenting thing and are keenly aware of their perspective, they still aren’t you at their age. They are different people leading different lives. If you need proof of this, the next time you have a car full of kids on the way to Chick-fil-A, ask how many of them know what a cassette tape is!
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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.