As an applied sports psychologist, I am constantly asked by parents for the best sports advice they can give to their child.
With the increasing focus in youth sports on success, I tell parents that to help their child be the best they can be in their sport, there are three main points they should stress, all of which emphasize positive reinforcement as their overriding theme:
It is important for kids to understand the importance of staying focused during practice to learn the skills they will need to perform at their best in competition. Even if the drills sometimes seem boring, kids need to know that they serve a purpose; that repetitive drills during practice enables them to execute those skills under game pressure.
Tip: Two excellent catch-phrases you can use to reinforce this message are "practice-to-play" and "train-to-trust," so on game day, you can say to your child, "You have done the hard work in practice, now trust your feelings, reactions and body today. Believe in yourself."
2. Have fun, not expectations
Your child will perform at their best in competition if they don't fear failure or success, and instead just play for the sake of playing. Remind them that you won't be there to judge their performance, and that they shouldn't be judging themselves either. Taking this approach will free up their energy, so instead of experiencing stress in the heat of competition, they will be having fun.
Tip: A great way to drive home this message in a concrete way is to ask your child to write down their goals on an index card before you leave for the game, then put the card in a box, close the lid, and leave the box at home, not to be opened again until after you return home.
3. Internalize motivation
Ask your child to play for the pure joy of playing, not for external rewards like a trophy or blue-ribbon. Athletes who have a passion for their sport (e.g. are intrinsically motivated), who play sports because of the way it makes them feel, are the ones who achieve success in the long-run.
Tip: Be on the lookout for signs that your child isn't having fun. Make sure your child knows that they should only continue playing a sport if they are having fun. If it isn't fun, tell them you will be happy to sit down with them after the season to determine if another sport might be a better fit for them, emotionally, mentally and/or physically.
Be a role model
As parents, it is important to be role models for our children, to not only talk the talk, but walk the walk. If they see you leading a healthy, active life, and engaging in activities that make you happy, excited and confident, they will stay active and play sports for fun, too!
K.C. Wilder, Ph.D., is a former college cycling All-American, two-time national masters short track cycling champion and professional cyclist, certified sports trainer and sports psychologist. She lives in Bucks County, Pennsylvania with her husband, two sons and yellow lab. For more information about Dr. Wilder, click here.