"My parents weren't especially sporty, but that was offset by one considerable advantage: they never put any pressure on us." Pro cyclist, Mark Cavendish, author of Boy Racer
There is often a fine line for parents between encouraging and supporting their children in sports and having extreme, sometimes unrealistic, expectations. When I was growing up, my parents encouraged me and my siblings to be active, but raising a family of six almost forced them out of necessity to let our talents develop naturally. My father, a self-made man who found his passion in commercial real estate, would often say, "I want you to do what makes you happy." For her part, my mother, who had grown up on a farm in Ireland, always reinforced the notion that it took hard work and dedication to realize your talent.
The message I took from my parents was that I needed to find something about which I was passionate, and then develop my own magic, through self-determination, dedication, and desire. I may not have always succeeded as a youth athlete in doing that, but it is clear to me that my parents' values formed a solid foundation for my early life choices and experiences. Now, as parents ourselves, my husband and I do our best to keep our children engaged and active, but without burdening them with our expectations.
Avoiding the expectation game
Based upon my experiences as a daughter, a mother and sports psychologist, here are five tips for parents on ways to avoid getting caught playing the expectation game and to support your kids in sports in positive and constructive ways:
1. Define core family values
Defining family values may be as straightforward as communicating to your child that sport reflects life, and that maintaining core family values while playing sports is essential. For example, integrity, resilience, teamwork, kindness and commitment are some core values that may already be reinforced in your family culture. What are your top five family values for sports?
2. Facilitate happiness
Be the facilitator in the process of helping your child find happiness in their sports life. Emphasize that success is their performance, not the outcome of the game. By concentrating on the process, youwill avoid putting extra pressure on or setting high expectations for your child. The more your child is striving for the pursuit of excellence and letting go of the pursuit of perfection, the more satisfied they will be with their performance; they will have more positive energy and a better emotional mindset, and by letting go of the fear of failure, will be better able to actualize their full potential as athletes.
3. Instill confidence
Confidence comes from the ability to have faith and belief in one's self. Confidence is entirely different from being cocky. It is not an oxymoron for an athlete to be humbly confident. An athlete can be confident and display humility at the same time.
Youth athletes are constantly being challenged and learning new skills, so being confident may not be as easy as it sounds. As your child matures, they will learn to develop confidence on their own, but before they internalize a sense of confidence, you can help instill confidence by offering them consistent, positive reinforcement. How? It may be as simple as letting them know that you believe in them.
4. Encourage passion and a healthy, competitive mindset
A goal and a plan have to be coupled with desire. Let your child know that it is okay to be competitive and passionate about a game or activity that they love. Embrace and encourage passion by reviewing what it means to have a healthy, competitive mindset. Sit down with your child and set both short-term and long-term goals. Let your child experience his or her own competitiveness - the desire and the passion to obtain something. You can help them become confident by guiding them in the process of discovering what they want. If your child can't find their desire and their passion, they won't be able to set the goals they need to succeed in sports
5. Cultivate a positive family culture
Provide positive reinforcement by recalling for your child a good strategic move they made in a game or how they have improved a particular skill. Remind them that competitiveness is not just about winning; it's about passion and confidence. Competitiveness is the fire inside of your child, the spark that fosters creativity, artistry, persistence and the desire to improve.
A healthy, competitive perspective is a passion and confidence for excelling, exceeding, growing and achieving. It is the drive within to be stronger, better and more confident. As parents, you want your children to be happy and to bring out their very best. You can help by reinforcing what is "right" about your children on the athletic field. By doing so, you will be raising them to be successful and happy individuals who will exercise freedom and understand responsibility and expectations, not only in sports but in life.
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.