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Effective Communication: A Key To Raising High-Performing Athlete


The key to any successful parent-child or coach-child relationship is good communication. As George Bernard Shaw says, "The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place." Strong communication skills are a fundamental component of raising a high-performing athlete and an essential part of keeping them in sports throughout their childhood and making them an athlete for life.

Mom with football playing son

In order to get a better handle on communication, I spoke to Dr. Albert Oppedisano, author of Education and Empowerment for the 21st Century Parent, to get some advice. Besides being an author and practicing psychologist, Dr. Oppedisano is part of the State of California Hostage Negotiation team, and I figure if there is anyone who knows how to speak calmly and rationally, extract information and concessions, and make sure a conversation is engaging, it has to be a hostage negotiator.

In addition, Dr. Oppedisano has spent years counseling some of California's most notorious prisoners, from death row inmates to violent offenders serving life sentences. I am quite sure that if there is anyone who wants to share their feelings less than a teenager, it is probably some of these inmates. When Dr. Oppedisano speaks about communication, I listen.

Here are a few ideas that might help you communicate better with your kids:

Be an active listener

Become an active listener and try to understand the emotions your child is trying to express. We all know that kids, especially teenagers, love to give one- and two-word answers, which leaves adults frustrated and, at times, angry. If we think about it, though, we open the door to these answers by asking closed-ended questions, such as "How was practice?" This leads to those one- and two-word answers we all love: "Fine" or "Okay" or my favorite, "Eh."

Ask open-ended questions instead, such as "What were three things you learned in practice today?" or "What did you work on in training today?" This requires an answer from your kids that does not allow them to shut down the conversation without it even getting started.

Paraphrase their main points

When your child explains a situation to you, try paraphrasing her points in your response. This will show her that you are listening and engaged; it will also allow her to correct you if you are misinterpreting what she is saying. If your daughter complains that she only plays half a game, and that the coach always lets Jenny play the whole game, responding "Why do you care how much Jenny plays?" might only shut her off and end the conversation. Instead, you might say "I've noticed that Jenny plays all the time. What are some of the reasons you think she gets to play more than you?" This requires an answer, tells your daughter you are listening, and may even allow your daughter to gain some new insight into the reasons she is not playing. It gives you the opportunity to educate her and make some valid points of your own.

Label emotions

Use emotional labeling when you speak to your kids. Say things such as "It seems that you are angry" or "I see this upsets you." This allows you to help him find ways to make the situation better. Emotional labeling validates your child's feelings. We all know that children ride an emotional rollercoaster, and we often forget what a wild ride we had as kids. If you do not acknowledge a child's emotions and just tell him to "Toughen up, it doesn't matter," you are ignoring how he feels. Quite frankly, to your child, at that moment, it does matter a great deal.

Use "I" statements

When you discuss difficult situations with your child, especially when it comes to his attitude, behavior, or effort, using "I" statements rather than "you" statements helps to foster better communication. There is a difference between stating "I feel really upset when you talk back and are disrespectful to the referee" as opposed to saying "You are really making me angry when you disrespect the referee." By using "I" instead of "You," we invite our children to take responsibility and be accountable for their actions as well as play a part in the solution.

Keep your cool

Perhaps the most difficult part of communicating with children is controlling your emotions. When we get frustrated, we are more prone to emotional outbursts that can damage our relationship. If you are a coach, it can be extremely difficult in a tense game to control your emotions and frustrations and still communicate with your player in an effective manner. An angry outburst can be especially damaging to a young player. If you feel you or your child is on the verge of an emotional outburst, take the moment to step away, breathe deeply, or even tell your child: "I am very upset right now, and I know you are as well. I'm going to take a few moments to collect myself before we speak about this. I will show you respect by not having this conversation when I am very angry, and I expect that you will show me the same respect by coming back later and having this conversation with me." This puts the responsibility on your child to come and communicate with you, to show you respect, and to have a healthy, unemotional discussion.

Practice what you preach

Whether you are a parent or a coach (or both), recognize that you are also a role model for the children under your care. If your way to solve problems, deliver critiques, and speak to authority figures consists of emotional outbursts, then that is the behavior you are modeling for your children. Whether you are speaking to your child about sports or to your spouse about any number of family issues, it is wise to remember that you are also teaching your children how to communicate and how to behave. 

Be consistent

Finally, be consistent in your behavior and expectations. Research shows that parents who are consistent in both discipline and expectations raise healthy and well-adjusted teenagers. The more stable and predictable your actions and reactions are, the more even-keeled your kids will be. Bad behavior that produces a harsh reaction one day should not be met with a laissez-faire reaction the following day. Kids need to know where the boundaries are and what the consequences are for crossing them. They need consistency, and they need you to be their parent more than they need you to be their friend.

Effective communication with young athletes provides a solid foundation for them to build their emotional infrastructure. With good communication and open dialogue, you can set goals with your child and help him overcome challenges and work through issues. You become his partner and supporter throughout his athletic journey. He will know that his emotions are valid, his opinions are respected, and that you love him, care for him, and are present. He will also be able to tell you when to take a step back and let it be his career, not yours. That puts you on the road to raising a happy, high-performing young athlete.

Changing the Game book cover


John O'Sullivan is the author of Changing the Game: The Parents Guide to Raising Happy, High-Performing Athletes and Giving Youth Sports Back to Our Kids. A former collegiate and professional soccer player, O'Sullivan has spent the past two decades as a coach at the youth, high school, and college level.  He speaks nationwide to coaches, parents, and young athletes about developing athletic excellence and leadership within positive sporting environments. Learn more at www.changingthegamebook.org.