One of the challenges of coaching youth sports is to incorporate mental skills training so that young athletes are not just learning physical skills but also developing their mental skills. These mental skill performance principles help players play better on the field.
These same kinds of principles also help parents act better on the sidelines. The focus of my regular column will be to help parents understand performance principles that will help them be better sport parents. In this column, I will begin to explore some of these principles that are useful to young athletes as well as their parents watching on the sidelines.
Probably the biggest obstacle to peak performance that a young athlete faces is anxiety. Kids don't necessarily recognize it as anxiety, but they sure know the symptoms. They recognize when their stomach has that strange churning feeling and they feel like throwing-up. They are relieved to some extent when an adult tells them it means they have "butterflies in their stomach". They can visualize that and can work on helping those butterflies "fly in formation".
Parents experience anxiety while they are on the sidelines as well. Each sport creates its own level of anxiety in parents. It may depend on the level of contact in the sport or the skill level of the participants, but most parents start living the game with their child. They can see themselves out there on the field and they can feel the muscles twitch in their body as they feel their child catch a pass and then fumble. Or they feel the elation when their child hits a home run. Most parents live through their children to some extent while the child is on the athletic field.
When you begin to experience an intense identification with your child you are entering the "Intensity Web." Unfortunately, parents do not have the same outlet for the release of building intensity that players do during a game. Parents can't block the opponent. They can't dribble the basketball and focus their anxiety on that activity. Parents have to stay on the sideline or in the stands while the tension builds in the "Intensity Web."
When the intensity level gets too high, parents start to experience "Tunnel Vision." They literally lose sight of what is important in youthsports. Tunnel vision is often the reason parents act out at the game.
If you experience tunnel vision at your child's game, five bad things happen:
- You forget the team's goals: You may have helped to establish the team's goals before the season. You probably believe that a healthy youth sports environment is very important. You probably believe that positive parental support will help your child reach his or her athletic goals. But once you get caught in the intensity web and move into tunnel vision, all of those goals are forgotten and you feel justified acting out on the sidelines or powerless to stop from losing control.
You forget that officials are human: In most youth sport leagues the officials live in the local community. They may be your co-workers; their kids probably attend the same schools as yours; they may go to your church or synagogue. Yet, as long as they are wearing striped shirts and a whistle around their necks, too many parents feel that officials are fair game for verbal abuse.
Such abuse happens even before a parent starts to experience tunnel vision, and it only gets worse when a parent completely loses perspective. Tunnel vision prompts the abusive parent to say things he would never say to a co-worker, friend or neighbor. Sadly, the abuse often turns personal. Simply put, such abuse has no place in youth sports and should not be tolerated. Ever.
- You forget that you are a parent: As a parent I bet you devote an incredible amount of your time and energy teaching your children life skills, lessons and values. You want your children to know how to treat people and how to communicate properly with adults. Yet if you are in tunnel vision, all the values you work so hard to teach your child no longer seem to matter. It somehow seems okay to verbally attack the children on the other team. It somehow is now okay to try to humiliate the game officials. All of a sudden, it's all right to set a bad example for your child.
You forget what your child wants from you: Your child does not want you yelling at the coach. She clearly does not want an official to ask you to leave the field or the stands. Nor does she want you to yell at her during or after the game. Many children quit playing sports because of the problems their parents cause at games.
- You forget that your child's opponent is someone else's child The players on the other team may be your child's classmates. They may live across the street. Even if they come from another town, they are just kids, with parents just like you. If you have tunnel vision, that child in the opposition's uniform now becomes the epitomy of evil and somehow "deserves" any abuse that you happen to dish out. When the opponent is demonized, then it is easier to abuse them.
The "Intensity Web" of the sideline captures parents and turns them into people they don't recognize on any other day of the week. Once they start to experience tunnel vision, the results are disastrous and their children suffer.
In upcoming columns, I will give you performance-parenting tools you can use to avoid tunnel vision. If you can tame your intensity on the sideline, you will be able to really enjoy youth sports and be the sport parent you want to be for your child.