One of my clearest memories of playing sport as a kid was the cheering of my parents on the sideline at my junior soccer matches. My Dad was an opera singer so you could hear his voice a long way away. It kind of stood out you could say! Especially when the cry was “that is it, Smash them!” (referring to the opposition of course) We were just under 7’s but the desire that built in my motivation to please my Dad and make him proud was intense.
During my two degrees in Sport Coaching, 25 years as a PE Teacher and Outdoor Educator, 8 years of Leadership Coaching and 12 years of parenting, I have reflected on this scenario may times and think I would love to go back and ask Dad to do it just a little differently!
As parents and coaches we need to have the big picture in our head of what values we are growing in our kids through sport. Sport is a terrific vehicle to build qualities that will help our kids build healthy mindsets for life success, but is also a place that can quickly destroy kids immediate and long term resilience skills.
After much personal deliberation (mostly whilst parenting) reading, research and putting it into practice, some of the foundational elements to growing great values in kids through sport include the following:
· Encouraging effort and perseverance over winning.
This is a hard one because everyone loves the feeling of winning. But if winning becomes the only avenue of acceptance and love for a child this mindset can be developmentally disruptive. Every game a child has to go out and ‘prove their worth’ by scoring the most points or saving the most goals they build pathways of thinking in their brain that will be most unhelpful in the future. These are fine performance goals for an adult athlete but our kids just need to know they are loved whether they win the game or loose. They need an unconditional love environment to build their sense of belonging. Any confusion in this area will get stored in their hungry little sponge-like brains as the ‘need to perform’ and to ‘keep others happy’.
· Praise all effort, focus and perseverance.
Even when they score or save a goal, praise the effort that was demonstrated, not the result. Our goal as coaches and parents is to praise every amount of effort, focus and perseverance they show so they know what to keep doing. After all it is these things that lead to scoring and victory on the field. Praising this builds enthusiasm and grit both now and when the road is hard later in life.
· Avoid criticism, judgment and comparison with other players
These three actions are deadly to the confidence and belonging a child needs. It sets up criteria they need to ‘pass’ for them to receive love and affection. Instead highlight what they did well and then what they could do differently next time and the effort or focus that will help them achieve this.
· Focus on skill growth
Kids lose games mostly because of skill difference (the other team is more skilled) or just plain luck (the other team scored goals by fluke or accident). Coaching and Parental conversations that focus on growing skills through working hard to be better, helps set an achievable goal for young kids that will build their confidence in themselves, whether they lose or win…and that is a win!
· Don’t focus on talent, focus on practice
When we say ‘you are talented’ to child and they do not win, then they tend to believe that they are ‘not a good person’ as opposed to a ‘person who is not yet good at’ a skill. To build positive identity we can help kids see that practicing hard will build their skill to the point that they can do better, resulting in better on field success. Then praise every bit of improvement you see.
· On game day have a united team approach
Parents and coaches need to be united on what qualities they are all praising together. Sometimes this just happens naturally other times there are opera singers in the crowd yelling out instructions that are not what the coach has the players working on…like “Smash ‘em”. A coach and parent chat at the start of a game can be very useful to get everyone on the same page.
E.g. “Hi parents, thanks for bringing the kids out today, nice to see you all. Our team goals this match are to work on passing to each other and chasing the ball the whole game. Let’s all cheer every time this happens to help our young stars of the future!” You watch what happens when the kids hear all of the parents yelling encouragement every time they pass! Do you think they will keep passing? I guarantee it.
Competition can be a very helpful motivator in the lives of all kids and when it is directed in building helpful belief systems and understandings then this will be super beneficial. By the time we are 8 years old around 80% of our attitude is set! Using sport as a vehicle to build solid identity and value systems into our kids is exactly the opportunity that coaches and parents can maximise. Have a great season!
Director Lighthouse Leadership, Psychology and Training