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  • Brittany Mitchell, M.S.

Parenting your Elite Athlete

Let’s be honest, youth sports is a full time job these days for parents and for the child-athlete! Now days, youth athletes are competing at elite levels and traveling the country all throughout the summer and in some cases year-around. As the AAU season comes to a close for most teams and the high school season is around the corner, I want to share some key points and strategies on how to best support your child-athlete through each stage of their athletic career and help develop their mental toughness.

The biggest question you must first answer is this:

What is your goal as a sport parent? Beyond helping them succeed on the court, what else are you trying to achieve?

The truth is the goal should be to develop, mold, and raise healthy, successful, passionate, resilient, empathic, and hard working ADULTS. Sport is full of teachable moments and your goal should be to capitalize on those as much as possible in ways that best communicates to your child. This should shape your posture and how you interact with your kid in the sport context.

Parenting is a difficult job all by itself, but adding a talented athlete with potential to take their skills and abilities to the next level can make the child-parent dynamic a lot more complex. Here are tips and things to keep in mind as you support your child through this journey.

1. Make sure to fill their emotional tanks

Did you know that 60% of the time the home team wins? There’s something special about the unconditional support and genuine praise from the home crowd that increases self-belief and improves performance and attitude. Think of it like an emotional tank. Your child-athlete constantly needs this filled and the person who has the potential to fill it the most is you. As a parent you can do this by: Giving truthful specific praise, expressing appreciation often, listening more, and giving positive nonverbal communication during games. Whether you believe it or not, your child-athlete sees and hears everything you do and say. It has the power to build them up or tear them down. Mentally tough athletes believe that they are loved no matter what. Let your child know that whether they score the most points or have a terrible performance that your love and support for them never changes. Tell them you love to watch them play! Constructive criticism and feedback is absolutely necessary, however, I encourage you to learn your child and figure out when the feedback is best received.

2. Three questions every parent should ask themselves

Like I previously mentioned, feedback is absolutely necessary and you aren’t the only one giving it to your child. Next time you want to comment or give your child-athlete advice or feedback, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Does this need to be said?

  2. Does this need to be said by me?

  3. Does this need to be said by me right now?

Trust me, this filter of questions will make you a better communicator and improve your relationship with your child-athlete.

3. How to avoid burnout and decreases in motivation

Burnout is more common than most parents and coaches realize. Seventy percent of kids quit sport before the age of 13. There are a variety of reasons for this, but some of the biggest reasons are because kids stop having fun and they begin to lose autonomy. As a parent you need to constantly stay up to date with your child’s goals. What are they trying to achieve, what are they trying to improve on, and where do they want to go next? Goal alignment is very important as the child moves forward. Ask them what their personal goals are (not what you want for them or what others say). These goals may change as they get older and you want to understand the reasons for these changes and be supportive through each stage of their involvement. Secondly, provide your child-athlete with balance in their lives! I can’t tell you how important this is. There is nothing wrong with your child having hobbies and interest outside their sport. In fact, if they don’t that should concern you. You want your child to be a multi-dimensional human being. That doesn’t mean they can’t train hard. It just means they can enjoy being a kid once in a while and develop other career interests just in case things don’t work out they way you are hoping.

4. Change your role as a parent as your child progresses

As your child moves up in levels of competition things will change. Pressure will increase. Expectations will be higher. Scholarships will be at stake. Burnout will be more likely to occur. Academic performance will be more critical. Injuries may occur more frequently. They may attract more attention on social media and other platforms. The enjoyment of the game tends to turn into feeling like a job. Your emotional support and guidance will be even more critical. Your child-athlete should also be making even more of their own decisions. Talking to your child’s high school or college coach about playing time should be a conversation your child initiates with their coach. Help and teach them how to have the conversation, but those things should be their responsibility as they get older. Teach them how to communicate confidently and work hard for things they want. Their coach will be impressed by their maturity!

5. Don’t be a snowplow parent

You might have heard of helicopter parents. Now, we have what is called “snowplow” parenting. These types of parents are willing to make their child’s path and journey as easy as possible. Snowplow parents want to remove any stressors, obstacles, or adversity their child might experience. How do you react when your child struggles or experiences failure? Are you willing to intentionally allow your kid to experience struggle or hardship to help build their resiliency and mental toughness? Maybe that means letting them figure out how to effectively play off the bench before asking for more playing time. Maybe that means not letting them go to practice or games if they come home with a bad grade. Struggle is good. It’s all about the process. Too many parents are focused on outcomes. Is my child winning? Is my child nationally ranked? Is my child getting all the playing time? Teach your child to be results driven but process oriented. The ability to learn from failure is extremely important in sport and in life. Being okay with making mistakes is what makes elite athletes. The best athletes can maintain a commitment to their process even when the game doesn’t reward them. If that doesn’t mirror life, I don’t know what does.

6. Don’t ignore mental training!

Here are a list of mental skills and life skills your youth athlete should be training and practicing:

  • Imagery/visualization

  • Relaxation

  • Refocusing

  • Goal Setting

  • Deep breathing

  • Positive self-talk

  • Emotional control

  • Managing stress

  • Problem solving

  • Psychological flexibility

  • Resiliency

  • Communication

  • Assertiveness

Contrary to popular belief, mental toughness is a trained skill. Professional athletes and collegiate athletes across the NCAA have mental performance coaches on staff that teach these skills to enhance performance and help athletes perform at their best no matter the circumstance. Don’t make the mistake of believing of the lie that either your kid has mental toughness or he/she doesn’t. The truth is they just don’t have the proper training. Mental training is no different than physical training. As youth athletes get higher in competition, physical skills level out and mental toughness is what separates the good from the great. Contact Coach Brittany today to learn how your child-athlete can start a mental training program to enhance their mental game.

Brittany Mitchell, M.S.

Mental Performance Coach

Instagram @heartandsoulconsulting

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