I have posted a link to one of my favorite websites at the start of this article, yes it mostly refers to soccer, but similar principles apply.
The article highlights one area that truly burns out young athletes regardless of the sport; the ride home from competition when parents are lecturing and grilling the child on their performance. This conversation is thin ice, because even if you are praising the athlete for winning you are sending a message that you love seeing winning and this could lead to the athlete feeling more pressure to win and please their parents in the future, rather than compete to their fullest potential simply because they love the sport and always want to give their best effort no matter the endeavor. Athletes that feel pressure to win, lose enjoyment from the sport and are less likely to branch out and attempt new techniques and take risks for fear of taking a loss and disappointing their parents and coaches. I think we should celebrate brave attempts to tackle new challenges and give maximum effort. Obviously, lecturing on what the athlete needs to improve upon will generally not be well received as children truly need parents to be parents and coaches to do the coaching. Very few parents can balance the parent/coach role well in my opinion, emotions get involved and logic and can be thrown by the wayside. The only thing parents need to say to their athletes on the ride home is “I love watching you wrestle and give your best effort!”. Keeping comments positive and effort based reinforces to the child that the focus is on striving for your best effort and that you are supportive and love them regardless of results. The parent should want the athlete to put their pride and identity in how much effort they give, how supportive of a teammate they are and in maximizing the talents God gave them, not in their results. What parent wouldn’t want their child to understand the importance of grit and follow through, pride in the program and family they represent and being able to take critiquing for constant self assessment and improvement? We want the athletes used to taking coaching from the coaches not being confused by multiple sources of advice.
Better prepared for their long life after they are done with this sport should be the number one goal for both the parent and the coach! As a coach my simple rule is give them something positive first about their performance then follow it up with “and we need to continue working on this”. It’s critical that I don’t give them something positive, then follow it up with “but you need to do this better” as I don’t want the young athlete to think my positives were insincere. I always try to encourage attacking and taking risks and remind myself to applaud them for trying new skills even if it doesn’t work out for them. Over the long run athletes that are trying new moves and failing a lot in practice tend to have the greatest skill set and most success in highschool and beyond. Research legends like Jason Nolf, David Taylor and Kyle Snyder for further evidence on this philosophy, it seems to have worked out pretty well for them.
The pitfalls of negativity: On the extreme side of “crazy parents” badgering their young athlete for wins and losses, I have seen father/son relationships permanently damaged. For what? Bragging rights around the water cooler at work or to “keep up with the Joneses”? A child’s perception of who they can become, comes entirely from their parents. Parents and Coaches are the gatekeeper to the child’s perception of their personal boundaries and potential. Four time National Champion and two time world champion Kyle Dake stated his Mother would reaffirm to him multiple times a day while he was growing up that he could accomplish anything he set his mind to; Dake, now a youth coach himself stated: “If you want your athletes to rapidly improve, be a very positive coach!” A truly sincere goal of the parent and coach should be to make sure an athlete knows how we feel about them will not change whether they win or lose, no result will change how much we care for them nor should it change how they value themselves; their human value never goes up or down based on what they do in life, their value is constant. A wise man once said “wrestling is something we do, it’s not who we are.”
One of my favorite books, Grit by Angela Duckworth, shares research backed information on how critical a positive and encouraging adult in a child’s life other than a parent can be for their long term health and well-being; along with noting participation in extracurricular activities predicts better outcomes for kids later in life. Us youth coaches need to step up our game!
Personally, I like to let an athlete know I am more proud of them when they treat other human beings with kindness and compassion than I am by any tournament they win. I believe in always demanding the very best from my athletes and always trying to provide them with the “why” behind instruction, criticism and standards of effort. I want them to know they are loved and cared for, but nothing short of their maximum effort will ever be acceptable! I will end this with my favorite line 20 year old Olympic Champ Kyle Snyder stated his parents used to repeat often to him: “You can only compete for so long, then people will remember you for what kind of person you are.” Let’s never lose focus on the fact that we are here to develop human beings that are kind, caring, persistent, confident and hard working.