What can parents do about tears in youth sports?

kat groupI’ve witnessed my fair share of crazy parents on the pool deck. I watched one parent yell at their child after a race and hold up her iPad, “Do you want to know why you swim so slow? Well I’ll show you right here!”

I heard one mom yell at her daughter, “We’re leaving the meet if you continue to swim like cr*p.” After her next race was over, she pulled her out of the meet.

When my daughter was at her first Summer Junior Olympics she was scared to death for her first swim. She was afraid she’d come in last place. And guess what? She did. What did I do? I ran up to her afterwards and said, “What happened?!”

I read some helpful tips in Sports Parents, We Have a Problem: Crying after sports is not healthy for child development by Jim Taylor Ph.D. for Psychology Today. Read the entire article here.

Like I said, sports parents, we have a problem. Want to know the problem? Well, look in the mirror. I don’t mean to insult you by indicting you as being the problem as an individual parent. I don’t know you or how you are with your children in their sports lives. I’m talking about the many sports parents who have been both seduced by and abet the toxic youth sports culture in which your children are now immersed. You know, the one in which results are all that matter for parents and children alike, even at a young age. And let me be clear: many children are suffering for it athletically and personally.

I am writing this article based on a disturbing experience that made this problem so glaringly evident to me. My painful epiphany occurred while attending a regional championship in a sport in which my younger daughter was competing.

Here is what I saw:

  • A father telling her daughter before the competition, “I know you’re going to win today.”
  • Parents coaching their children before their events.
  • At least a dozen kids in tears after their events.
  • Parents in the finish area talking to their children about their result immediately after they finished.
  • A boy who was lying face-down on the floor of the clubhouse in tears while his father had his earbuds in and was looking at his phone.
  • A father trying to console his sobbing daughter after her event. When a teammate approached, patted her on the back, and said “It’s OK,” the father asked her how she did. When the teammate said, reluctantly, that she won, the father high-fived and congratulated her with tremendous enthusiasm … all the while his daughter lay below him disconsolate.
  • A mother who is a friend of mine told me that her son didn’t want her to watch his events because it makes him too nervous.
  • A father I also know said that his daughter was in tears and vomited before her first event because she was so anxious and she was too upset to compete in her second event.

Why were these young athletes so unhappy to the point of tears in sports that are supposed to be such fun? And keep in mind that these were kids younger than 12 years old, most of whom won’t even be competing in a few years because of their interest in pursuing other activities. I didn’t, of course, interview each one of the tearful young athletes. At the same time, I have seen variations of these kinds of reactions in my consulting practice for decades.

If you dig down one layer to examine the causes of such painful reactions in young athletes, you’ll find expectations and pressure, primarily from parents, but also from peers (by way of comparison rather than ill intent) and our intense youth-sport culture. The weight of expectations is a crushing burden on the shoulders of young athletes. Imagine your children having to put on a 50-pound weight vest when they enter the field of play and you’ll get a sense of what they feel and how it will make them perform.

If you dig down to the very heart of these reactions, you will find a fear of failure—specifically, that if these kids don’t perform well, they perceive that something really bad will happen (however objectively untrue it may be). Based on considerable research and my own work with young athletes, the most common causes of fear of failure include:

  • Disappointing my parents (and, by extension, my parents won’t love me)
  • Being rejected by my peers
  • Ending my sports dreams
  • It will all have been a waste of time
  • Failure in sports means I’m a failure

These beliefs produce in children a threat reaction that causes powerful internal changes including:

  • Psychological (e.g., negativity, doubt, worry)
  • Emotional (e.g., fear, anxiety, stress)
  • Physical (e.g., muscle tension, racing heart, choppy breathing, too much adrenaline)
  • Behavioral (e.g., self-sabotage, avoidance)
  • Performance (e.g., tight, tentative performances)

With this reaction, not only are kids pretty much guaranteed of not performing their best, but sports simply becomes a truly aversive experience.

Let me be clear that this problem isn’t even a sports problem. Rather, it’s a problem that permeates our results-obsessed achievement culture that you find in school, the arts, chess, anywhere in which kids can aspire to great success and where parents can become overly invested.

Now here is where I’m going to go on a rant, so be prepared. Mostly, importantly, my rant starts with a question: As a sports parent, do you want to be part of the problem or part of the solution? (This should be a rhetorical question.)

Here’s a simple reality: Kids under 12 years old shouldn’t be crying after they compete (in fact, no kids should be)! What so many parents and young athletes don’t realize is that results at such a young age (even up to 16 years old) just don’t matter. Sure, it’s great for young athletes’ efforts to be rewarded with good results. And it’s gratifying for kids to get attention for their successes.

Speaking of crying, I remember several times when my kids cried at meets. I wish I would have had the common sense to see that it was not a healthy place to be. My daughter cried after competing for the last coveted spot on a 10 and under JO relay team. The coach had them compete at last ditch, and the fastest that day would make the relay. There were four or five fast young girls competing against each other. Afterwards, my daughter was crying in the warm down pool for an hour.

My son was upset after a race at the Claremont pool and threw himself down on the deck and cried. I was beyond knowing what to do. Another mom was very sympathetic and I remember her trying to talk to him. He ended up walking off the deck and disappearing. I didn’t know where he went and I was frantic. He obviously wasn’t enjoying swimming or competing then and needed space. But we were insisting that he stick with it.

With those horrible memories, I’m thankful they weren’t the norm, but were exceptions. Most of the time my kids were smiling, laughing, hanging out with their friends under pop-up tents and not that concerned with how they swam. It was all about the fun. IMG_5008

Here are the tips the author has for sports parents:

We can’t change the sports culture. So, it’s up to us parents to shape our family’s sports culture and do the right thing for our young athletes. During this holiday season (and beyond!), give your children the gift that keeps on giving: your love and none of the crap.

Here are a few concrete suggestions (and I realize how tough they are to enact, but I can assure you that I’m walking the walk on every one of these with my two athlete daughters):

  • Remind yourself why your kids compete in sports (and it has nothing to do with results).
  • Be happy and have fun at competitions. If you are, your children most likely will too.
  • If you can’t control your emotions at competitions, don’t go.
  • Before competitions, if you find that you are stressed, worried, or anxious, stay away from your kids.
  • Before competitions, don’t try to motivate or coach them; nothing you say will help, but a lot you say can hurt.
  • Before every competition event, smile and say “I love you.”
  • After every competition, smile and say “I love you. Do you want a snack?”
  • After competitions, if you find yourself frustrated, angry, or otherwise upset, stay away from your kid till you’ve calmed down.
  • Here’s the toughest one: Never, ever talk about results! I know this sounds impossible, but it can be done (though it takes tremendous willpower). If your children bring up results, just say, “Results don’t matter now. What matters is that you gave your best effort and had fun.”

33944149_10156550450214612_1114497597600432128_oWhat are your suggestions for when kids cry at meets or competitions?

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