Take it from me – the fortunate mother of a member of the KU Jayhawks men’s basketball team – It feels great to win!
But winning does not happen all of the time and our children need to learn how to grow from their mistakes and show good sportsmanship when they lose.
As parents, we are vital to the success of our children in school, sports, and career. If we do our job well, then our children will have a better chance of learning from their mistakes, being self-reflective, and improving at a higher rate of development. Participating in sports can teach lessons in perseverance, teamwork, and self-esteem. Here are some useful guidelines and strategies for you to use when raising an athlete.
Failure is a Lesson in Winning.
The most important lesson you can teach your young sports-loving child is this:
Sometimes you will lose and sometimes you will win. Everyone does not deserve a trophy. Participation is great and something to be encouraged! But in true competition, there is always a winner and a loser. We have to teach our sons and daughters that losing can make them a better, stronger athlete who is more prepared to win. This was very difficult to teach my son who NEVER wanted to settle for losing. Landen would pitch a fit every time he lost a board game, basketball game, or race. He remains an extremely competitive person to this day, which has definitely helped him succeed at D1 basketball. But, it was necessary for us to help him understand that there would inevitably be losses and failures, and that he was going to have to use those to make him better if he wanted to improve.
I often told Landen that Michael Jordan said that it is only because of his failures that he learned how to succeed.
If we really want our child to be successful and happy, then we must teach them how to fail. The most successful athletes and business people fail often because they are willing to take risks. But, most importantly, successful people use their failures to motivate them to improve. Failure is our opportunity to be humbled or humiliated. And we can teach this to our children by modeling it for them.
Another lesson in failure that my son had to learn was mental toughness. Athletes who beat themselves up with negative self-talk every time they make a mistake, will not learn toughness. In fact, when we are preoccupied with failing or messing up, it causes poor performances because we become overly afraid of failure, and it’s not fair to the team.
Landen became frustrated over and over his first couple years of basketball at KU. He overthought every mistake and caused himself to become negative and question his abilities rather than moving forward and improving. A couple times, he became so negative that he believed he wasn’t good enough to play at such a high level. He questioned his decision and considered quitting. With the help of his dad, his former AAU coach, mentors, and many positive reminders, Landen eventually learned to move quickly from the mistake he’d just made to the next play. I reminded him that a sports psychologist at the NBA Top 100 camp had told him to always keep his mind on the next play and how important this was to his team’s success. Now Landen realizes that the success of his team is dependent one each teammate giving their best and cheering each other on, even when things are going as well as hoped for.
Recently I went to watch my friend’s son play in a basketball game against their rival team. He is usually a good scorer for the team, but he was having an ‘off night’. He must’ve taken 10 open shots during the game and not one of them went in. His parents were sad for him and worried about what to say to him after the game. They knew that their son would be his own worst critic, therefore they would need to say something positive. I noticed that their son did an amazing job encouraging his team, cheering for them, and keeping a positive attitude until the end of the game. So parents…. Remember, when we are stuck in the parenting dilemma of what to say to our teenager after a bad performance, focus on the positive. We can say, “I love you and I’m so proud of you for staying positive, cheering, and encouraging your team the whole game!” Then, in response to any negative remarks, just say, “I understand how you must feel. Try to stay positive. You’ll do better next time.”
When your son or daughter goes through performance slumps or times of negativity, you can help them understand that an athlete can’t have peak performances if they are focused on the fear of losing or failing. Teach your child how to view setbacks as a setup for success. If you do this, you’ll give them the key to a lifetime of success. Setbacks offer the perfect opportunity for a comeback. Landen experienced this his Junior year after many injuries including the removal of a bone tumor, and again this past month of his Senior year as he came back from some injuries and a performance slump on the court. Because he was able to stay positive, and pull himself out of the slump, he had a great game, helped his team win, and consequently had many positive things said about him by both his coach and the opponent’s coach, as well as many write ups in the newspaper.
When athletes have slumps, and perform far below their potential, we often focus on the outcome of the performance instead of the process to becoming great. During peak performance, an athlete is not focused on the outcome of the game, instead the athletes stays focused on moment. Another key is remembering not to spend time punishing yourself for a bad play. Just move on to the next play. The only things you have control over is the here and now. Give your very best mentally and physically, and let the process happen. Therefore, if you truly want your child to have their best performance and enjoy the sport, help keep their focus away from the desire to win or mistakes made along the way, let your child focus on the next play and improving as they go. Visualizing is also a good tool for improving performance. I taught my son to visualize himself as the best basketball player he could imagine. He learned to visualize himself making plays perfectly. This is a great technique for memorizing plays he needs to learn. As he rehearses them in his head, he is reinforcing the visual of himself performing each move with excellence.
Celebrate Personal Bests.
Our children often study professional athletes and gain a distorted view of themselves and how they perform as an athlete. As parents, we can help our child develop realistic expectations of themselves, their athletic abilities, and how they performed, without crushing their dreams of being the best. I always taught Landen to strive for excellence. That meant that he needed to have big dreams and a vision of his own success. But, throughout his development as a middle school and high school athlete, I didn’t want him to lose heart if he wasn’t as good as some of the athletes he competed with. In order to stay focused on his own performance improvement, it was necessary to teach him that his personal best was the most important thing to focus on while playing in a way that also allowed his teammates to perform at their highest level. In team sports, winning is dependent upon the ability of each teammate to bring out the best in the rest of the team while also improving their own performance. In some sports, such as swimming, coming in last but still beating your personal best is cause for celebration! Similarly, losing the game, but improving your performance from the previous game, is still reason to feel successful. Strive for a winning record, but focus on your improving personal performance and making your team better.
Good Competition Makes You Better.
Competition can help our children stay mentally and physically healthy, while teaching them a variety of important life skills. The true definition of competition is a seeking together where your opponent is your partner, not your enemy, and the competition makes you better. This means that your opponent can actually be used to make you better! The better your opponent performs, the closer you get to your peak performance. Good competition challenges us to be our best. And sports teach us to deal with challenges and obstacles in life. Without a highly competitive opponent, sports is not as much fun. Landen’s experience with the KU Jayhawks proved this. They would often “play down” to lesser competition and “play up” to the best teams in the conference. The team gets pumped up for the competition and each athlete pushes beyond his or her limits to win against the most competitive teams.
If the ultimate goal in the sport experience is to be challenged into continual improvement, then as a parent, we must congratulate our children on a game well played! We should always focus on the positive improvements that were made and not be critical of the mistakes. We can cheer for great performances and good plays, on both teams, by all athletes. This helps to teach the value of competition and performance improvement, rather than putting all the focus on winning.
Let the Coach be the Coach.
As former athletes, Landen’s father and I often coached him when he was younger. But, as Landen moved up through AAU sports, it was critical that we put him on a team in which we could allow the coach to guide our son through the games and motivate him during the practices. Therefore, it was highly important to choose the right coach. This is not always easy! We will often disagree with the coach, but it is important to model respect. The message I tried to relay to Landen’s AAU coach was this: I am trusting you to learn what motivates my son so that you can help him develop into the best possible athlete while I continue to parent and guide him into becoming the best young man he can be. As I warned parents in my Recruited blog – do not give your parenting over to the coaches. It’s still your job until they are off to college. I always told Landen that I only have 18 years to parent you. And within that 18 years I will set our family standards, teach you boundaries, do my best to model good behaviors, and I will expect you to become the best person you can. Once our teenagers leave for college, the parenting is done so do it while you have the chance! If the other kids on the team don’t have the same rules or expectations you want your teenager to uphold, then you can say, “Sorry, but our family standards and my expectations for you are all that matters because my goal as a parent is to give you the best opportunity possible!” So, be the parent, be the biggest fan, but let the coach do the coaching. While your teen is participating in high school, AAU and club sports, we can provide development tips, good nutrition, opportunities to practice, parental guidance, encouragement, empathy, transportation, and help with fund-raisers. But we should really avoid trying to interfere with coaching during the competition. If you feel that a bad example was set by the coach, then talk to your teen about what you saw and the lesson you’d prefer they learn from the experience. Again, it’s very important to choose the right coach. But it’s equally important to teach your teenager what your expectations are for their behavior in any situation.
Once Landen became a university student athlete, it was even more important to let go and let him develop under a new coaching staff. During our first parent coach meeting at KU, Coach Self told all of us that we would no longer know our son’s basketball abilities better than him. Coach told us that we were welcome to contact him anytime, but please don’t ask about playing time or give coaching tips. It’s important for the parents of student athletes to turn over athletic development to the coaches and take a ‘hands off’ approach to engaging in their sports training. We must leave the coaching and instruction to the coach.
As a parent of a student athlete, we should take a support role only. We can be the encourager and the cheerleader. We can listen and offer advice on how to deal with tough situations, and most importantly, we can show respect to the coaches, pray for the coaches, pray for the team, and watch the amazing way the sports can teach our sons and daughters to become great teammates and gifted leaders!