While in North Carolina last week working for the Changing the Game Project and giving a talk for parents with Waxhaw Soccer Club about “Creating a Player First Environment in Youth Soccer” I found myself, once again, answering questions from a couple of stressed soccer parents seeking advice regarding how to help their children be more focused, more committed and live up to their athletic potential.
I think this situation, which I also encountered with my own child, is often the result of a child who has athletic potential but a slow-to-develop athletic mentality.
Just as kids develop differently athletically and have various levels of athletic potential, kids develop different mentally and have various levels of athletic mentality.
As parents, we need to step back and evaluate our actions closely when we expect our children to be as mature and focused and serious and committed as the most talented of their peers – and they are just not there yet. This is a situation that often leads to stress in the parent-child-family relationships and it is sometimes these children who burn out or drop out of the sport.
As parents, we must learn to find the balance in encouraging, but not forcing, all the while maintaining our perspective on the big picture. What we ultimately must seek (the big picture) is for our children to be healthy and active. Not all of our children are going to have the mentality necessary to compete at a high level. Allowing children to develop into their own athlete is essential in our efforts to keep them playing sports.
5 Ways Parents Can Support a Child with a Slow-to-Develop Athletic Mentality
Praise their EFFORT – Not the Results
Often times these “slow-to-develop an athletic mentality” children have a Fixed Mindset. We know from Dr. Carol Dweck’s research on Mindset that children with a Fixed Mindset will respond much better to being praised for their efforts instead of their results. (Mindset, 2006) Statements parents could effectively say to these Fixed Mindset children would be
Wow, you ran so fast chasing that forward down in the second half. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you run so hard!
That was a great choice to go outside and kick the ball around before dinner instead of watching TV.
You are filthy – you must have worked really hard in practice today.
Push the limits here – reinforce the positive in an effort to be the catalyst to new behaviors. Even if you saw your child in the backyard and they only juggled for 3 minutes before dinner – at least they went out there!
Have them Establish a Goal – and Support It.
The key word here is “them.” This is not you establishing a goal for them – this is them establishing a goal for them. Try to help them understand the difference between a process goal and a results goal. So, for instance, if they say they want to juggle the ball 50 times, help them reframe the goal so it’s about the process not the results. You could help them reframe the goal to instead be: I want to practice juggling for 15 minutes – 4 days a week for the next month.
If you think the goal should be harder or more robust (you think they should practice for 30 minutes – 4 days a week) – DON’T SPEAK UP. Let their goal be their own. They need to take complete ownership of this and the moment you interject your opinions, it is no longer their own.
Get Out There with Them – and HAVE FUN!
Kids quit sports when they are not having fun.
Sometimes the stress a parent feels when it seems their child is underperforming gets in the way of making sure their child is having fun. If this is happening with your child – get out there with them and play and have FUN. Don’t teach them the finer points of passing and receiving, don’t make it a time for instruction or giving them the post-game talk you were dying to give them (but successfully held back) in the car after the previous game…make it a time for 100% family fun.
One of the best sources of fun around our house was in the form of an old – super soft – Nerf ball that was about the size of a soccer ball. There were indoor juggling events, longstanding nutmeg contests, rebound games against the couch, diving saves on the bed…and lots of laughs!
Expose Them To the Game – Engagement
Even if your child runs around the entire time with friends and never so much as glances at the fields – take them to local professional or high school games. On the weekends, turn on the TV and have the professional games airing – even if the TV is just on in the background and you are not actively watching. Forcing it on children won’t work – but giving them opportunities to connect with the game – find a role model or two – see an amazing goal or move or save will go a long way towards helping them connect with the game. This is called ENGAGEMENT. There is a lot of fascinating research about engagement in educational settings that can be applied to sports settings. Evidence indicates that when instruction draws on students’ preexisting understandings, interests, culture and real world experiences, the curriculum becomes more meaningful to them. (Engaging Schools, National Academies of Sciences, 2004, p 31)
Building on this concept, have your child do some research and find a professional team they want to support. If you suggest this to them and there is no interest – they are not yet ready. Try suggesting it next year. You can’t force this or any sort of engagement – simply provide opportunities for them to connect with the game and develop a passion for it.
Give Them Some Space
This is often a hard one to understand as parents get so much personal joy from watching their children play and practice. Try not going to practice. Try missing a game now and then. Observe the results for you and your child.
Organize a carpool to practice instead of taking them every time. If you do, chances are the moments of pre-practice dread (I know many of you can relate) will be greatly reduced with a carpool in place because they have time to form deeper friendships and socialize before and after practice.
Check out the article I wrote last year: 6 Reasons Parents Should NOT Watch Practice. I love hearing about practice in my child’s own words and over time, soccer has become THEIR thing. With this autonomy – a love of the game has developed.
In fact – I missed most of my child’s Futsal season and her most recent outdoor game due to various commitments. It brought me tremendous joy to hear her excitedly detail a move she tried, or a goal that someone scored, or a play she had….her voice, her enthusiasm, her excitement was palpable and thrilling for me.
Having a “slow-to-develop an athletic mentality” child can be a very challenging situation. As parents, we often find ourselves comparing them to a sibling, or a teammate who is more focused – and that simply is not fair. As parents, in this situation, we need to do everything we can to help our children engage with the game, not pressure them to be someone they are not yet ready (or may never) be. We need to remember that we want our children playing sports so they are active and healthy – and we must do everything we can to ensure they continue along this path without forcing anything upon them.