Help Your Athlete Develop the Skill of Assertiveness

Help Your Athlete Develop the Skill of Assertiveness

Virtue #1: Assertiveness

Being assertive means being positive and confident. You are aware that you are a worthy person with your own special gifts. You think for yourself and express your own ideas. You know what you stand for and what you won’t stand for. You expect respect.

Perhaps, as a parent, you’ve concluded that if your child wasn’t born with an assertive personality, that there’s not really much you can do about it. But let me set the record straight: assertiveness isn’t necessarily innate. Sure, it may come naturally to some people, but it’s basically a skill that both kids and adults can develop.

Lisa M. Schab, author of Cool, Calm and Confident: A Workbook to Help Kids Learn Assertiveness Skills, says that assertiveness is the “healthiest style of communication. Assertiveness involves recognizing and standing up for our own rights, while at the same time recognizing and respecting the rights of others.”

Before I talk about how your child can learn assertiveness in youth sports, I want to clarify the differences between aggressiveness, assertiveness, and passiveness.

Aggressive behavior is demanding and often mean: “Give me that toy or you’re going to get it!” Passive behavior, on the other hand is cowering and often weak: “You can have my toy. I don’t need it.”

But there is a third choice that is neither mean and demanding or weak and cowering; and that is assertiveness. Assertive behavior shows strength: “I’m playing with this toy now. You can have it when I’m done.”

Why Do You Want Your Young Athlete to Be Assertive?

Aggression can be a good trait in athletes, if it means they give 100% and play with a lot of heart. But that is not necessarily a trait that they learn; it is more likely to be part of their DNA.

However, assertiveness in sports is a very valuable skill that can be learned and should be encouraged by parents and coaches. In fact, youth sports provides many opportunities for kids to learn the value of being assertive.

When your child learns to be assertive in sports, he or she will be able to:

  • Confront the coach about problems, and ask questions to help him or her improve their game.
  • Stand up against bullying on the team.
  • Confront teammates about conflicts or behavior that is tearing down the team.
  • Stand up for themselves and for their own beliefs.

Young athletes who can assert themselves are more likely to have high self-esteem, better communication skills and are better at resisting peer pressure. They can speak up and ask for help, walk away from negative conversations, and feel confident about their choices.

How You Can Help Your Athlete Develop the Skill of Assertiveness

Learning to be assertive rather than aggressive or submissive takes time and practice. Experts in child development say that when children experience growth in one area, you should expect that it will be followed by a time of regression–two steps forward, one step back. This is a normal pattern of development in many areas of life.

So, even as you incorporate these suggestions, remember to be patient with your child. Don’t think that just because he or she messes up after doing well for a while, there is no progress.

Teaching Assertiveness includes these steps:

  • Let your child take the lead at times. Let him choose the own sport or choose not to play sports at all. Let her go to the coach herself with questions about playing time or position.
  • Help your child move out of his or her comfort zone. Encourage him to try a new sport or try out for a team where she doesn’t know anyone. Prompt your child to speak up and be an encourager or be more of a leader, even if at first it is not comfortable for him.
  • Teach your child to speak up when she wants something. Does she want more playing time? Then let her talk to the coach. Does he want to try playing a new position, then let him express that to the coach. When you ask your child if she wants to play soccer or softball and she responds by telling you she doesn’t know, encourage her to think about it and let you know. When he wants something or has an opinion, encourage him to express it, even if you cannot accommodate her at the moment or you disagree.
  • Allow children to change their minds. Sometimes it’s frustrating when kids say one thing one minute and change their minds five minutes later. But we should allow them to change their minds at times. After all, you change yours, don’t you? While teaching them that, however, remind them that promising to do something with or for someone is a matter of trust and they should always strive to be a person of their word.
  • Encourage children to use “I” statements. Assertive kids take responsibility for their own opinions and feelings. Your child can say, “I felt mad when coach pulled me out of the game,” instead of using “you” statements and blaming others for their actions and feelings. An assertive child does not make excuses or blame others for bad choices; they own their decisions and look for solutions to the problem.
  • Teach your child respective assertiveness. When people disagree with her, encourage her to stay calm and not call the person names or accuse him of being wrong. Help her understand that her opinion is just as important as everyone else’s and that there is no right or wrong when it comes to opinions.
  • Discipline behavior not personality. If she’s mad about her playing time and takes it out on you when she gets home from practice, tell her you don’t like her behavior instead of calling her a brat. When you criticize her personality you may make her feel her opinion is worthless, causing her self-esteem to spiral and her assertiveness to take a hit.
  • Be a democratic household. Let everyone have an opinion. Listen to the suggestions and input of your kids. Have discussions and debates at dinner. Hold family meetings. You don’t have to agree, but let them know you are hearing them. When kids know their opinions count, they are more likely to feel comfortable speaking up for themselves. The best place for your child to find his voice is at home.
  • Encourage boundaries. Assertive kids respect boundaries. They know it’s important to knock before entering another person’s room or ask to borrow a basketball instead of just taking it.
  • Provide early leadership opportunities. Research from Girl Scouts of America says a child’s confidence in speaking up and leading others dwindles by the fifth grade. Kids also say they gain that confidence by participating in activities that promote teambuilding. Youth sports is a perfect place for that!

Teach Your Kids About Calm Assertion

I love these steps to calm Assertion that Dr. Michele Borba suggests:

C – Stay cool. Assertive kids are cool. Tell your child, “If you get upset, ticked off, cry, pout you don’t appear as  confident and a bully says ‘yes!’”

A – Assert yourselfTeach your child a few comeback lines say in different situations where he may need to assertive himself: “Cut it out.” “Stop it.” “That’s not right.” “You’re hurting her feelings.” “Because I don’t want to!” “Cool it!” A strong, short statement is all that is needed. Never insult back. Stick to the action you want to happen “Stop it.” One word can do it, “Enough!”  End it with an exclamation point. Walk off.

L – Look the person in the eye.  Kids have to “look” confident before they can be taken seriously. And the best way to appear more confident is by using eye contact. Just by looking the person in the eye you will appear more confident. You can teach even toddlers eye contact by making one rule in your home: “Always look at the color of the talker’s eyes!” For a shy child, suggest he look between the person’s eyes – at the bridge of their nose. (The kid will not know the difference). I trained autistic kids to look through the person on the other side.

M – Mean it. Teach your child the difference between how a wimpy and a strong voice sound. Then encourage your child to assert himself using a strong and firm –but not yelling tone–to get  his point across.

Perhaps sports parents might want to use the CALM Assertion techniques too as they deal with the drama, frustrations and negativity they face in youth sports!

Examples of Assertiveness in Youth Sports

I’ve already talk in general terms about what assertiveness looks like in youth  sports, but let’s look at specific examples.

Let’s say there’s a child on team–we’ll name him Sam–who is sitting the bench more than he wants to. If Sam was passive, he might complain to fellow teammates or just tell others what a terrible coach he has. If Sam was aggressive, he might give the coach an attitude. However, if Sam was assertive, he would speak to the coach before or after practice, and might say, “I feel discouraged because I worked really hard to be able to get more playing time. What can I do to get on your radar? Could you explain what I should be doing differently?”

Or how about the girl on the team, Ashley, who was pushed out of line at the drinking fountain during a water break at practice. If she was assertive, she’d respond by calmly confronting this teammate, saying,“I think you wanted to get in line ahead of me, but I was waiting here first.”

It’s important for kids to know that they have a choice other than being a wimp or being a bully. They can be confident, self-assured and positive–assertive–and still treat others with respect.

This Assertive Bill of Rights suggested by Katie Hurley on Practical Parenting offers a good guideline for helping your child understand what it means to be assertive. Hang it on your fridge or family bulletin board and remind your child every day that assertiveness is their choice to make and a skill that can be strengthened.

I have a right to:

  1. Say no to behavior I don’t like.
  2. Be treated with respect.
  3. Express my needs, feelings, thoughts, and ideas.
  4. Be proud of my accomplishments.
  5. Disagree in a respectful manner.
  6. Feel and express anger.
  7. Get help when I need it.
  8. Feel supported.


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