Most young athletes perform best when they are relaxed and happy. This is something that you can influence as a parent.
Of course, all children are different, but below are 10 broad pieces of advice about what and what not to do in the period leading up to your child’s major sporting event.
Even though you will see that I use the words “big event” several times for ease of reference when referring to an event like a cup final/state championship, my over riding tip for parents is:
Don’t treat it like a big event.
It is not the Olympics. It is children’s sport. Always remember this.
So, keeping this mind, my 10 tips are:
1. Avoid Placing Performance Expectations on Your Child
This is listed number 1 as it is probably the most important. Expectation builds anxiety. It can be a “fun-destroyer” and a “performance-demolisher”. Think about it. If a child performs up to expectations then they have simply done what was expected of them. Whew! What a relief! If they perform below what was expected of them, they may feel that they have let others down. It’s a no-win situation and it can be outside of their control. Instead, it is better to focus expectations on things like their conduct, attitude and effort, which they can control.
2. Avoid Researching & Building Profiles of Opponents
Seriously, you do not need to “study the opposition” in children’s sport. And if you do, keep it to yourself. Remember, discussing things with a child that are outside of their control (i.e. who their opponents are and how these individuals may perform) will probably just make them anxious. It also subtly places expectation on them (e.g. “You are ranked in top 3 leading into the event” = “You are expected to get a medal”), which we know we should avoid.
3. Don’t Increase The Number of Practice Sessions
Some parents think that an extra session or two per week during the lead-up will better prepare their child for the “big event”. In fact, the opposite is probably true. Elite athletes taper their training in the lead-up to a major event. In other words, they back off their training load with the aim of leaving themselves fresh and energetic. As a coach, I use the following rule for young athletes: no full training sessions in the two days leading into a major weekend event. Therefore, if a young athlete regularly trains Tuesdays and Thursdays, the final session will be on the Tuesday prior to a major Saturday or Saturday/Sunday event.
4. Keep Things As Normal As Possible
Following on from the above, and even though I just discussed missing a training session, help your child to keep things as normal as possible in the lead-up to the event. One way you can do this is by acting normal yourself. For example, don’t suddenly begin endlessly talking about, become serious about, or relate everything to the upcoming event. Talk and think about other things as well. As a coach, on the day of an event and even during the warm up, I will ask the athlete about school or what they watched on TV the night before. This helps them to relax and takes their mind off the coming competition.
5. Avoid New Things
Don’t try new things on the day hoping for a performance boost. It’s probably best to avoid things like:
- New foods or drinks.
- Wearing new shoes for the first time.
- Trying a new warm up.
6. Avoid Motivational Speeches
Don’t try to “pump up” your child before the event. Most young athletes do not require motivating prior to a big event. And if they do, attempting to fire them up may only make them resentful.
7. Be Mindful of Your Body Language
I am naturally a “pacer”. I can’t stand still. I’m told that I sometimes look like an expectant father. As a coach, I need to be really conscious that I don’t pace backwards and forwards prior to, or during a competition. I will sometimes even sit down to keep myself from pacing. If I appear relaxed, I know that this helps the athletes. If I look jittery or worried, I know that this may be passed onto my athletes. Be conscious of this as a parent. Don’t make your child nervous through your behaviour.
8. Don’t Offer Incentives
I all too often hear of parents offering incentives such as gifts or money for a good performance in the hope that it will “motivate” their child to perform well. All this does is increase the gravity of the performance or event in a child’s mind. (A reward being offered? Mum/Dad must think that this REALLY important). Never try to bribe children to perform.
9. Keep Things Simple
Avoid sending your child out to compete or play with lots of thoughts swirling around in their head. They don’t need complicated instructions, strategies or deep and meaningful advice at the last moment. Keep it simple. My final words to an athlete before they compete are always: “Good luck, have fun”.
10. Relax and Enjoy!
Make a choice to stay relaxed and enjoy the experience with your child. Your demeanor will affect theirs, so make sure that it is one that helps and not hinders their experience.