Set Healthy Expectations for Your Young Athlete
Setting expectations for your children is an essential responsibility of being a sport parent. Expectations communicate messages to your children about what’s important to you and establish a standard toward which they can strive. But expectations can be double-edged swords. They can be a tremendous benefit to your children’s athletic and personal development or they can be heavy burdens that crush their motivation for and enjoyment of their sport and, ultimately, hurt their self-esteem and their growth into young adults. All depending on the type of expectations you set for them.
There are two types of expectations that you shouldn’t set for your children: ability and outcome expectations. Ability expectations are those in which children get the message that you expect them to achieve a certain result because of their natural ability, “We expect you to win because you’re the most talented athlete out there.” The problem with these messages is that children have no control over their athletic ability. Children are born with a certain amount of ability and all they can do is maximize whatever ability they are given. The fact is that if your children aren’t meeting your ability expectations, you have no one to blame but yourself—you didn’t give them good enough athletic genes! Plus, your children have no control over their ability, so it is pointless to even talk about it. Another problem with ability expectations is that if children attribute their successes to their ability—“I won because I’m so gifted,”—they must attribute their failures to their lack of ability—“I lost because I’m a lousy athlete.”
Our culture also conveys the message that results matter above all else. As a consequence, parents often set outcome expectations in which the message is that their children must produce a certain result—“We expect you to win this match” or “We know you’ll qualify for the championships.” The problem is that, once again, children are asked to meet an expectation over which they may not have control. They might perform to the best of their ability but still not meet their parents' outcome expectations because other competitors just happened to do better than they did. So they would have to consider themselves as failures despite their good performance. Setting outcome expectations also communicates the bigger message to your children that you value results over everything else, so they’ll come to judge themselves by the same standards. Contrary to what you may believe, ability and outcome expectations actually hinder your children’s athletic and personal development.
But Results Do Matter!
Now you might be thinking, “Wait a minute! I can’t push my kids to get good results? No way I’m buying that one.” Before you jump all over me, give me some latitude to bring all these ideas back to the real world.
Here is a simple reality that we all recognize in our culture: results matter! No two ways about it, your children will get ahead in their sport only by getting good results (and, by extension, grades and test scores in school). Though it would be great if young athletes were rewarded for their good intentions or efforts, that is not the way the world works. Unfortunately, this societal message can cause parents to place their desire for their children to get results in the short run ahead of their long-term development, the result of which is interference rather than encouragement in their children's athletic and personal growth.
Outcome Goals, not Expectations
Goals are very different. One of the great joys in life is to set a goal, work toward a goal, and achieve a goal. Children have ownership of their goals and want to set and strive toward goals for themselves, with guidance from parents, teachers, and coaches. For example, “After making the top-20 last season, my goal is to finish in the top-5 in the regional championships this season.” One great thing about goals is that they aren’t black and white, but rather about degree of attainment. Not every goal can be achieved, but there will almost always be improvement toward a goal and that progress defines success. So, if children give their best effort, there is little chance of failure and great opportunity for success. When I ask kids about goals, they convey a very different message. Their faces perk up and they say things like, “It means I decide to do something and I want to really work hard to do it.”
But even outcome goals aren’t ideal. Many parents think that focusing on the outcome will increase the chances of that outcome occurring, but the opposite is actually true. Here’s why. When does the outcome of a competition occur? At the finish, of course. And if children are focusing on the end of the event, they aren’t focusing on the process, that is, what they need to do to get from the start to the finish. Here’s the irony. By focusing on the process rather than the outcome, your children will more likely perform well and, if they perform well, they’re more likely to achieve the outcome you wanted in the first place. Also, why do children get nervous before a competition? Because they’re afraid of the outcome, more specifically, they’re afraid of failure. So by getting them focused on the outcome, they’re going to get nervous and, as a result, will be less likely to perform well and achieve the outcome you wanted for them.
So if you’re going to send messages about outcome somethings, make sure they are outcome goals, but then immediately send other messages that encourage your children to focus on the process, that is, what they need to do to achieve their outcome goals.
Notice that I use "our family" instead of "we your parents." This subtle change in language communicates several important messages. It removes the source of the message being the parent, focuses it on the children, and establishes the message as a collaboration between you and them. This cooperative messaging ensures that your children, as a member of the family, have ownership of the expectations rather than feeling that you have forced the expectations on them.
If your children meet your effort expectations, they will, in all likelihood, experience the intrinsic rewards garnered from their efforts and they are more likely to perform well and get the result both of you want. If your children don’t meet the effort expectations, they will be disappointed (they should be). But rather than being crushed by the failure, they will know that they have the power to fulfill the expectations and achieve the results they want in the future.