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This article is for any parent with children in competitive sports; for any parent who is closely involved with their child’s world of sports; for any parent who has the best interest and future of their child in mind. The article focuses on the adolescent age range of 11-19.

Being frequently approached by parents who seek advice about their child, I tried to deliver here the gist of the most important things about child psychology in the context of competitive sports.

I will begin with the commonality between most parents who are closely involved in their child’s world of sports. In the beginning, when the child becomes involved with sports at a young age, the parents’ involvement mostly ends with driving the child to practice or paying the sports club. Later, their involvement gradually deepens. As the child grows older and perseveres in their sports field, the parent finds themselves involved in additional subjects, such as: the position of their child in the team, the attitude of the coach and the management towards the child, victories and defeats, wins and losses, the influence of sports on schooling, social life, and so on.

Since the parent’s involvement is a gradually deepening process over the years, the parent unwittingly takes on the additional roles of coach, manager, psychologist, doctor, and more. The parent in fact becomes an “expert” in a wide range of subjects.

This taking of responsibility by the parents in such a large number of roles is not always in the child’s best interest. Indeed, there are famous athletes whose family’s limitless involvement helped them reach the highest levels (e.g. the Williams sisters). Still, there is a greater number of athletes who managed to make those achievements with less intense family support, and there is an even higher number of athletes who suffered at this exaggerated involvement and struggled to fulfill their true potential as a result.

Successful athletes are mostly characterized by their will to succeed in their field – regardless of their environment. Parents can be a promoting and assistive factor, but cannot replace the “fire” that has to burn inside the child. As soon as the child loses their authentic internal will to succeed and advance in sports, if the will to succeed in their field is no longer burning in their bones, then no support, no pushing and no sincere and informed explanations may help.

Then what can parents do in order to preserve the child’s love for the sport they practice?

It is very important to create, as much as possible, a separation between the child’s life in sports and their life at home. In sports – the child is exposed to perpetual criticism, pressures, and a competitive atmosphere. Therefore, the home must be a place of refuge for them from tension and criticism. The child has to feel that the home and their parents are a safe and supportive place, and not someone else at the club who criticizes and analyzes their abilities after practice or a game. A child who knows that following a weak performance they have somewhere to derive power and mental peace, will develop better mental immunity and stamina, and will become emotionally available to get better at sports. Love that only depends on the level of their performance will encourage a sense of tension and disquiet in the child that will accompany them always.

Losing concentration, restlessness, violence and anger are examples of common behaviors from young players during a game. In most cases those behaviors are expressions of tensions and mental stress that stems from the fear of the imminent criticism after the game (especially if it is a bad game). A young player who knows that among family members they will not have to deal with questions and defend, regardless of the game’s score, will be able to display better calm and concentration in a game, and perform better.

Following are several principles that may be incorporated in daily life:

1. Feedback and game analysis – after a match, adrenaline is high, passion is at a peak and therefore things are not always spoken with consideration. It is recommended to wait for at least half a day before discussing the game. No matter what the outcome was, after a game you need to rest, eat and indulge.

2. Respecting the system – a parent who communicates to their child that they respect the system (coach, management, professional team) will enforce the child’s self-confidence since the child is supported by this same system. This behavior also covertly teaches the child that even though the system may not be perfect, problems can be solved in an appropriate and acceptable way that will not harm their personal progress.

3. Nurturing a sense of responsibility – be supportive, but let your child deal with the consequences of their actions. Responsibility is ultimately with the child. A player who from a young age learns to take responsibility for their actions (without those around them hurrying to solve their problems for them) will develop an independent and mature personality, which is necessary both in and outside of sports.

4. Developing a varied personality – it is recommended to treat the child as a complex and varied person, and not just a player. Sometimes people forget that the child is much more beyond just a player, with wants, difficulties and other interests that do not necessarily relate to sports.

5. Finally, it is their life – if the child made any decision that is unacceptable to you such as switching teams, a conversation is a good and important tool you can use to express your opinion and to try and convince them, yet there is no room to feel hurt or guilty even if you had already invested many hours in their current path. This is their life and their wishes, and whatever they learn in sports they will be able to apply in the future in a variety of other fields. Success has many varied faces.

By Itzik Zur, Ph.D.

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