Six Attitudes Parents Should Instill in Their Young Athletes
The right attitudes will set children up for success and happiness.
Posted Jan 08, 2019
When most people in the sports world think of sport psychology, they think of mental training, that is, helping athletes prepare mentally to perform their best when it matters most. Mental muscles that help athletes strengthen include motivation, confidence, intensity, and focus. And mental tools I help athletes to put in their mental toolboxes include self-talk, routines, and imagery. This mental training is certainly important for athletes on the day of a competition. And it is certainly a key part of my work with athletes with the emphasis on ensuring that their minds are as prepared as their bodies to perform their best.
At the same time, an often-neglected area of sport psychology begins well before athletes’ arrival at competitive venue. I’m talking about the attitudes that they hold about themselves, competition, and results. Attitudes are so important to sports success because they are the filters that guide what athletes think, the emotions they feel, how they respond to their sport, and, ultimately, how they perform on game day.
The problem is that attitudes can be healthy and helpful or unhealthy and interfering to athletes’ aspirations and efforts. The primary reason parents send their young athletes to me is because their attitudes toward competing are acting as anchors that weigh them down rather than wings that lift them up. The focus of much of this work involves helping athletes develop attitudes that propel them forward to performing their best.
Having the “right” attitude or a “positive” attitude has become almost cliché in their sports culture. The real question is what specific attitudes must athletes have to perform their best and accomplish their competitive goals. This post will share with you six attitude “forks in the road” that can either set athletes up for inspiring success or disheartening failure.
Life or Death
Let me share a metaphor that, though a bit politically sensitive, is nonetheless very descriptive of this distinction between life or death. Imagine that, just before your young athletes enter a competition, a man with a gun approaches them and says, “If you don’t win, I’m going to here after and I’m going to shoot you dead.” What kind of emotions do you think your athletes will experience? Terror! And how will they likely perform? Well, like they were scared to death, that is, poorly. Now, of course there will be no one at the end of a competition who will shoot them physically dead. I’m talking about a different kind of death, namely, a sort of psychological and emotional death that includes athletes’ self-identities (who they see themselves as), self-esteem (whether they feel valued), and goals, hopes, and dreams (all they aspire to be). With a life-or-death attitude, every time athletes enter a competition, they are putting their psychic lives on the line. In this situation, there is someone at the end who they think will shoot their “soul” dead. Who might that person be? Sadly, it is often their parents, though it can also be coaches or, just as painfully, the athletes themselves.
You want your athletes to see sports as about life, not death, in which their sport is inspiring, exciting, fulfilling, joyful, and fun. These feelings are fuel for their passion for their sport (while fear, frustration, anger, sadness, and despair drain their fuel tank). You also want your children’s sports to be an important part of their lives, but not life itself. With this “life” attitude, when your kids experience success, they will feel the energizing power of their efforts. And when they fail (which they will inevitably will; that’s just a part of sports and life), they will feel disappointment, but they will survive. No matter what happens, they will know that they will be okay. If athletes can accept this “life” attitude deep down, they will be free to perform with confidence, commitment, and courage rather than with worry, doubt, anxiety.
Challenge or Threat
I have found that a simple distinction appears to lie at the heart of whether athletes are able to rise to the occasion and perform their best when it really counts or crumble under the weight of expectations and tough conditions on the day of a competition: Do they view the competition as a threat or a challenge.
What happens when athletes approach a competition as a threat. Physiologically, their muscles tighten up, they breathing gets shallow, their balance goes back, and their center of gravity rises. Psychologically, their motivation is to flee from the threat. Their confidence plummets. Emotionally, they feel fear, helplessness, and despair. In sum, everything both physically and mentally goes against athletes, making it virtually impossible for them to overcome the threat and find success in their sport. Where does threat come from? Most powerfully, from a fear of failure (more on that shortly).
A challenge reaction produces an entirely different set of responses. Physiologically, they are fired up, but also relaxed, with just the right amount of adrenaline to make them feel strong, quick, and fast. Muscles are loose, breathing is steady, and balance is centered. Psychologically, athletes’ singular motivation is to overcome the challenge. They are confident that they can surmount the challenges of the competition. Their focus is like a laser beam on the challenge before them. As for emotions, they feel excitement, inspiration, pride, and courage. In sum, their entire physical and psychological being is directed toward triumphing over the challenge and their chances of finding success are high. The important thing for athletes to understand is that threat vs. challenge is all in their minds, about how they perceive it.
Success or Failure
Fear of failure is epidemic among young people in our achievement-obsessed culture. Interestingly though, athletes aren’t afraid of failure so much as the consequences they attach to failure, most often, that their parents won’t love them, their friends won’t like them, it will have been a waste of time and money, it will mean an end to their sports dreams. Fear of failure preoccupies their minds so much that they actually don’t focus on success, and what it takes to achieve it, at all. Their singular goal is to avoid failure (read my four-part series for more on fear of failure). The irony is that fear of failure causes athletes to experience the very thing that is most scary for them, namely, failure.
In contrast, athletes without a fear of failure are solely driven to perform their best to pursue the successful achievement of their goals. To experience success, these athletes are focused on:
- Giving their best effort.
- Going all out.
- Having fun.
- Making progress toward their goals.
Not surprisingly, when athletes focus on pursuing success rather than avoiding failure, they are more likely to perform well and get the results they want.
Process or Outcome
One of the worst attitudes for athletes to have involves the belief that they should focus on the outcome of a competition. Many athletes (and coaches and parents) seem to think that having an outcome focus will increase their chances of getting the results they want. To the contrary, though, being preoccupied with results actually reduces those chances for two reasons. First, if athletes are focused on results (which occur at the end of the competition), they aren’t focused on what they need to do to get those results. Second, being obsessed with results creates expectations, pressure, and anxiety, none of which are friends to performing well.
In an ideal world, athletes would have a process attitude, meaning they would only focus on what they need to do to perform their best. This process attitude focuses on what is controllable on competition day, ensures that athletes are totally prepared, builds confidence, and reduces doubt, worry, and anxiety. When focused on the process, they are more likely to perform their best and get the results they want.
The problem is that results do matter. And your athlete is likely a competitive person who is in a competitive sport that resides in a competitive culture. So, you can’t expect athletes to not think about results any more than you can get them to not think about a pink elephant (the more you tell them not to, the more they can’t get that pesky pink elephant out of their heads). At first, instead of resisting the outcome attitude (the pink elephant), athletes should acknowledge and accept it (“I want to make the top 10”), but then shift focus to a blue hippo, that is, a process attitude in which athletes ask themselves, “What do I need to do now to perform my best?” In time, the blue hippo will become deeply ingrained in athletes’ minds and the pink elephant will recede into memory.
Goals or Expectations
Expectations sound like pretty good things for athletes to have. In theory, expectations can push them to work hard and perform their best. In reality, though, expectations can feel like a 50-pound weight vest. Before competitions, they create pressure to meet the expectations, trigger fear of failure if they don’t, and cause negativity and anxiety. After competitions, if athletes do well, the best emotion they can muster is relief at avoiding failure. If they didn’t do well, athletes feel devastated. You know you are communicating expectations or your athletes are feeling them when they use phrases such as:
- “I must…”
- “I need to…”
- “I should…”
- “I have to…”
- “I gotta…”
- “I better…”
After every one of theses phrases is a threat (an “…or else”) if the expectations aren’t met. That “…or else” continues with “…something bad will happen.”
Goals are very different animals. They are uplifting and propel athletes forward. Goals inspire motivation, confidence, and focus. Before competitions, athletes feel excited and determined. After competitions, if they achieve their goals, they are happy, inspired, and proud. If they didn’t, they are disappointed, but more determined than ever to work hard to attain them in the future. Phrases reflective of a goal attitude include:
- “I would like to…”
- “It is my goal to…”
- “I am working hard to…”
- “I am directing all of my energy to…”
- “I am excited to…”
Fight or Flight
Survival is humans’ most powerful instinct. When we are in life-of-death situations and when we perceive a situation as a threat to our lives, this instinct triggers our “fight or flight” reaction. When were cavepeople 250,000 years ago on the Serengeti, our best chance of survival when threatened by a rival tribesperson or a saber-toothed tiger was to flee (as long as we kept distance between ourselves and the threat, we would survive). So, for eons, we learned that the best thing to do was run away.
Unfortunately, what worked for our primitive ancestors doesn’t work in 2019 sports for two reasons. First, survival in sports doesn’t mean physical survival, but rather athletes performing their best and getting the necessary results to climb the competitive ladder and keep their sports goals alive. Second, when I say that athletes would flee from a competition, I don’t mean that they literally run away from the event. Instead, I mean that they would get scared and perform cautiously and tentatively. And we all know that performing slowly won’t help athletes survive in their sport.
So, a lot of my work with athletes is getting them to fight, not flee, in competitions. A big part of this change in attitude occurs when they come to realize that sports isn’t life or death or a threat, failure isn’t worth fearing, and that a focus on results and creating expectations and pressure are more likely to ensure failure than success. Fight can also be triggered by having athletes use imagery to see and feel themselves performing aggressively, using aggressive breathing, grabbing an aggressive mindset, and establishing one simple goal on competition day: Bring it!
If you can prevent your young athletes from going to the ‘dark side’ of these attitudes and instill the five positive attitudes I’ve just described, you will be giving your children powerful tools that they can use to pursue their sports dreams. Even more importantly though, these attitudes are wonderful gifts you give them that will serve them well in school and in all of their future achievement efforts.
Want to be the best sports parent you can be? Take a look at my online course, Prime Sport Parenting 505: Raise Successful and Happy Athletes or read my latest book, Raising Young Athletes: Parenting Your Children to Victory in Sports and Life.