Saturday, May 9, 2015

Raising a resilient child: Parent-coaching, sports and life lessons

Now that my little ones are old enough to play organized sports, I find my role as a parent morphing into parent-coach in this context.  I don’t know about you but I have had coaches in my childhood that ran the gamut from the sweet, understanding, everyone just have fun coaches, to coaches who would make you cry and run extra “suicides” just for kicks, barking out orders and never praising you because you could always "do better".  The coaches that I was always most receptive to were the ones who were able to strike a balance somewhere in the middle, coaches who knew enough about their team to know when to push their players harder and when to ease up.  These situations were always easy to manage however because there was never the added layer of a family tie.  As a Mom however I find it difficult to sometimes figure out the best tactic to take with my own children when I am in parent-coach mode.  

As parent-coach of my own kids,  I don’t want to be too hard on them so as not give the impression of playing favorites or turning my kids into the stereotypical "coach’s kid,” but I also don’t want to go easy on them either because I want them to understand the importance of competition, winning, losing, sportsmanship, resilience, and team spirit.  The competitive side of me wants to push my kids to their maximum potential knowing that they have the ability to do well in any sport they play, but the mother side of me cautions not to project onto them my own desires, and attempts to remember this is their journey, that ultimately they will let me know what path they wish to take and that I am just along for the ride.  When just "the encouraging parent on the sidelines", I find that I am also in observation mode and I’ve noticed that other parents are struggling with walking this line too.  I’ve seen a wide cast of characters from the overzealous mothers and fathers, screaming out orders from the sidelines, frothing at the mouth and chastising their kids when they return from batting saying that “a strikeout is not acceptable.” I see the parents at the opposite end of the spectrum who encourage every kid on the team just for trying, the ones who praise kids for having a good “baseball stance” or a “good swing” even though they are not making even remote contact with the ball.  I watch the kids respond to this parental input in a variety of ways and it ranges from kids who get teary eyed and upset if they don’t get a hit, to kids who get mad and throw their helmet to the ground and refuse to continue playing, to kids who just shake it off, keep it moving and try again fresh in the next inning. 

Of course I want my children to do their best, and want them to be the ones who can shake off frustrations or failures and live to fight another day.  I want to raise kids who use failure as inspiration to do better the next time, and realize this one at bat, or that one dropped pop fly, or  that missed goal isn’t the end of the world but rather an opportunity to try again and do better next time.  I want to raise children who use failure as motivation to practice more, work harder, and focus on improving so they can avoid making the same mistake the next time. A child that can do those things in the face of adversity sounds like a resilient child to me and this is the type of child I want to raise.  True resilience or “grit” in my view is the gift that keeps on giving and is that special intangible quality that will lift your child up throughout their life no matter what they face or what happens to them for the good or for the bad.  In the sports context, you want to make sure your child comes out a “winner,” which in this case means they feel good about themselves and have a healthy attitude towards sports.  

The question is how to do you get there, as in how do you “create” this kind of child?  The following are six lessons I’ve learned from the many good coaches in my past (coupled with some lessons I uncovered while researching sports psychology websites, the best of which was, that apply to parent-coaches today and that I think will assist in “building” a resilient child:

1) Encourage competition (primarily with themselves) – The primary goal of sports is to challenge oneself and to always improve.  Unfortunately, judging improvement by winning and losing is both an unfair and flat-out wrong measure. Winning in sports is about doing the best you can do, separate from the outcome or the play of your opponent. Children should be encouraged to compete against their own potential.  When your child has this focus and plays to better themselves instead of beating someone else, they will be more relaxed, have more fun and therefore perform better.

2) Don’t define success and failure in terms of winning and losing – Kind of a part two to the first point, one of the main purposes of the sports experience is skill acquisition and mastery.  When a child performs to their potential and loses, it is the wrong approach to focus on the loss and become critical.  If a child plays their very best and loses, help them feel like a winner because they did their best!  Conversely, when a child or team performs far below their potential and wins, this isn’t necessarily grounds to feel like a winner.  The point is to help the child make the critical distinction between success and failure in terms of playing to their potential versus winning and losing.

3) The important lesson of “Failure” -   If you truly want to foster resilience in your child, then teach them how to fail.  The most successful people, in sports and otherwise, have on average failed more often than they have succeeded.  So what makes them a success if they’ve failed so much?  Firstly, it is the fact that they are more willing to take risks which usually leads to failing more frequently.  Further and more importantly, theses risk-takers have used those failures as a source of motivation and as a "lessons learned" of what not to do or what to improve upon next time.  We are taught in our society that failure is bad and to fear the humiliation and embarrassment of failure.  This in turn makes us risk averse and unwilling to try anything new or different or to push our boundaries.  However, you can’t be successful if you are always preoccupied with losing or failing.  By teaching our kids to deal with setbacks, mistakes and how to take appropriate risks, they will be equipped to deal with anything life throws at them and will be set up for success in the long-run.  Failure in a sporting context is the best opportunity and the most fertile ground for this lesson.

4) Make it fun – It has been demonstrated time and again that if you love what you do and have fun doing it, the better you will perform.  The element of fun must be present for peak performance to be achieved.  When your kid stops having fun, and/or doesn’t want to go to practice or a game, this is a red flag.  When things get too serious, or the balance between fun and pressure skews toward pressure, athletes many times fall into a performance rut.   A good litmus test is:  If your child is not having fun or not looking forward to playing and practicing, then you need to do some sleuthing and figure out why.  Even in a competitive league/program, there are no prohibitions on having fun, so encourage it!

5) Support your child and love them unconditionally - One of the things I hate seeing when I am in observation mode on the sidelines is a parent who withdraws from their child when they perform “badly”.  If a child strikes out, misses a goal, or botches a clutch play, the parent who responds by withdrawing, anger, disgust or chastisement is one that I pity.  Is it really that deep?  These parents don’t know the price they are going to pay for that response and the damage they are causing their children to feel.  This type of response also begs the question who are you (the parent) doing this for?  Can you say with certainty that your child is playing because they want to, are they playing just to please you, or are they playing just because you want them to?  If they are playing just please you and/or for the glory their success shines on you (the parent), then they are playing for the wrong reasons.  It’s normal to want your children to succeed, do their best and excel in life, but pressuring them to live-up to your expectations and your goals is the wrong way to go.  If you child is in it for their own reasons/interests, they will be far more successful and far more likely to remain motivated to play, have fun and maintain a sense of lasting fulfillment.

6) Avoid comparisons - Supportive parents do not use other athletes that their child competes against to compare and thus evaluate their child's progress. Comparisons are useless, inaccurate and destructive.  Performance comparisons can prematurely turn off otherwise talented athletes on their sport. The only value of comparisons is in teaching. If one child demonstrates proper technique, that child can be used comparatively as a model only! For your child to do their best, they need to learn to remain focused on themselves. Worrying about how another athlete is doing interferes with their ability to do this.

Thankfully our little ones are only in the beginning stages of playing competitive and organized sports, so there is still more time for us to learn and find our footing as parent-coaches.  I think these lessons imparted by my own coaches and their coaches to them will be a useful place to start from to support our children in their pursuit of playing sports and as people learning to ride the unpredictable waves of life.   Knowing that we can instill resilience in our children from an early age and knowing that they can cope with failure and setbacks gives me peace of mind as a parent knowing that when they are faced with challenges in life, even when they fail, they will go through it and come out clean and undefeated on the other side.