You’re a sport parent. You know that there are highs and lows: wins and losses; improvement and injury; great plays and silly mistakes. All of this means an emotional roller coaster for both the athlete and parent. When kids begin sport at a young age, and especially if they’re on a track to be checked out by college coaches before junior high, they don’t yet have the developmental ability or the experience to navigate these experiences and feelings well – sport is as much about learning and perfecting athletic skills as it is understanding and coping with the emotions that come with it. If your child can’t manage emotions on and off the field, it almost doesn’t matter how skilled they are. If they get so angry that they throw equipment and fight with coaches, or they become so sad that they’re inconsolable for days after a loss or a fight with the team, then their sport experience will likely end before it should.
As parents, part of our role is to help kids understand how to manage their own emotions and to do this, we must control our own reactions. In my mid-20s (pre-kids) I played in an adult kickball league. I “retired” after two seasons because I was getting in a lot of arguments with people. Even though I knew what I should be doing to control my emotions, I wasn’t practicing what I preach. I knew I had some work to do on myself if I was ever going to be an effective sport parent.
Fast forward a decade and not only have I taught thousands of athletes and parents how to deal with the highs and lows of sport, but I’ve gotten much better at it too. This is important because when we manage our own feelings, not only do we model how to appropriately handle emotions, but we can also support our children and what they’re experiencing. Though kids will likely improve on their own at navigating the challenges of sport, it’s important to actively teach them the skills to do this; if your child is getting upset, arguing with coaches and teammates, or is broken down by feedback, then they’re likely not having fun. And if kids aren’t having fun, they’re more likely to leave their sport, so we want to help create positive emotions, appropriately handle the negative ones, and avoid piling on our own negative feelings.
Let’s get into the three ways parents can help manage their athlete’s emotions:
- Have open conversations about how sport creates emotion: happiness, sadness, regret, anger, and more. Normalizing these emotions for your athlete is important, but we want to go one step further. As parents, we need to help them understand that while all emotions are acceptable, all behaviors are not. Decide as a family what’s appropriate for each member (including you!). For example, your soccer player can feel mad about a missed goal but she can’t shove someone on the field and get a yellow card, or your baseball player can be sad that he lost an important game, but he can’t scream and be disrespectful toward you or others. Or, if they get so excited that they’re too aggressive, this is a problem too. Set expectations and follow through with these on your end too. Talk with your athlete about how you’re feeling and show that you can have strong emotions without behavioral outbursts.
- Have a plan with your child for when it’s best to talk about sport. Often, emotions are high right after a practice or game. This is probably not the best time to really dig into what happened and how you or your athlete is feeling, or try to work out some big emotions. So, pick a time unrelated to sport to find out when they’d prefer these conversations. Maybe you can decide as a family that the car ride is off limits, but you can chat at home over the next meal. Now, you’ll all be in a better frame of mind to talk about what’s going on. If things get heated, this is another chance to talk about how emotions are okay and the appropriate behaviors as you deal with what you’re feeling.
- Learn (and teach) emotion management skills. We all need to have tools to help us control how we’re thinking and feeling so that when we experience strong emotions (positive and negative), we can still handle the situation. This is critical for athletes, because if they let their emotions get the best of them on the field, they’re no longer able to play their best. Deep breathing is a simple and effective tool that all members of the family can use when you need to cool off a bit- if you’re a parent who gets emotional on the sidelines, this will be a great skill for you too. And, deep breathing is a great life skill, not just for sport- it’s probably the skill I teach most often to athletes. With practice, one or two deep breaths can dramatically change how you’re feeling.
As a final note, it is important to remember this is your child’s experience, not yours. It’s normal for parents to feel as if they’re in the game with their child, but in order to foster a healthy emotional environment for our player, we need to keep our own emotions in check. By effectively managing what we feel and what we outwardly model, we are setting them up for more success both on and off the field.