How to support kids in sports (Tip: Let them fail)

Norton Sports Health mental performance director on how coddling or standing up for kids in sports may actually backfire.

It’s a common temptation, especially when it comes to kids in sports. Do whatever you can to help your child succeed.

But doing too much — even “helicopter parenting” — does a young athlete more harm than good, according to Vanessa Shannon, Ph.D., director of mental performance for Norton Sports Health.

“Don’t save your children from failure,” Dr. Shannon said. “Failure in younger life is ultimately what builds grittiness and what allows us to overcome adversity later in life. Allow them to experience the struggle and, of course, be there in a supportive role and be on their side.”

While some parents believe that coddling or standing up for their child will improve their athlete’s chance of succeeding in college or professional sports, according to Dr. Shannon, it actually may do the opposite.

Dr. Shannon’s do’s and don’ts for parents with kids in sports

  • DO praise hard work and effort; DON’T praise talent.
  • DO allow them to struggle; DON’T always save the day.
  • DO have conversations with them; DON’T stifle communication skills.
  • DO teach patience, persistence and delayed gratification; DON’T rely on technology to communicate (i.e., talk about it!).
  • DO practice what you preach; DON’T be that youth sports parent.

“In middle school, and to a lesser extent high school, there are players who can improve and succeed rather easily,” Dr. Shannon said. “But that changes when they get to college — everyone is good at that level. This is the first time many of these athletes experience failure or adversity. If they’re not used to embracing and learning from failing, oftentimes they get discouraged and give up.”

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Focus more on effort than talent

Another tip: Don’t praise your athlete’s talent, abilities and attributes, but instead praise hard work and effort.

“If you say to a child, ‘Wow, you’re really talented,’ then if the child starts to struggle, the child starts to believe they are not talented enough to handle that situation,” Dr. Shannon said. “Whereas, if you praise a child and say, ‘Wow, you must have worked really hard. You must have given it a lot of effort,’ and they start to struggle, they know that effort isn’t fixed. They know they can continue to give more effort and they can actually be successful.”

According to Dr. Shannon, a sports parent must change as the child gets older.

“Over time, your role with respect to your child’s athletic career has to evolve,” she said. “Initially, you maybe are a coach or team parent or something like that. Your role is going to be more informational or more instructional; you’re going to be more hands-on. But over time, as children become young adults and move into high school, your role has to transition to supportive.”


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