When Positive Encouragement Backfires in Young Athletes

Youth Sports Psychology

How To Handle Positive Encouragement

Hi, Dr. Cohn here from The Ultimate Sports Parent.

This past weekend I took my 9-year-old daughter to play her 4th tennis tournament as a rookie. She played two matches total. She lost the first match, but stayed very composed.

Afterward, I did everything by the book (our book anyway)…

I stayed positive and reinforced what she did well after she lost the first match. I did not to show any negative emotion.

I observed the cool down period. I avoided talking about the first match for a couple of hours.

Then, over lunch, I asked her what she thought about the match and what she could improve on during the next match.

She confirmed exactly what I was thinking. She said she was out-powered and she did not move well. She felt flat-footed, as if she wanted her opponent to hit every ball right to her!

But I bit my lip during the match and did not say a word – positive or negative. I know that’s what she prefers.

So, this is when I put my sports parenting skills into action…

Over lunch, I told her nicely how she could move better in the next match.

I focused on improvement and not on mistakes.

Get to the center of the court quickly. Drop back when the ball is coming deep into her end. Be ready to hit the ball. All positive and appropriate suggestions… so I thought.

She responded very well in the second match. She looked like a different player than in the first match. She moved very well and played well. She won a tight match 9-7 after being down 2-5 early. I thought it was a nice comeback.

I was very pleased to see her move so well in the match and told her so. Winning was secondary to the fact that she moved well and played to her ability.

After the match I asked her what changed from the first match.

“I did not want to disappoint you again, so I tried harder,” she said.

My heart sunk.

I picked up on her comment quickly and told her she should play for herself and not worry about what I think or worry about disappointing me. I asked her about why she felt this way.

“You told me what I needed to do better at lunch,” she said.

“You did not have to tell me anything. I know what I had to do to improve,” she continued.

Wow…. I asked how I should handle it the next time she plays.

“Just ask me what I think I should do next time. I know what I did wrong. I know what to do better.”

What a great lesson for me as a sports parent.

I thought I was modeling The Ultimate Sports Parent, but I learned that my young athlete can construe even the most positive instruction as demanding, disappointing, or criticism that she is not good enough.

I am interested in your comments (or challenges) about how you interact with your kids after a game.

Please post your comments or questions about this article below.

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4 thoughts on “When Positive Encouragement Backfires in Young Athletes”

  1. I too have had this same conversation with both of my children. I have tried to bestow in them both that in sports and in their personal life, their performance can be the best to not so good for any apparent reason. As an athlete they both have experienced great days while competing against an equal to better athlete to being outshined by a lesser athlete.
    For an example, my daughter is a very talented fastpitch softball pitcher. She has pitched a no-hitter in the state tournament to allowing her team to be run ruled in 4 innings against a team that an average pitcher will strike out 13 plus batters.
    We use a standard procedure like you in encouragement during a contest. Sometime after that last event, we will talk about it. I will critique their performance, in general conversation, with negatives first, but injecting some positives while finishing by commenting with their positive points. I do not stretch the truth, as in your experience, they already know what they did. I try to re-enforce their knowledge of their particular sport and of what to improve on. I may tweak their plan of attack for their next contest a bit, but for most of all I re-enforce.

  2. As a coach and the mother of five athletes I have found that asking questions is the best way to approach any comments or corrections. Asking kids questions allows you the opportunity to find out exactly what they think. They can tell you about there performance, what they did wrong and right. You can also probe them to tell you what they think needs corrected or improved. I am often surprised how well even young athletes are at self-critique. The most important way to continue the questioning is to ask if they know how to make the corrections they are suggesting. If they can explain how to make the corrections then ask them if they know why that will work. If they understand the why and how of a skills proper technique then they are well on their way to being able to not only make the correction, but doing it with consistency. If they don’t understand the how and why, that is the best time to then explain it (hopefully you know, if not ask their coach to explain it to you possibly even with your athlete with you). As the child answers the questions, encourage them. By asking questions, you are respecting them as thinking persons as well as encouraging them to want to really understand their sport. This understanding transfers into their performance and you have not only accomplished performance enhancement but have also improved their self-confidence as being intelligent people. This also trains the coaches and parents of the next generation.

  3. I have learned the hard way to step back and look at things simply. The mistakes I made in being a sports parent to my 8yo Son playing ice hockey were numerous – I became excited, upset, euphoric, depressed – and expressed all of these emotions in communicating with my son – not overtly, but kids are perceptive and I’m sure he knew where every comment was coming from. Over time, and with gentle prodding from other parents, I have learned to keep most of this to myself. The traditional role of parent/child became blurred as I transitioned between ‘Father’ at home, and ‘sideline coach/peer’ at hockey. Problem is, my 8yo can’t, and shouldn’t be expected to, constantly adapt. He is a wonderful, sensitive, caring and talented boy. I now simply focus on behavior rather than performance and this has helped both of us. My pre and post game/practice chats with him really just deal with how he feels that day and more often than not, don’t involve hockey.

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