From the Field

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Dear Podium Sports Journal:

I’m the father of a 9 year old athlete. He enjoys sports in general but I just don’t see a real competitive side to him and he can be easily shaken by more aggressive peers. He has the physical ability to hold his own but he could use work on the mental side. Is it my place to try to foster that development? If so, how do I find the balance between letting him be his own person and pushing him to him to explore his potential?

Thanks.

Notasportpsychologist

Dear Notasportpsychologist:

I speak from what I have learned not only as a sports psychologist but especially as the dad of 4 athletic children( now age 10 to 23). Kids at the age of 9 need to have others help them to keep the fires and passion for sport going so that they continue to love what they do.Make sure he continues , as you say, to enjoy sports by your being supportive of his efforts.Parents need to know that all kids will bloom into their own person in a safe,positive environment.His “mental side” will develop as a natural part of the process as he learns from experience, how to be more aggressive when appropriate.To try and foster this in him now, runs the risk of him becoming turned off to something he naturally likes. Remember too, that all kids are different…all 4 of mine have different levels of intensity and manage to find their comfort zone and compete at high levels.So, the balance you seek as a dad is to let him be his own person( that’s how he will ultimately perform his best)while encouraging and supporting his dreams and potential( really there is no need to push him to reach his potential.He will find it if he continues to love what he does.) The best part of all of being a dad with a sports child is the joy you get from providing a place for him to learn about not only sports but life as well.

Jerry Lynch, Ph.D.

Dear Notasportpsychologist:

This is what I learned from a nine-year-old prodigy athlete, whose father was a professional athlete in the sport. he was losing interest in the sport he played when I asked this boy, “What would you like more of from your father?” He burst into tears and said, “To spend more time with me.”
Kids play sports for three primary reasons: to have fun, build self-esteem and for socialization (hang out with or make friends). If you want your son to learn how to be more competitive, help him meet his needs in these three areas and he will want to continue in the sport. If he continues in sports, he will learn the competitive side.
If you can, take time to play his sport with him just for fun. It will strengthen your relationship with him and he will improve his sport skills, become more confident and may be able to be more aggressive with the increased confidence in his skills.

TC North

Dear Notasportpsychologist:

Thank you for contacting us with this important question. I have discussed this type of question on many occasions with parents, coaches, and college students. Given the limited information provided in your question, I will provide a general perspective on youth talent development for you to consider.
There has been considerable research on youth talent development, both in sport and other domains such as music and art. The common finding, and recommendation, is that children under the age of 12 (in general) should not specialize in any particular sport. The best thing you can do to support your child who is 9 years old, is to provide him with opportunities to try lots of different activities. This stage of early development is sometimes referred to as the “sampling” stage, because children should be sampling a wide range of physical activities. This growth period is a critical window of opportunity for developing foundational motor skills, such as agility, balance and coordination. The most effective way to develop these important skills is to ensure your child has the opportunity to participate in activities he enjoys, this will fuel his innate passion and increase commitment. Keep in mind that a focus on intense training should be avoided and your role (and that of the coach) is to nurture your child’s interests. If you try to impose a model personality (i.e. be more aggressive) on your child you may in fact inadvertently be turning your child off of a particular sport or activity. You have alluded to the correct response in your question when you finish with asking how to let your child explore his potential. This is exactly what is recommended for children this age, let them explore their potential by supporting them as they find their place in the diverse world of sport. As long as your child continues to participate in sport and physical activity, he will be developing the foundational skills, physical and mental, that will allow him to specialize later if he so chooses. Despite the common perception that elite (i.e., Olympic and professional) athletes specialize early in their life, research shows that just the opposite is true. Champion athletes typically play 4-6 different sports during the sampling stage of development. I will finish by stating that your ultimate goal should be to nurture enjoyment so that your child will lead a physically active life long after he finishes competing in sport. There is no reliable way to identify and predict athletic talent in young children, despite what some people may try to sell you. There currently are numerous talent development tests for sport on the market. They will give you some interesting insight into your child’s physical and mental condition, but the results of these tests in no way will predict your child’s future success in sport. Enjoy this precious time with your child and remember that the number one reason children participate in sport is to have fun!

Wade Gilbert, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
Sport Psychology Coordinator
California State University, Fresno

Dear Notasportpsychologist:

Among the multitude of benefits to be derived from youth sports involvement is the opportunity for the young participant to take on a healthy mind-set towards competition. This is a cultivated attitude, one that is cumulatively shaped by a sequence of experiences. Feelings regarding the risks involved in competitive activities are strongly associated with self-confidence. Every stage of skill development focuses on a few themes which are unique to that level of maturity. However, the consistent inter-related issues of: self-efficacy, fear of failure, belief in oneself, performance anxiety, locus of control, attitude towards competition, despite their differences all boil down to self-confidence. Self-confidence is a state of mind that is dynamic in nature, this means that it can change in either direction over the course of time. The messages that parents and peers send out, both verbally and nonverbally have a strong impact on how it takes shape. As a parent of a nine year old, in terms of what impact you do have within your control, I would start by simply attempting to be a good role model and giving praise as often as possible. Children at that age do possess the self-awareness needed to become fearful of performance and the like, yet they are limited by their lack of adequate expressive capacity to genuinely flush out these types of concerns. I would suggest expressing the following group of… if you will, philosophies, being especially aware of those conveyed through facial expressions and body language. This can best be accomplished by : 1)focusing on the process while minimizing the importance of the outcome 2) reframing failure more as an opportunity for growth, something to be embraced rather than feared 3) highlighting the joys derived from skill mastery and the satisfaction of giving one’s best effort towards effective team work 4) perceiving competition more as an opportunity to have fun, and showcase “your stuff”, rather than an event that has the potential for embarrassment and humiliation. Constant reinforcement of these principals, fashioned into age appropriate delivery and content, should form the necessary bedrock towards adopting a lifelong attraction towards competitive situations.

J Morrow PhD

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