A Quick Guide For Parents / Guardians
A significant number of the regular readers of our Mental Toughness Digest blog are the parents or guardians of young athletes. Some are the guardians of current or previous youngsters we’ve worked with. Others are just Mums and Dads who have realised that sound psychological processes can help the whole family. Raising young elite athletes (well) is no walk in the park. This blog is an amalgamation of advice I have provided the parents of my younger sporting clients over the years.
With very few exceptions, I have generally found that the parents of our young sporting clients have acted impeccably. By this, I mean they have helped us help their son(s) or daughter(s). Almost all are readily available but tend to respect the psychologist–athlete relationship. Most parents tend to give their child (or children) plenty of space and privacy.
Considering all the young athletes I have assisted over the last twenty years, I can only think of one ‘bad egg’. Only on one occasion with one client did a parent ‘block’ my attempt to help their child. Basically, the toxic relationship between parent and child scuppered my attempts to help the youngster.
The Relationship Is Key
What is far more common is that the relationship between the young athlete and their parent(s) benefits from some spit and polish. In other words, it’s okay and functions, but it could – like most things – be that little bit better. Remember, [most] parents are not qualified experts in complex psychological concepts such as emotions and motivation.
Here are some examples of some great questions that I have had from some of my younger sporting clients over the years:
- How do I explain to my father that I would prefer it if he did not attend my competitions because of his win-at-all-costs mindset?
- I would like to have a boyfriend, but I know that Mum would see this as me getting distracted from my long-term sporting goals. Can you help me with this?
- My folks put so much pressure on me. I don’t think they mean this, but they do. Should I tell them to take it easy?
- I want my Mum and Dad to be my parents, not my coaches!
When providing advice to these kinds of difficult but important questions, we rarely try to change the parents’ way of being. Let’s take the “win-at-all-costs” question above as an example. It’s unlikely that I would attempt to explain to that parent directly why that way of thinking might not be ideal.
Instead, I typically prefer assisting their offspring in understanding why many parents are so “outcome-focused” and how they can, as the athlete/performer, manage this better.
This Makes Sense, Tell Me More …
First, we prefer to spend most of the flexible consultation time that comes with our various monthly options with the athlete. Although we’re happy to have the occasional brief conversation with a parent, we rarely have the luxury of extra time to have extensive discussions with anyone else outside of the well-defined consulting process. This is where email/text messages have revolutionised sport psychology services. It allows parents/guardians to share concerns or ideas with their son or daughter’s psychologist without using the 1-on-1 consultation time that is so critical during the mental conditioning process.
So, the advice that we generally give in these scenarios is roughly along these lines:
Genuine mental tests come in many packages. One of the most common is that the people you spend time with will not always make what you’re trying to do easy. Sometimes on purpose (e.g. hypercriticism) but more often by mistake managing both family and non-family relationships is tough. The mental training process will remain incomplete until this is something you can manage regardless of who you spend your time with.
If a family comes up as an “issue” during the mental conditioning process, this gives us a golden opportunity 🥳 to get some genuine mental toughness training done. In other words, instead of trying to make a situation mentally harder on purpose, we can use these “natural issues” to practice our newfound mental skills. Imagine this. A huge family argument the night before a big competition can work in the long-term favour of the teenager who, with the proper psychological support, has to learn not to allow this to impact what they do the following day.
How Much To Push?
Maybe the most challenging part of raising young elite athletes is knowing how much to push. One of the Mothers of one of our clients recently asked the psychologist working with her daughter if he had any advice on this. In other words, given the added demands young athletes face, how much pushing, nagging, and cajoling is necessary? And when does it become too much? This is an excellent question.
The clues to many psychological dilemmas are often “somewhere in the middle”. In other words, trying not to end up at either extreme can be helpful. An analogy of water temperature can help. When running a bath for your baby son/daughter, we ensure the water is neither too hot nor too cold.
Think of pushing too much as being the same as water temperature that is too hot to bathe in (40 degrees, ouch 🥵). And not bothering to push (remind, nag) at all is the same as water temperature that is too cold (10 degrees 🥶). Parents – aim for somewhere in the middle (25 degrees 😉).
From a psychological point of view, most qualified sport psychologists will be more than happy to do some of the pushing for you. Parenting is hard enough as it is without you also having to try and motivate your youngest(s) without any formal sport psychology training.
Degrees of Freedom
From my point of view, this is the ideal guide for the parents of young athletes. The younger they are, the more I suggest you reduce the possibility of extremes and try to control the degrees of freedom. For example, for elite athletes under ten, maybe you try hard not to have that colossal family punch-up the night before. For those between ten and fifteen, if an argument happens organically, let it happen. Older than fifteen, maybe start an argument on purpose once in a while to give them an extra opportunity to implement their ever-increasing mental toughness.
Let’s use the preparation of equipment as another example of this. Very young; get all their stuff ready by yourself and let them sleep. Slightly older; remind them to do it and help a little. Older still; hope they do everything themselves and accept that if they don’t, there will be a consequence, and they will learn from it. You get the idea, no?