Raising Young Elite Athletes

Raising young elite athletes is no walk in the park. Sport psychologist Gareth J. Mole, a 15 year veteran of working with sporting teenagers, provides some tips to Mums, Dads and Guardians.

A Quick Guide For Parents / Guardians

Trying to be the best parent you can be to you elite athlete son(s) or daughter(s) requires a lot more than just remembering to pack the fold-up chairs.

Introduction

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 good psychology can help the whole family. Raising young elite athletes (well) is no walk in the park. This blog is an amalgamation of advice that I have provided the parents of my youngest 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 or daughter. Almost all of them are readily available if need be but tend to be very respectful of the psychologist–athlete relationship. Most mums and Dads tend to give their child (or children) plenty of space and privacy. 

In fact if I think back to all the young athletes that I have assisted myself over the last 15 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 trumped by attempts to help the youngster. I followed the career of this promising young athlete and was saddened but not surprised when they quit at age 19.

The Relationship Is Key, Sacrosanct

What is far more common is for the relationship between the young athlete and their parent(s) to benefit from some ‘spit and polish’. In other words, it’s fine and functions but it could – like most things – be that little bit better. Remember parents are not qualified experts in complex concepts such as emotions and motivation.

Here are a couple of humdinger questions that I have had from some of my young sport clients.

  • How do I explain to my father that I would rather he not attend my competitions because of the win-at-all-costs mindset that he has?
  • 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?

When it comes to providing advice to these types of difficult but important questions we rarely try and change the parents’ way of thinking. Let’s take the “win-at-all-costs” question above as an example. It’s unlikely that I would try and explain to that parent why that way of thinking might not be ideal. For more on this topic read this Blog post from 2018.

Why Not?

For a start we prefer to spend all of the consultation time that comes with our various monthly options with / on the athlete. Although we’re happy to have the occasional brief conversation with a parent we do not have the luxury of extensive conversations with anyone else outside of the well defined consulting process. This is where email/text message has revolutionised sports psychology services. It allows parents/guardians to share concerns or ideas with their son or daughter’s psychologist but without having to use up any of the 1-on-1 consultation time.

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. hyper criticism) but more often by mistake managing both family and non-family relationships is tough. The Mental Toughness process will remain incomplete until this is something you can manage regardless of who you spend your time with.

If family comes up as an “issue” during the mental conditioning process this provides us with a golden opportunity to get some genuine mental toughness training done. In other words – instead of having to try and make a situation mentally harder on purpose we can use the “issues” to practice our new found mental skills. Real confidence only really happens when you have seen it work in actual, real life situations.

How Much To Push?

Maybe the hardest 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 faced by young athletes how much pushing, nagging, cajoling is necessary? And when does it become too much? This is an excellent question.

I have had a few weeks to think about this since the question was sent to me and now that I have this is my response.

Many of the clues to a lot of psychological dilemmas is often “somewhere in the middle”. In other words, trying not to end up at either extreme can be useful. A analogy of water temperature can be useful here. When running a bath for your baby son/daughter we take huge care of making sure that the water is neither too hot nor too cold.

In fact, when my daughter and son were babies I had a thermometer to ensure that the water temperature was always close to 37.0 degrees. As they aged the “degrees of freedom” grew so nowadays anything between 35 and 40 degrees is fine.

Degrees of Freedom

From my point of view this analogy is the ideal guide for the parents of young athletes. The younger they are the more I’d suggest that you reduce the possibility of extremes. For example too much practice and too little. Or too many competitive situations and not enough. But as they grow older we’d want to allow more and more degrees of freedoms. In other words, although you still try and motivate them to do their homework the acceptable range becomes bigger and bigger. You might insist on them doing some homework each day but you become flexible with when this takes place and the duration.

In other words, if you’re the Mum or Dad of a 10-year-old athlete who is inclined to overtrain then I’d suggest making it virtually impossible for this to take place due to their age. However, if your child is almost an adult and is “not putting in the work” then it might be better for everyone if you just become a gentle reminder service.

Sometimes simple little strategies such as helping take the training equipment out before some home training and helping them pack away can do wonders when it comes to helping teenage athletes find the “sweet spot”.

8 ‘Quick Wins’ for Sporting Parents:

  1. Communicate with your child in a way that shows you are more interested / invested in their effort (highly influenceable) than their sporting results (somewhat influenceable). Accept that raising young elite athletes comes / will comes with its challenges.
  2. Get them to complete the free Mental Toughness Questionnaire for Athletes here and go through the results with them.
  3. The relationship you have with your son/daughter will always be more important than their sporting success. Try not to sacrifice the former for the latter.
  4. Be there for them during the good times and the not-so-good times. Let them ride the ups and downs that come with elite sport.
  5. Try not to assume what is best for you is best for them. Telling them what to do all the time with few / no choices should be a red flag.
  6. If you want to be a parent-coach (both their Mum / Dad and their coach) then first discuss the pros and cons with them. When all parties are happy clarify the dual role on paper before you jump in.
  7. Get Angela Ductwork’s ‘Grit’ then discuss the book as a family.
  8. Read this blog post from 2018.
  9. Download the below guidelines from the Western Australia Department of Sport and Recreation – Clubs guide to encouraging positive parent behaviour:

Author: Gareth J. Mole

Gareth J. Mole is an endorsed Sport and Exercise Psychologist. He is the founder of Condor Performance and co-creator of Metuf™. He lives between Canberra and Sydney (Australia) with his wife, their two children and their fourteen chickens.

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