Raising Young Elite Athletes

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.

A significant number of the regular readers of our Mental Toughness Digest blog are the parents or guardians of young athletes that we are either currently working with or who we have worked with previously.

With very few exceptions I have generally found that the parents of our young sporting clients have acted impeccably before, during and after the mental conditioning process. Almost all of them are readily available if need be but tend to be very respectful of the psychologist–athlete relationship and 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 – which would easily be more than a thousand – I can only think of a single occasion whereby I felt that’s a parent was obstructing my attempt to help their son to improve both sporting mental toughness and overall well-being.

What is far more common is for the relationship between the young athlete and either one or both parents to become a topic that needs some attention when putting complex concepts such as emotions and motivation under the microscope. 

For example questions such as “how do I explain to my father that’s I would rather he not attend my competitions because of the win-at-all-costs mindset that he has?” or “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” or “if I start having sex will this have a negative impact on my sporting abilities?”.

Humdingers like this are common – especially after the coaching relationship has become very comfortable whereby the young athlete feels they can tell their sport/performance psychologist “anything” (at Condor Performance we really pride ourselves in the rapport building / maintaining aspects of our 1-on-1 work).

As a general guide when it comes to providing advice in the face of these types of difficult but important questions it is exceptionally rare that we try and change the parents’ way of thinking in any way. For example, if a parent has a “win-at-all-costs” attitude it’s very unlikely that I would try and explain to that parent why that way of thinking might seem productive but is actually anything but (for more on this topic read this Blog post from 2018).

For a start we prefer to spend all of the consultation time that comes with our various monthly options with the athletes and although we’re happy to have the occasional brief conversation with a parent (particularly if it’s adding to the overall process) we do not have the luxury of allowing extensive conversations with those involved in our client’s lives if they themselves are not one of our clients. This is where email/text message has revolutionised sports psychology services as it allows parents/guardian to share concerns or ideas with their son or daughter’s performance psychologists but without having to use up any of the 1-on-1 consultation time that we have with their son or daughter (or both)! 

So the advice that we generally give in these scenarios is roughly along these lines:

Genuine mental tests come in many packages but 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. sledging) but more often by mistake managing both family and non-family relationships can be very, very hard. The Mental Toughness process will remain incomplete untill 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 mental harder on purpose then 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?

Of the Mothers of one of our clients recently asked the psychologist working with her daughter if he had any advice on the overall topic of how pushy to be or not to be. 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.

The clues to many – but not all – psychological dilemmas is often “somewhere in the middle”. In other words, trying not to end up at either extreme is 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 temperature is “somewhere in the middle” (warm) and would never think about bathing the infant in water that was too hot nor too cold.

In fact, when my daughter and son (now 6 and 4) were babies I had a thermometer to ensure that the water temperature was as close to 37.0 degrees as possible. As they aged the “degrees of freedom” grew so nowadays anything between 35 and 40 degrees is fine.

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, 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 son/daughter is almost an adult (16 – 18) and is “not putting in the work” then it might be better for everyone if you just become a gentle reminder service + helper.

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).
  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 with you always being available if they want someone to talk to.
  5. Try not to assume what is best for you is best for them. If you are telling them what to do all the time with few / no choices this 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 and second clarify the dual role on paper before you jump in.
  7. Read this blog post from 2018.
  8. Read 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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *