3 Mistakes Parents Need to Avoid with Their Athletes
Let me see you flex YOUR brain…
By Sara DiPaolo
Back in the dark ages when I swam competitively a coach once admonished our team (cleaned up for PG consumption) “Turn off your brains and get out of your own way!” Through the years in my own competitive journeys and as a coach and parent, I’ve parroted some form of that sentiment countless times. Why? Because a brain can be the biggest asset, or the biggest hindrance, and only its owner can choose which role it plays.
I’ve often heard coaches and high-level athletes speak about working with a sports psychologist. At the high school level it isn’t something many athletes talk about with their peers, but a surprising number utilize sports psychologists as a resource in their training. Because an athlete’s performance can be so dramatically affected by emotional and cognitive muck, a sports psychologist can be a tremendously useful tool in an athlete’s training arsenal – and make no mistake, mental strength requires training just like physical strength does.
Patricia Moore, a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, serves as the Lead Sports Therapist at Mandarin Cove Sports Psychology in Jacksonville, FL, works with elite athletes at the high school, college, and professional level. She graciously took the time to discuss her profession and what it has to offer our young athletes.
“Most athletes come to me because for some reason they are not having success in their particular sports arena. I do a complete assessment to find out where they are stuck, what are their major stressors, and why they compete in their sport,” Moore explained. “I work with the athlete to find the joy in their sport and learn how to embrace adversity in a powerful helpful way.” Moore teaches the athletes that adversity, and how an athlete responds to it, plays a role in reaching one’s highest potential. She endeavors to help clients to understand how their “sports brain” functions and thus be able to elicit top performances from it.
How an athlete perceives herself and how she thinks about the world around her carries a surprising amount of power over performance and overall enjoyment of her sport. “If an athlete is convinced she can’t beat an opponent, she will find a way to lose in the end,” Moore asserted. “How an athlete thinks can ultimately make or break their enjoyment in sport. Many athletes have competed the majority of their lives but as they get into the high school years, they quit because of their mental game.”
Moore firmly believes that an athlete’s joy in competing will return or flourish when he takes control of his “mental game” – in other words, how he thinks about what he sees, feels, and experiences. Taking that control means changing focus from what Moore calls the “uncontrollables” – i.e. winning or achieving a specific time – to the elements he DOES have control over – effort, breathing, attitude, training, confidence, and how they think. “Athletes undermine themselves by focusing on their mistakes, bad performances, what others think about them,” noted Moore. “(Focusing on “uncontrollables”) puts intense pressure on the athlete, erodes their confidence and makes them perform tight.”
Because of the firm link between thought processes and performance, both in and out of the athletic arena, parents and coaches play a large role in helping (or hindering) an athlete’s development of mental strength. Moore points out that much of a young athlete’s self-image derives from the message they hear from parents, coaches, teammates, and other competitiors. One of her first tasks in counseling is to help the athlete change a negative self-image, and that change can be encouraged by parents and coaches.
“Coaches and parents can help by teaching their young athletes to focus on what they do well,” indicated Moore. “This rarely happens in the sports world. They can also help athletes to focus on the process, not the outcome.”
A process based outlook, according to Moore, includes helping athletes to set goals that they can actually control, like focusing on leg strength in the last 50 meters of the race rather than on achieving a specific place. “When we take the focus off of winning, our athletes feel less pressure and interestingly our athletes win more,” she asserted.
Another way parents and coaches can assist athletes in developing a strong mental outlook is by avoiding some easy to make mistakes.
First, according to Moore, allow the athlete to self-correct, which means finding a way to help the athlete understand what needs to be done differently without lumping their success as a human in with their performance. “You lost to him because you didn’t kick hard enough in the last 50” is far less productive than asking questions like “what was happening out there in your 100?” or “On a scale of 1-10 how strong did your legs feel on the first 50? How about on the second 50?”
Second, Moore emphasizes that a coach or parent should NEVER compare their athlete to another competitor. Asking your child “why don’t you kick off the wall like George does?!” will not elicit an overly positive response. “The smarter approach is to ask better questions of the athlete to help them to self-correct,” Moore explained. “If the athlete needs to work on kick strength in the last 50 meters (asking questions to help them self-correct it and then) setting goals together to up that kick strength” presents a healthier, stronger approach.
Third, never, ever lie to an athlete. “They can see right through that!” asserted Moore. If an athlete is disappointed in a performance, parents should allow that athlete to feel that emotion without trying to fix it. “In mental training, the athlete is taught how to sit with their disappointment without judgment, which allows them to move forward and not choke in the future,” she described.
Moore’s efforts to redirect an athlete’s focus to the aspects they can control translates from the athletic arena to the real world. “When athletes change their self-image, the most fascinating thing happens, they become confidence and successful both in the athletic arena and in life in general,” Moore described.
Moore emphasizes that parents, coaches, or athletes who are interested in exploring ways to increase mental strength in performance should look for a sports psychologist with experience as an athlete, coach, and parent of athletes, as well as as a therapist. “This 4-legged approach allows the sports therapist to have an understanding of the complete athlete,” she explained. “Some sports therapist, like myself, are now doing sessions over FaceTime and Skype to allow athletes to connect even if they aren’t in the area.”
Patricia Moore is a Florida Licensed Mental Health Counselor providing sports therapy in Jacksonville and surrounding areas. Patricia’s philosophy produces competitive athletes who respond to competitive pressure with confidence, poise, and consistency. For more information:
Sara DiPaolo is a former competitive swimmer/water polo player and high school swim coach, a current competitive age-group triathlete, and a parent of one high school swimmer and one she just shoved out of the boat to swim in college. You can reach her at [email protected].
Florida Swim Network