There are a few moments in my parental life that are etched in my mind. The day I realized I was ruining sports for my daughter was one of those.
We were driving home from a U9 travel soccer match like we did most weekends. I don’t remember much about that game; I can’t even tell you if they won or lost. But eight years later, I can still picture her sitting in the backseat with her head buried in her journal, writing furiously. My normally joyful little girl – who lit up when she was playing a sport – was scowling in frustration.
I could see she was upset, so I didn’t say much. After about 10 minutes, I decided to test the waters and see what was going on since she had never been so mad after a game before.
Me: “What’s up?”
Me: “You look pretty upset.”
Her: (looks up, then silence, puts her head back down and scribbles some more in her journal)
Me: “What are you writing?”
Her: “Do you want to know?”
Me: “If you want to tell me.”
Her: “Are you sure?”
At this moment I was totally confused. What could she be writing that made her wonder if I wanted to know?
Me: “Yes. I think if you are okay telling me, then I would like to know.”
Her: “All my dad does is give me advice to lose.”
At that moment I had no idea how to respond, so I sat silently, and she scribbled in her journal the rest of the way home.
After that car ride home, I did a lot of thinking about what that sentence out of a 8-year-old’s mouth meant. I figured I have a Master’s degree in psychology and have done counseling with children and families for a few years now; I should be able to figure this out.
I realized our routine often involved me “coaching her” about how to improve. I would sit on the sideline, watch her play, and then give her advice about what she did well and what to do differently. Clearly she did not appreciate my advice, and I’m grateful that she told me.
So I decided I would no longer give advice unless she asked me for it. My job was to be her cheerleader/encourager; she already had a coach.
Now I was left with what to do with the car ride home. I have thought a lot since then about those trips and have been very intentional about the questions I ask and what I talk about. I share here what I have learned in the hopes that you can avoid perhaps robbing your kid of the joy of the sport, or theater, or dance or whatever activity they enjoy so much.
After my daughter’s rebuke, I found healthier ways to relate with, question and affirm my daughter, that focused on her character and my love for her rather than on her abilities or how well she performed.
IT’S ABOUT THE RELATIONSHIP, NOT THE WINS AND LOSSES
“I had so much fun watching you play today.”
That’s the phrase I’ve said to her after almost every game she has played. It is not tied to wins or losses or her performance. It’s just an encouraging phrase.
Before, I think I was communicating that I was happy when she won and upset when she lost, so in order for her dad to be happy, she needed to win. That is a lot of pressure on a kid. What kid does not want to see their dad be happy?
Ever since that day, I try to be very intentional that if it was a brutal game, and she did not play her best, I still let her know that I had a lot of fun watching her compete.
QUESTIONS THAT PROMOTE GROWTH
I don’t recall exactly where I first read about questions along these lines, but I found them very helpful. It made a lot of sense to me that the questions you ask tell your kid exactly what is important to you.
If it was a tough loss and emotions seem to be running a little high, I often just let there be silence. Apart from those situations these are my go-to questions:
What do you think went the best for you today?
What do you think you need to work on next time for things to go better?
What did your team do well?
What is something that you guys need to work on for it to go better next time?
Did you have fun today?
When she responds, I usually give some kind of affirmative response: “I could see that,” or “That makes sense.”
Those questions kind of play on a great quote from Nelson Mandela, “There is no losing, only winning and learning.” Those questions establish a mindset of growth and learning.
WHAT YOU AFFIRM TELLS YOUR CHILD WHAT YOU VALUE
Since that day, I have been very intentional about my words of praise and affirmation as well.
I consistently affirm two things – her effort and how she treats others. I have tried to be very careful that my praise and affirmation are never tied to things that are out of her control like winning and losing.
When she shows maximum effort under difficult circumstances, I share how proud of her I am. When parents have come up to me and told me what an encouragement my daughter has been to a teammate, those are some of my proudest moments. I make sure to let her know.
What I try to avoid is saying “good game” when she didn’t play well. My daughter has had a high athletic IQ from a young age. She is more critical of herself than any coach or I could ever be. If I said “good game” after a poor performance, I am not sure that she would ever believe what I say.
When she expresses frustration after a poor performance, from time to time I will acknowledge that it was not the best performance I have seen out of her. I hope that she is learning that her value and worth have nothing to do with her athletic performance. But I’ll still tell her I had a lot of fun watching her play and she put in some amazing effort. I hope she has seen over time that her dad has fun watching her play– win or lose, good performance or bad performance.
WE CAN LISTEN, AND WE CAN CHANGE
My daughter could have been another example in Director of Coaching, John O’Sullivan’s article “The Ride Home” where he shares exit interviews from players leaving his organization and quitting the sport. He would ask them what was their least favorite moment in sports.
Often, he wrote, their response was, “The ride home after the game.”
Thankfully, she was able to communicate with me, “All my dad does is give me advice to lose.” If she had not shared that with me, I would not have known that I was in danger of robbing my daughter of the joy of playing the sports that she loves and growing as a young woman and teammate along the way.
Thankfully, I had the opportunity to change and she is still playing and loving sports. She has moved from soccer to volleyball, and this year is talking with college coaches with the hopes of being a collegiate student athlete.
But I could have missed that pivotal moment with my 8-year-old girl. Listen to your kids, and think about what you are communicating to them. Our words have weight beyond what we often realize.
Those long car rides can be more than just a ride home. They can be a path to growth and joy for our children.