The Parents Role in Mental Training

Confidence

Confidence does not come from outside sources. Confidence comes from within the athlete. A parent cannot make a child feel confident but we can help the athletes recognize their own doubt and negative self-talk. When we hear our athlete say comments like “I am going to choke today, I can just feel it” or “I am not sure I am going to make my new pass today.” As a parent we want to immediately dismiss these comments and so things like “oh stop, no you aren’t.”  Athletes may doubt themselves and by saying, “oh stop”, you are discrediting their thoughts. A better way of replying to them is by asking them to tell you more about their comment and then listening to their answer. Chances are your athlete may not realize their self-talk in negative. Another area where a parent can help their athlete’s confidence is to make sure they are not tearing it apart. A child’s self-talk can mimic what they hear others say to them. Do you say things to your child like “you are so lazy” “you don’t listen” “ you never follow through with anything” or “you can’t remember anything.”  Your children believe you and these comments can become your child’s thoughts as well. You may be unknowingly hurt your child’s self-talk. Make sure your comments do not put labels on your children. Also pay attention to not talking negatively about your children to others. Always build your children up and if you do have something negative to say, make sure they do not hear it. 

Focus

Before the competition it is normal for your athlete to be nervous. And many athletes may start be distracted with unnecessary thoughts. You may hear your athletes say comments like “I hope I don’t compete first thing in the morning.” or “ I know _____________ team will be there. They are probably going to win. They always win.” If you hear your athlete say these comments, you can rebut them with statements like:

  1. It doesn’t matter what time you compete, you are strong any time of day.
  2. It doesn’t matter what teams are there to compete. Today is a new day and anything can happen. 

As a parent you will want to stay away from statements that may put distracting thoughts into your athlete’s head. These statements can be irrelevant to the competition but just as distracting, like telling your athlete that they have to finish their homework for school as soon as they get home from the competition. You also want to make sure that you don’t complain to your athlete about topics, such as:

  1. For young athletes- cleaning their room.
  2. For older athletes- grades in school.

Behavioral, school, or other issues can wait until after your athlete’s competition.  Have your comments focus on your child’s process goals.  You can ask them what their process goal is for the competition. Process goals are general themes of behavior and attitude for the competition or they can even be geared toward each event. For example a process goal for the competition may be “be aggressive from beginning to end.” A process goal for a race can be, “relax and feel the water.”You may help your athlete get into their focus by saying comments like “ stay strong” or “go get ‘em”.

Distractions

Fear of Failure: 

If you have a child that can hit their routines in practice but tends to “hold back” or “play it careful” in competition, your child may have a fear of failure. This unconscious fear appears when your athlete wants to do well in their competition they are fearful that they won’t succeed; they can be fearful that they may not live up to others expectations, they may not get the “pay off”, they will be embarrassed, or they will let others down. This fear causes your athlete to perform tentatively or too aggressively. Either way they change what they have been practicing in the gym and they bring a different performance to the competition. Many times athletes are so consumed with not wanting to fail (fall) and that is mostly what they think about. They fill their minds with falling that they forget to think about what they need to do to make their skills. Parents can help by helping the athlete think about the worse case scenario. What if they do fail? Life will go on and they will remain loved. Many times the athlete can put too much significance on their performance that they do not allow themselves to perform freely.  Take the weight off your athlete’s shoulders by allowing them to focus on their process and be able to practice and perform their sport without outside expectations, pressure, and concern. 


Expectations

Expectations are demands that are put on athletes about how they should perform. Expectations are not goals or aspirations they are what we call the “should” or “should nots”.  Your athlete may say that they “shouldn’t lose at an easy competition” or “should get in the top 3 in the all around”.  On the surface these comments may seem like your athlete has goals. But these are really pressure that can create anxiety. If your athlete thinks they shouldn’t lose at an easy competition, what happens if they do lose? They can feel embarrassed, frustrated, angry, or even like they failed.   Parent’s can also place expectations on their athletes. For example we may think that when we say to our athlete “You should win today.” “I’ll buy you a new suit if you do well.” We think that we are trying to empower our athlete with confidence or motivate them to try hard. But what they may actually hear is:

  1. I have to win because my parent’s think I should.
  2. My parent’s think I am going to win, I hope I don’t make any mistakes.
  3. If I don’t do well or win, I will disappoint my parents.
  4. If I don’t do well, I won’t get a new suit. 

Be aware of expectations and when if you do come across any, park them at the door and do not let them in your house. Keep the statements that don’t have expectations attached to them. You can say general statements like:

  1. Stay strong from the beginning of the competition to the end.
  2. You look ready to put on a show.

Pay attention to any expectations you hear your athlete say like “ I should win, because I am not racing against anyone good.” “I should win breast stroke, it is my best.” You can convert these comments with statements like:

  1. Just do what you do it practice, you are ready.
  2. Remember you can’t control the judges, just focus on your race.

Remember your job, as a parent you are to support your child so your comments should remain general and not focused on technique.


Perfectionism:

As a parent of a perfectionist you may already know that your child is hardworking, has a strong work ethic, they are committed to their goals, and they have an intense desire to improve. These children are very motivated and usually don’t need constant reminding of what they should be doing. These athletes can be challenging as well. They may have incredibly high expectations, they may seek approvable from others, and they may worry too much and become easily frustrated. 


Be aware of your child’s perfectionism. When your child focuses on perfectionist beliefs they may put a lot of high expectations on themselves. They may say things like “I should work hard everyday to achieve my goal” or “ I should perform perfectly” or “ my swims are either good or bad, no middle ground”.  When children have these beliefs they put a lot of pressure on themselves to maintain a state of perfection. 


They do not need extra outside pressure. Because your child is human they will make mistakes. They need to understand that mistakes are not bad; mistakes are how we learn. Perfectionists sometimes set unrealistic goals and when they do not reach them they consider themselves a failure.  


They also tend to focus on results, like getting a certain score or placement in a competition. Perfectionist may also have low self-esteem and can tend to be very self-critical. They also may have a hard time taking criticism and can become defensive when their coach gives them a correction. 


Understand that these perfectionist athletes place extra pressure and anxiety on themselves that is not conducive for training and performing. Let them make mistakes without pointing them out to your athlete. Chances are your athlete knows what they did wrong and there is no need to recap their faults. 


Let them make mistakes without critiques or criticisms. Support their effort and stay away from only celebrating outcome goals.

Composure

I am sure that you may have seen your athlete have a breakdown in their composure. They may have cried over a fall they had on beam, they may have thrown their gym bag across the gym at a meet, or they may have even fallen on their first event and took their frustration to the next event and blew the rest of their competition. Your athlete may lose composure when they are frustrated, dwelling on past their performances, not living up to demands from their or other expectations, or any irrational beliefs they may have about themselves or their performances. In the workbook your athlete learned to be aware of situations where they lose their composure and they learned strategies to “let go and move on”.As a parent it is important for you to “let it go and move on” as well. Also be aware of your own composure. Your athlete may think that losing their composure is a family trait. If you realize that you may lose your composure you may want to check your expectations and irrational beliefs as well. What beliefs do you hold onto about your child’s performance? Do you find yourself sometime becoming over emotional? If you get so nervous for your athlete that your hands get sweaty or you get an upset stomach don’t make your athlete aware of these emotions. Stay composed and your child will have a better chance of staying composed as well.  

Mental Blocks

Many parents ask for advice on what they can do about their athlete’s mental block. I understand the pure frustration of feeling helpless and hopeless because parents do not like seeing their child suffer. 


As parents, we readily want to jump in and try to save our children when they suffer. We want them to be happy and it is painful to see our children unhappy.  The most frustrating aspect of mental blocks for parents is our children must learn the tools they need to get through on their own. There is no magic pill and there isn’t much a parent can do to make their child get over their block. The child must get through this challenge on their own, but there are some things that a parent can do to help.  

  • When I talk to athletes about mental blocks the first step to overcome their fear is to become aware of self-talk. What is self-talk? Self-Talk is what the athlete says or thinks to themselves. Many times an athlete’s self-talk is very negative. They may say things such as: I stink, I am going to hurt myself, I can’t do it, or I hate tumbling. These comments are not helpful to overcoming fears and they may be feeding the fear even more. I advised the athlete to become aware of what they are saying to themselves and if the comments are not helpful than to change them.

-The parent’s role in self-talk is to become aware of how the parent is talking to the child. When a parent says comments such as: Why aren’t you going for it, you are so good at tumbling, there is nothing to be scared of, or you shouldn’t be scared. These comments can make the child feel like they are disappointing, frustrating, or embarrassing the parent. This can add more pressure and anxiety. Parents’ comments need to stick to comments such as: I love you, you are working very hard and I am proud of you, and stay strong and we are always here for you. Parents can also be aware of what they say to their child. Be must be careful not to label the child. They can stay away from comments such as “You are lazy, you are an airhead, you are a mental case, ext.” I understand that many of these comments are said in jest, but to a child and especially one that is working through a mental block, these comments are very hurtful. The athletes can think that there is some truth to the comments and they will behave up to these comments. If a parent says their child is an airhead, the child believes they are an airhead, then the child all probably behave in the way an airhead would behave.  

  • The next step for athletes is about focus. When I ask athlete what they think about during their skill, many of them say they don’t know. If they know what they are thinking about during each skill then it is difficult for them to stay focused on the skill they are trying to perform. Performance cues are reminders the athlete tells themselves before and during each skill. For example if the athlete was a gymnast performing a back handspring on beam, they would think about cues that could help them make the skill. Stretching tall on the start, pushing through their legs on the jump, looking at the beam to place their hands, strong legs on the landing, and lunge for the finish. Thinking about “these” cues keep them focused on the back handspring and not on negative thoughts or distractions. The idea is when athletes fill their thoughts with what they want to have happen they are not focused on what they don’t want to have happen.

-The parents role in this step is very small. It is not the parent’s job to make their child use performance cues, it is only the parent’s job to become away of performance cues.  

  • The next step in overcoming mental blocks is having the athlete trust in themselves. They know what they need to do, but sometimes it is difficult for the athlete to believe they are capable of letting their body perform the skill. Trust is the most difficult part. The athlete will do their skill with a spot from the coach, they may even do it with a slight finger touch, but when the coach steps away or pulls their hand away, the athlete freezes. When the coach backs away, the athlete is left to be 100% responsible for their own skill. They must believe they are able to perform the skill and their body will do what it needs to do. We work with the athlete on trust by positive self-talk, performance cues, and reminders of times they are independent and strong.

-The parents can have a huge role in trust. The athlete has to convince themselves they can perform the skill. They need to know they are independent, strong, and can overcome challenges. When parents rush in to save their children when they are in challenging situations, they are not teaching them how to be strong on their own. 


A parent can start to give their child more independence around the house. The child needs to practice situations where they overcame challenges without parental involvement. Parents must guide and give advice, but it is important for the child to figure things out on their own. 


For example, if the child is having problems with understanding a math problem at school, rather than the parent contacting the teaching on their own or teaching the child the information, maybe the parent can help the child find out how they can fix the problem. Ask the child what they can do to get help on math. Have them ask the teacher, write an email, or find information on a web site. This will teach the child how to find their own answers in the future and will teach them how to trust they are responsible and independent.  


Mental blocks are frustrating and parents can feel the range of emotions from anger (You are wasting my money by not doing anything in practice), denial (You don’t have a mental block, just do it), despair(I don’t know what to do), to compassion(You are my child and I love you regardless of if you throw a skill or not). Mental blocks can take us a lot of the families emotions, money, and time, but it is important for the athlete to KNOW that the parent’s love is not dependent on how or what they perform.  


Remember that sports will come and go and it is not the medals, trophies, or ribbons, but it is the lessons they learn along the way. A child with a mental block will learn lessons about what they think about, confidence, self-talk, and trust. They will come out of this mental block learning that they are powerful enough to overcome any challenge in the future.  


Also know that some children do not get through their mental block. A child that does not want to get though a mental block may not want to do the sport anymore or may be honestly scared and not want to do the skill. Either way, it is okay for an athlete not want to get over their mental block. They need to know that with or without performing the skill, their life will not change: their parents will still love them unconditionally, they will still have amazing value as a person, and they need not to be embarrassed of something they don’t want to do.  Parents must continue to have patience and love and support their athlete. 


This is a part of a long journey and it is not what the athlete does but how they do it.


To purchase our workbook Breaking Through a Mental Block, click the link below.