Dear Sports Parents: How to Handle the 'Valleys'

Dear Sports Parents,

I wanted to write to you to let you know something:

I understand.

I understand that your child played much better last tournament. I understand that "if they just did x", they could turn the tide and possibly change the outcome of the match. I understand that you simply want what's best for your kid, and when you see them performing below their abilities it can be difficult to take a step back and let them figure it out.

I also understand the knots in your stomach. Personally, as a player I never get nervous. I love the competition and the ability to control my side of the court. But as a spectator? Oh man, my stomach is upside down. I know how badly the kids want to do well, and when I don't have control by being on that court, the anxiety is through the roof.

Which is why we need to talk.

You may look at me as I stand next to you at those matches and think "It's not his child, he doesn't understand" or "Why isn't he coaching them? Why isn't he telling them to do this or that?" - and I'd like to talk about that.

A couple things that we need to keep in mind:

1) All the kids want it. No one walks into the arena of competition and wants to lose. When they aren't playing well, don't misinterpret it as them not wanting it.

2) All the kids make mistakes. None of them make those mistakes on purpose. And on that note, know that if you watch world class athletes, they make many of those same mistakes. The difference many times is how they respond to those mistakes.

3) Those kids feel the pressure. They don't want to play poorly. They don't want to let their teammate(s) down. They don't want to let their coach down. They don't want to let their parents, family and friends down. They don't want to feel like they don't belong. You may say they shouldn't carry that burden, but at some point in their athletic careers, almost all athletes have gone through those insecurities, rational or not.

4) They can't always control the outcome of the match, but they always control how they compete during it. Sometimes, they will lose sight of this, and picking the right time to address it is crucial.

5) One of the best lines I've heard as of recently is your influence is never neutral. You're either helping or hurting, one or the other.

So let's talk about #5.

Players deal with peaks and valleys all the time. Some days they're 'in the zone' and everything comes easily. Other days they simply aren't on their game, and sometimes it has nothing to do with their effort or what they want to do. I've had some of my best matches with minimal preparation, and some of my worst ones when I did everything right. That's how things go sometimes.

When your child is dealing with those valleys, you need to know that they aren't happy about how they are playing either. So, if I were in your position, this is how I encourage you to 'handle the valleys'.

1) Accept that sometimes, they're going to have bad games.

I don't enjoy when our athletes have bad games any more than you do. However, literally every athlete has them!

2) Look at the "Big Picture"

All too often we get fixated on the scoreboard: If we're up, things are good. If we're down, things are bad. The reality is, every match has a team that wins and a team that loses: It doesn't mean one team played well and the other played poorly.

Also, make sure you're reading your child's body language. They say the car ride home is the worst time to address your kids: I would argue in the middle of a match that's not going well is 1a. Which leads us to the next point.

3) If they don't ask for your feedback, don't give it.

I know this is easier said than done, but if they are already frustrated and you're pushing feedback on them, it isn't going to generate the result you want. Pick your moments to give feedback, because otherwise you may generate the opposite result of what you're trying to do.

4) Ask, don't tell.

If they do come to you looking for help, rather than tell them what you think they should do, ask them these three questions - and let them discuss it internally from there:

- What are you struggling with, or what is the other team doing well?
- What are some things you can try to do to counter it?
- Are you giving your physical/mental best out there right now?

You won't always be able to be there for them, and the more you can prepare them to figure things out on their own, the more it will help them with this life skill both on and off the court as they mature into adulthood.

To conclude, if you see your kid and they seem dejected or stressed, are you providing feedback that is taking away from that anxiety, or are you adding to it? Make sure you can take a step back and recognize what type of feedback the kids need at that moment - or again, if perhaps #3 is the best plan of action.

Again, I know you want what's best for your child. You just want to see them succeed. Just know that they will have bad matches no matter what you do or say, and how you provide feedback can be more influential than what that feedback actually is.

When all else fails, just remember the 5 words they probably need to hear the most when they're at their lowest: I love watching you play. They may not act like they want it when things are going badly, but I assure you as a parent, there's no better feedback you can provide.

All the best,

Coach Bryan