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IMAGE Today's society puts great emphasis on achievement and winning. How do these trends affect young athletes? Do you know how to help your child deal with the competition and disappointment involved in youth sports?

Most parents understand the importance of providing love and acceptance to their children. And it is more than just a hunch. The renowned psychologist Abraham Maslow stressed that individuals must have their needs for loving and belonging met before they can grow up to have confidence and self-esteem.

According to psychology experts, young athletes need even more support and acceptance, since they are often vulnerable to pressure from their parents to win or succeed in sports and other activities.

Learning From Sports

According to sports psychologist Marty Ewing, PhD, by engaging in sports, children learn to assess their social competence—their ability to get along with and gain acceptance from their peers, family members, teachers, and coaches. Ewing adds that kids learn about taking turns with their teammates, sharing playing time, and respecting rules. They understand that rules are important for everyone, and that without regulations, games would become unfair.

Although competition helps children develop problem solving and other skills, it can be both positive and negative. Negative competition occurs when a child competes for his self-worth and value. This happens especially when parents reinforce the concept that children must "play to win." Positive competition is the result of children competing to discover their strengths and inner talents, such as determination, patience, and power.

Being Vulnerable

Christopher Andersonn, author of Will You Still Love Me If I Don't Win?, says that it is sometimes scary to be a young athlete. Athletes face the possibility of failing, needing to live up to their last success, or being rejected by a parent, coach, or teammate. Often, child athletes are afraid of facing their own disappointment after they have put a great deal of time and effort into their training.

Andersonn adds, "Young athletes need their parents' love, approval, acceptance, security, and safety…they are dependent upon their parents for that. When parents expect something from a young athlete, it automatically puts a certain amount of stress upon the young person."

Child athletes also want to do as well as their friends, particularly if they are on the same team for a long time, and everyone else graduates in skill. "This is really painful and comes up often when I talk to young athletes," says Andersonn. "It makes them feel like failures; they feel deeply humiliated."

Helping Kids

Parents can be more sensitive to this issue by paying close attention to how their children are feeling, says Andersonn. Asking, conversing with, observing, and listening to their children can accomplish this.

Andersonn feels that the main problem is that some parents are unaware of many of their own feelings and psychological issues. In fact, this inspired him to write about athletic children. "I want to help parents see how easy it is to become numb in a society that does not value feelings, particularly in sports, and help them see how vital it is to become more sensitive."

What if your son loses his next Little League game? What can you do to help him deal with his feelings of disappointment? "Young athletes will lose sometimes in sports. Parents can reassure them that losing at anything does not make him a loser as a person. It [only] means that he has lost in that [particular] situation," Andersonn explains.

Parents need to be patient and emotionally present when their children lose, letting them feel what they need to (anger, sadness, loss) in order to move on. Each of these emotions is useful, particularly if expressed appropriately. When children are allowed to feel their negative feelings in a safe and constructive way, they can survive the experience. At times, simply showing a willingness to listen without offering any advice is the best way to show parental love.

Being Aware

It also helps children if their parents are aware of their own psychological attitudes about competition and achievement. For example, when parents have built-in expectations of a young athlete, the child may feel that they are not important unless they prove themselves—by winning the game or earning a prize.

How they handle this type of pressure depends greatly upon the way their parents raised them. If they grew up in an angry or withholding atmosphere—where it was unsafe to express feelings, they may have difficulty expressing feelings and recovering from the loss if they fail.

Acting in a Loving Way

To help parents support their children in athletic and other social endeavors, Andersonn provides these tips that can help, called loving actions:

  • Give. Give your child your time, understanding, and patience. Give because you want to and because it makes your child feel reassured.
  • Respond to your child's needs. Be responsive to your child emotionally, spiritually, mentally, and physically. These actions will help your child to feel that it is acceptable to be vulnerable and will promote a nonjudgmental environment.
  • Respect. Respect your child's emotional nature. Care enough to understand and relate to what he is feeling, not just to what he is thinking. Showing respect teaches your child to respect others and builds intimacy skills.
  • Know. Know your child's vulnerabilities, strengths, and emotional needs. Knowing takes a great deal of patience and acceptance. Your child will feel appreciated and validated.
  • Commit. Commit yourself to your child's happiness and needs. Committing engenders trust and self-esteem. It allows your child to feel secure, even when he fails.
  • Teach humility. Teach your child that a person can always be more, learn, and grow more, but do not judge their flaws. Your child will take pride in his accomplishments.
  • Care. Show that you care by your actions, communications, and thoughts. Demonstrate that you care in such a way that your child knows it. This will help your child learn to rely on you and significant others.

  • Mental Health America

    http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/

  • Sports for Kids

    http://www.sports4kids.org/

  • Canadian Psychological Association

    http://www.cpa.ca/

  • Sport Ball: Sports Instruction for Kids

    http://www.sportball.ca/

  • Sports and your child: guidelines for parents. American Academy of Pediatrics website. Available at: http://www.aap.org/family/sports.htm.

  • Youth Sports: Teaching Sportsmanship website. Available at: http://www.youth-sports.com.