The other day a long-time friend of mine asked: "My daughter is getting hyper competitive in sport. She’s a great athlete and winning a lot of her events, but I can tell the pressure is getting to her. What can I say to help her enjoy herself instead of always feeling like she has to win?" That’s an important question, because what we say to and around our kids helps shape the way they think about themselves and the world. In order to grow resilient and emotionally flexible children, it's important to help them develop what Stanford psychology researcher Carol Dweck calls a Growth Mindset.
But first let’s take a step back and talk about what's going on in this phase of life. Adolescence is a time when children are developing their own view of the world and who they are in it. Interactions with family, friends, teachers, coaches, and the internet give a child what begins to become this worldview. For example, a child growing up in a high-crime neighborhood who is exposed to violent video games and fighting parents may grow up with the belief that the whole world and all relationships are unsafe.
When the focus around children, whether through gaming or sports, is to come out on top at all costs, kids can lose touch with their natural sense of curiosity and play. That is, they stop learning that the world can be any other way but winning and losing. I can see why some people think that youth sports is the fast lane to retirement.
Since kids are sponges for information, how we talk to and around them is really important. Afterall, communication shapes thinking and can provide kids with a map for their own healthy identity and inner voice. Through specific and healthy communication with children, you can stimulate their natural sense of wonder over winning, while guiding them towards rewarding and successful sports experiences.
In a study conducted by Dweck with a diverse population of young Chicago students, participants were given a moderately difficult set of problems to complete. Those children that were then praised for being smart, were less inclined to fill out a more challenging worksheet, in the event they then appeared not smart. Those who were praised for strategies like hard work or pacing themselves, were eager to raise the bar, and agreed to take on more challenging problems. Dweck concluded that praising students for their ability taught them a fixed mindset and created vulnerability, but praising them for their effort or the strategy they used taught them a growth mindset and fostered resilience.
Eight time grand slam winner and Olympic gold medalist, Andre Agassi, is a perfect example of being brought along in his physical development while his inner voice was misguided. Agassi admitted in his autobiography that he hated tennis because of his overbearing father, who pushed him to train and compete from an early age. It wasn't fun, and he eventually developed a drug problem to deal with his resentment.
As someone who sprinted rapidly up the ranks of youth running, I can't state strongly enough how important it is to have fun. As a matter of fact, the number one goal for youth athletes is to have fun. It's also the number 2 and the number 3 goal. When kids get stuck in roles like, "I'm the one who has to win," they limit their options and flexibility when they don't win. There are also times when being competitive is inappropriate or even destructive. These experiences can effect the child's health as well as social relationships, and thus negatively impact self-worth.
When I work with young athletes in mental performance, I always take the lead from them by asking questions like: what do you love about your sport, what makes it fun, what bothers you about it. I talk with them about their hobbies and interests and engage them in co-creating a balanced, meaningful, and happy experience. For example, I work with a young go kart racer who runs as part of his training, which he doesn't like. When I asked him what he loves to do, his face lit up as he told me about these collectibles he calls Magic Cards. I encouraged him to come up with a game that incorporates running and Magic Cards, and he did. Once empowered and on-board with the idea of playing with his program, we also came up with fun ways for him to do push ups and sit ups using blueberries as rewards for each rep. He then quickly named them Fruit Ups. He was on fire with ideas, and lit up for the first time that session. It looked like a weight had been lifted from his 10-year-old shoulders. And he had been the one to lift it!
When speaking with young athletes, I recommend you use phrases and questions such as:
Looks like you worked really hard at this.
Mistakes help us grow.
What do you think we learned today?
What worked well and what didn't?
Is there anything you want to add, and anything you want to get rid of?
Make sure the language is specific and leaves opening for discovery and possibility. Take the lead from the child, and empower them to be a co-creator in their sports experience as they develop a healthy inner voice.