Sports Parenting/Coaching Tip #2: Teaching trumps criticism

When your child has a bad game or makes a bad play, responding with encouragement and teaching trumps angry, critical remarks.

In a previous article, I wrote about the danger of over-responding to our children in sports and making it about us rather than the kids. When our children have a bad game or make crucial mistakes, it can be easy to respond with anger and criticism. Showing excessive frustration, anger, or criticism becomes about the parent or coach (been there and done that). The impact on the child can be very harmful. Rather than help your child improve and learn for the next play, our actions have the opposite effect. We get caught up in the moment unwittingly continuing the tradition of our coaches’ and parents’ treatment of us. Let’s consider the impact of excessive criticism.

A part of our brain called the amygdala (a·myg·da·la) protects us in dangerous situations. If we sense danger (either physically or emotionally), the amygdala activates the fight, flight or freeze response. When a parent or coach angrily yells and criticizes a child’s mistake, the amygdala is often activated and the child will react with fear.  The part of the child’s brain that enables learning from the mistake and makes the child open to the direction and support of others is shut off. The need for putting up a wall of defense and disconnecting from the adult becomes the primary response. If the child now has two strikes, focusing on the next pitch becomes even harder.

I attended an eleven-year-old’s baseball game recently and witnessed a mother yell at her son after he swung at a low pitch. “What are you doing swinging at that?” she yelled angrily. How should he respond? Step out of the batter’s box; calmly walk over to the backstop, thoughtfully scratch his whiskerless chin and say, “You know mom, that’s a good question.  Let me think about it and get back to you, and thanks for asking?” That would have been funny, but he didn’t. He looked over at her with a frustrated expression that said, “Give me a break, mom!” or something to that effect. He swung at another pitch in the same spot and struck out. She rubbed salt in the wound by yelling in a shaming sort of way, “That’s low, boy!” On his way back to the dugout, he quickly turned toward her in response with an even more exasperated look with hands outstretched (the only way he could fight at the time). Nothing like fun at the old ballpark, huh?

Not only do yelling and excessive criticism interfere with the next play, they can send unintended negative messages to the child, including:

  • The child not only did something wrong but IS wrong and not good enough
  • The child has to respond to the difficulties in sports AND he or she has to contend with the strong emotions and negative reactions of adults (double whammy!)
  • Sports are not safe or fun, but lead to fear, anxiety, disapproval from adults, and resentment of adults and sports

Not what we signed up for, right? Positive encouragement and focusing on what the child needs to do next or learn provides an atmosphere in which it’s safe to learn and improve.  The mistake is over, the child can do nothing to change it, and he or she is already experiencing the natural consequences of it, so the focus needs to be on how to deal with the failure and make a correction if needed. In the example of the critical mom above, saying something like, “Good swing, learn from that!” or “Bring it up a little, you’ll get him next time, way to go down swinging!” would have been a lot better because it focuses on the learning. It also reinforces that he actually swung and gave an effort. If the child did his best, it’s important to reinforce the positive effort and the value of the process, as opposed to the result, which is often out of his or her control. This sends encouraging messages to the child, including:

  • Making mistakes in sports or losing does not reflect the child as a person
  • The child has support in the face of failure and difficulty in sports
  • Sports are safe and fun because the child can focus on the game and the process of striving for success without being overly fearful and anxious about the shame of failure

Now don’t get me wrong, the best coaches and parents crank up the intensity sometimes, and I am not saying that every parent or coach needs to walk on eggshells to protect the child’s feelings at all costs. Sometimes kids directly defy instruction, behave in a way that is bad for the team, show a bad attitude or poor effort, and they need to learn those are not acceptable in sports, school or other areas. All are within the child’s control and are not unreasonable expectations. Just be aware that the responses that come from your frustrations may interfere with whatever learning needs to take place or may send an unintended message. Rather than focus on what was done wrong by your child in a way that shames the child, focus on what the child needs to learn in a way that encourages him or her.

Paul C Bakke, MS

Licensed Counselor