Kids sports are a big thing. How do you support your child athlete on the emotional rollercoaster ride to achieve their sporting dream?

It’s Monday and the alarm goes off at 5.55 am. I can hear Griffyn smack the clock and roll off his bed. A few moments later his bedroom light turns on and I hear movement. I get up to join my son as he eats breakfast, makes his lunch and has worship before heading out for the day.

This routine of a bleary-eyed breakfast, worship and driving to the school gym is now a Monday-to-Friday schedule for our entire family. My husband does the transport to school by 6.30 am for Griffyn to train and then home by five for homework and further training. To support our boy in his basketball dream requires more than just cheering on his passion and dedication. Each family member has to fully commit to seeing through the highs and lows of this journey.

His goal? The highest level of basketball: the NBA. Although it is a dream every boy who loves the orange ball dreams, this is my boy’s and I will support it.

My son has loved basketball as far back as I can remember. I have a photo of him, fresh out of the bath and barely able to stand, with both tiny arms wrapped around the ball, a silly smile on his face and his eyes sparkling.

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He didn’t have much of a choice about learning the game when his older brother, cousin (both high school age) and father are all avid basketball players. The boys lived with us during the first three years of my son’s life and his dad was his coach till he was 14.

I believe Griffyn even fell asleep with a basketball from time to time in his early years and there are at least three basketballs in his room at this moment! What started as a “little boy” obsession has developed into passion, dedication and incredible skill.

As Griffyn grew older, he was invited to try out for our city’s age-representative squad and got a place! His sporting world changed as his opportunities widened, he learned with new coaches, met new teammates, we attended games and tournaments, worked through piles of washing, provided a further taxi service and, most importantly, did our best to be a safe place for our son to be a young athlete where success and failure go hand in hand.

The author and her son at a basketball match.

It’s hard to see our child have a “bad” game, especially as young people can be incredibly hard on themselves. I have always wanted to encourage success, even pushing for excellence, yet didn’t want to discourage Griffyn or create unrealistic expectations. Parent to parent, that isn’t easy.

But this was his journey, not mine. I believe young athletes should be happy and challenged in the game they love, and understand their pathway options beyond it being just a “fun sport”. But there is a thin line between cheering and pushing, helping and demanding, encouraging and discouraging.

I am learning so much as my son grows through his basketball journey. I am learning to kiss him as he heads off to a tournament and to cheer from the stands and kiss him at the end of the day, regardless of what that day looked like. I am not his coach and do not have the skill to comment, critique or say anything except “You were awesome”! I’m his mum and I’m learning to just roll with the excitement. Today his Under-15 team went undefeated and he played amazing! Some days are not so good.

Michael Jordan said, “I can accept failure, everyone fails at something. But I can’t accept not trying.” Watching your child work towards a sporting dream is an emotional roller coaster. However, the elation of success is amazing.

As parents, we will be stressed through this journey but we need to remember that our young athletes (who are really just children) also must navigate high levels of stress. Parents must wade through the information, read books, listen to podcasts and listen to our children to know when sport has moved from a passion and joy to unhealthy stress and anxiety. Knowing this will enhance not only your child’s sporting success, but increase their own ability to cope with stress and negative outcomes in positive prosocial ways.

An article on the Finns Recreation Club website called “4 ways parents can support their young athletes”, has four great tips:

1. Emotional support

Motivation and encouragement doesn’t mean you have to tell them they’re the best or console them by bad-mouthing their opponents. Motivation means saying to your child that losing is part of the game and there is no shame in defeat.

Psychologist Collett Smart shares some strategies to help children to overcome losing in sports.

2. Nutritional support

As a parent, you have the power to influence the food they eat. Help your young sportsperson understand healthy food choices, quick, healthy and easy energy boosts, and how food fuels their bodies.

3. Financial support

Young athletes may want gear that helps improve their performance. They may want to sign up for sports clinics or workshops. It will also help them if they train under the guidance of a sports coach.

4. Don’t be a helicopter parent

Don’t embarrass them by being overprotective or by involving yourself too much in your child’s activities. One of the many problems that coaches have with sports for children or teens is the number of parents who go overboard with their “support”.

Parents can be the greatest support or greatest stress for young athletes.

As young people develop their awareness of their own behaviour, self-management and resilience, they must also navigate parent/caregiver expectations and behaviour.

In their article, “Sources of acute stress, cognitive appraisals, and coping strategies of male and female child athletes”, Mark Anshel and Jennifer Delany share that stress for young athletes around poor performance or bad umpire calls were mostly dealt with through avoidance coping strategies. Rather than handle the poor outcome with wisdom and understanding, they avoided and were unable to learn from the experience.

We can help teach resilience and positive coping strategies through the harder events so our child understands the outcome, supporting our young athletes to learn, “bounce” back from disappointment and have fun.

Rather than say, “Don’t worry, it’s just a game” you could say, “That was a really disappointing outcome for you. I am sure you feel gutted and think you could have played better. Maybe you could have and it would be worth talking to your coach about that. What were some of the highlights of the game for you?”

Put a learning and positive spin on the discussion and you will see your young person become a thoughtful self-critic who can also see the positive amidst disappointment.

The coach, the critic and the inner critic can be so “loud” that young people can drop out of sport altogether. Writing for HuffPost, Terri Orbuch says, “Twenty million kids register each year for . . . competitive sports, but about 70 per cent of these kids quit playing . . .  by age 13—and never play them again. The number one reason they quit . . . is that it stopped being fun.”

Playing sport can simply stop being fun! So my job goes beyond providing healthy meals and a taxi service to allowing my child to have fun. And I guess that means that I let them “call the shots” when they are tired or losing interest in a sport. You and your child must find the balance between giving it everything and losing the joy. You can help navigate that with love.

Is raising an athlete easy? No. But it is rewarding and here are my “rules”:

  1. Love them as they succeed and as they fail—they will do both.
  2. Encourage them to keep trying, building resilience and tenacity, and ensure they have fun.
  3. Be their biggest fan and ride the emotional roller coaster with them! Sport has always provided the best examples of working through life’s problems and challenges.

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