Best Practice #6 – Positive Feedback
How often do our kids actually ask us for feedback about their performance? Perhaps more to the point, how often do we offer our feedback when our kids don't ask for it? The car ride home after the game or practice is notorious for us as parents to provide feedback to our children, whether they want it or not. Often the conversation occurs too close to the time of the game and whatever good intensions we had in sharing our pearls of wisdom are lost in a frustrating breakdown of communication. Sulking can occur … maybe even an argument. I admit it. I am guilty of this, and often I have to remind myself of some important guiding principles.
Good performance occurs when athletes are positive and engaged in the moment. If their brains are filled with distractions such as what their coaches, parents, or friends think (particularly when it is critical), their capacity to engage in play and enjoy themselves is undermined. There are some athletes who are highly sensitized to their environments. They pick up on our facial expressions and tones in our voices and interpret them as criticisms. Often, we feel that our cheers from the sidelines and comments after the game are benign at worst, but somehow what we say can get twisted and have a negative effect. Whether our kids are sensitive to criticism like this or not, a first guiding principle is that we need to be aware of both our children's sensitivities as well as when and how we should communicate with them about their play.
When is the best time to communicate with our kids? A good rule of thumb is when we think it's time to say something after a game, try to pause. Give it some time … wait 24 hours, if you can stomach it. The heat of the moment or the hours following are rarely a good time to offer feedback, particularly if there is criticism or even a suggestion involved. Waiting gives us time to calm down and craft our thoughts and also allows our children to get some distance from the game when they are more able to have a conversation without being overly defensive.
How do we best communicate with our kids? Clearly each child athlete is unique. However, a guiding principle is to focus on identifying positive comments prior to any constructive suggestions. If possible, see if you can name 4 or 5 things your son or daughter did well before providing a suggestion. "Honey, it was great to watch you play today. Looks like you gave it your all out there. I saw you make some great plays and that was a terrific ground ball you got when the game was on the line. And I loved the way you were so positive with your teammates. I'd love to see you attack the goal more often because you are such a good dodger."
An important caveat here is that you can't make up a compliment. It has to be accurate. Inaccurate praise undermines the legitimacy of your comments and can backfire, leading to frustration or simply watching your child zone out and shut you off. Kids, particularly teens, can see right through us. So, we have to be authentic. And, an important cautionary tip is that giving false praise to your child can contribute to a distorted sense of ability, which could create challenges down the road. Comments like "How come I am not starting, coach, I am the best player on this team?" may be something they hear at home but isn't the case on the field. So, while being positive with our kids is absolutely critical, we aren't doing them any favors or building their self-esteem if our feedback is extreme or off the mark. I say "extreme" because all of us parents see our kids as terrific, so if our praise is a little exaggerated that is OK and to be expected. Our kids need to know that we adore them and think what they do is wonderful. Having the awareness that our lens leans naturally toward adoration can at least help bring our feedback closer to reality.
I find that a safe bet, particularly as your child gets older, is to focus more on values in your feedback. "I really like the way you never gave up. You were terrific with your teammates. You looked like you were having a great time out there." Comments like these avoid the potential pressure on performance our kids feel when we say, "Great win today. You got a nice goal." Of course we all acknowledge these accomplishments, but if our kids internalize that winning and scoring are the measuring sticks to evaluate their performance, they are more prone to stress and anxiety. We want to expand their self-evaluation to "how" they play the game, not just how many points they earned. We want them to be able to say, "I played hard and never gave up. Even though we didn't win or I didn't score a goal, I am proud of how I played. I'll get 'em next time." This kind of thinking allows our kids to recover from disappointments but also stay in touch with their enjoyment of play, which is the fuel for ongoing participation in sports over time. And in the end, isn't that what we want?
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