Friday, June 14, 2024
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Trains well… but struggles in competition

A parent’s nightmare in many ways. In training your child consistently out performs other players, looks strong and confident, kicks, throws and hits the ball better than most but the moment the competition element kicks in they do a disappearing act faster than Houdini!

For coaches it can be confusing, but for parents it is both confusing and painful and often parents do not know where to turn. So what can you do as a sporting parent?

You could gently encourage them, allow them to go at their own pace, which would all seem sensible strategies but many parents can struggle at this stage and often resort to yelling or threatening.

Regardless of whether any of these messages are used, there are no guarantees that they will work. You are stuck between a rock and a hard place, as you watch your child struggle with the competition and in some cases they spill over into normal everyday life.

At this stage, it is vital as a parent to look at the best interests of your child as opposed to your desires to see them succeed, this is all the more difficult when you can see them perform so well in training and know they are perfectly capable of executing the skills and decision making that is eluding them.

Many parents can also fall into the trap of thinking that it is something their child is in control of, I can guarantee you that if it was that easy, they would not be making themselves or everyone else around them miserable at competition time.

So what could be causing the issue and how can we help manage it as a parent?

Nerves – some children struggle with the thought of others watching them, others just get incredibly nervous.
Let them know it is ok to be nervous and it shows that they care. Let them know that top sportsmen and women also get nervous but can still perform. Have a consistent match day routine, perhaps play the same music on the way to a game. Children love familiarity and consistency particularly when heading into the unknown.

Making mistakes – everyone makes mistakes, that’s how we learn. However, your children may not know this.
Let them know that everyone makes mistakes, it is part of the learning process. Share some of your own mistakes or use examples from the TV.

Perfectionism – some children are born perfectionists, but it is an elusive goal and can add to the pressure.
Support your child in focusing on the hard work and improving skills, not worrying too much about the outcome.

Disappointing others – your children may not want to disappoint you or their coaches.
Remind your child that they are playing for fun. Make sure they know you love them and are proud of them on a regular basis regardless of their sporting performance.

Lack of belonging – it could be that your children are not totally engaged with the sport or feel like they fit within the group.
Are they really enjoying the sport they are playing? Is it right for them? Do they get on well with the rest of the group? Is the coaching a positive experience for them? Keep revisiting these questions and don’t be afraid to move your child if necessary.

Scared of getting hurt – this can make your children tentative.
Ensure your child is practising safely. Talk to them about playing the moment rather than worrying about what may happen and set small progress goals, change may not happen overnight.

A worry of losing – some children worry about the reaction of adults if they do not win the game or competition.
Ensure they understand why they are playing in the first place. To have fun and be fit and healthy is a good starting point. Winning and losing are just part of the game. Ensure you as a parent are modelling good sportsmanship at all times, your children will soon follow suit.

Irrespective of what the issue may be, your child’s physical and emotional well-being are what’s really important here and what should always be foremost in your mind in all of your interactions with them.

If your interest in your child’s performance results eclipses your concerns for them, then you will end up doing far more long-term damage to them. Great sports parenting is all about being tuned into where your child is coming from and what they are feeling, then communicating back to them that you truly understand and care about their feelings.

If your child consistently does much better in training than they do on match day, don’t be part of the problem. Let go of your performance expectations for them. Focus on some of the processes that we champion so much here, work rate, effective communication, determination, resilience and being a good team mate to name just a few.

Show some empathy, try to understand the pain and frustration that your child may be facing without immediately trying to fix it yourself by increasing the pressure to produce. Keep in mind that under these trying circumstances your child needs a supportive, loving environment from their parents.

They do not need to hear about your frustration or disappointment and they certainly do not need to know in any way that they are letting you down.

They need your unconditional love and support. They need reassurance that the most important thing between the two of you is and always will be your relationship and their feelings, NOT their sporting performance!

Pressure to produce is one of the primary culprits in the creation and maintenance of many performance problems. The pressure can come from the child, it can come from the coach, it can come from the parents, or from a combination of all the above.

As a loving, caring parent you want to completely remove yourself from this pressure equation. Instead, you want to be a source of compassion, support and love. This means that you have to let go of your own performance expectations for your child.

This is not an easy thing to do. However, it is critically important that you rise to the task.

• Gordon MacLelland is the CEO and founder of Working with Parents in Sport, which supports parents and coaches in working together to provide children with the best possible sporting experiences. To find out more about their work please visit



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