The Ride Home: What to say — and not say — on the way to and from your child’s game

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Many parents throughout Charlotte juggle chaotic schedules when it comes to their child’s sports activities these days. Their weeks are crammed with practices and games, meals are grabbed at drive-through windows and family vacations are put on hold for can’t-be-missed playoff games.

That means parents are spending huge chunks of time in minivans shuttling kids to baseball fields, basketball courts and hockey rinks. The conversations that unfold between parents and their children during these rides — whether they occur while merging onto the highway or maneuvering through neighborhood streets — can often be defining moments in a youngster’s life.

After all, the words parents deliver at the stoplight on the drive over to the game, or what is said while pulling out of the parking lot following a contest, have the power to boost a child’s confidence and self-esteem or quickly smother it. They also impact everything from the child’s interest level in the sport to how they will handle competitive situations they encounter later on in life.

“Whatever you say as a parent on the ride to the game, try to keep a calm, supportive tone of voice,” says Dr. Joel Fish, a sport psychologist and author of “101 Ways to Be a Terrific Sports Parent.” “The way you say something is as important as the words that you choose to say.”
Countless issues have the potential to pop up during the course of a season and threaten to drain the fun out of a child’s participation.

Fortunately, several of these obstacles can be remedied from behind the steering wheel — from easing pre-game jitters that can handcuff a youngster’s ability to perform to soothing the heartache of a child disappointed with losing the big game.

While game day can be a pretty exciting time for parents anxious to see their child perform, it can be downright nerve-racking for the youngster. During the ride to the game is when that nervousness often reaches its peak. Children often wage an inner battle with themselves, silently wrestling with nervousness that can be traced to worrying about missing a key free throw in the final seconds of a game or surrendering the game-winning goal.

“Learning how to relax on the way to a game is a skill that takes time to develop,” Fish says. “As parents, we need to show our children that we understand this and that we will be patient with them as they learn the skill of relaxing.”

But what often happens is that many parents, despite the best intentions, often burden their child with unwanted pressure, without even realizing it. “Kids in athletics are often in the sport so that their parents can live their lives vicariously through their play,” said Steve Mott, a marriage family therapist in Southern California whose areas of specialization include athletic counseling.

“These kids are pushed beyond what they are ready for and they comply so as not to disappoint their mother, or usually their father. These parents put lots of energy and money into trying to groom a professional, and then turn that into guilt aimed at the child when he or she does not perform up to the parental expectations.”

This type of pressure that is applied by parents is a disastrous formula that can sabotage a parent-child relationship, as well as undermine the youngster’s experience. While most parents don’t exert this type of pressure on their children when it comes to spelling bees, school plays or piano recitals, emotions often run higher in athletics when scoreboards enter the picture and games suddenly take on a whole new meaning in the eyes of adults.

“Kids learn through this pressure to go out and play to not lose as opposed to going out to win and have fun,” Mott said. “The best way to help children is to teach them to go out and have fun and if something more comes of it fine, but the child should dictate how much they can take, not the parent. Too many kids are trashed emotionally when they do not become established professionals in their respective sport.”

Even in the perfect scenario in which parents encourage, but don’t pressure, it is quite natural for children to experience a small dose of pre-game jitters. After all, it is something that participants of all ages and skill levels deal with to varying degrees during their athletic careers. Nervousness only emerges as a serious problem when it suffocates a child’s ability to perform skills that they routinely handle during practice.

The easiest route to ensure that pre-game nerves, or fears of failing, don’t overwhelm a child is to avoid putting unnecessary pressure on them during the drive over.
“Take your cues from your child,” Fish said. “Will your child relax by talking about the game so that he or she will feel more confident and mentally prepared? Or does your child prefer not to talk about the game but rather to calm down and relax before the competition? Sometimes, children can’t answer a parent’s question of, ‘What can I do to be most helpful to you on the way to a game?’ As parents, over time, we can help our children learn how to answer this question.”

A much more difficult area for parents is riding home with a youngster who made an error that cost the team the game, or who perhaps didn’t perform up to his or her capabilities in the big game that resulted in a loss.

Unfortunately, there are no magical words of wisdom that can erase a child’s pain and disappointment in these delicate situations. Fish recommends that parents begin by acknowledging the child’s feelings with comments, such as, “I understand you are upset,” or “I imagine you must feel very disappointed.”
One of the biggest mistakes parents can make is to skip over this step, which can plunge them into an even trickier situation.

“Often, because it’s upsetting to see your child feeling bad, parents will skip Step 1 and immediately begin to say things to their child like, ‘Don’t worry about it,’ ‘Don’t feel bad,’ ‘Why are you still so angry?’” Fish says. “If parents say these kinds of things, sometimes it becomes harder for their children to get past these normal feelings of sadness and anger.”

After acknowledging their child’s feelings, the next step for parents on the ride home is to offer their child some perspective on the game or competition. Fish recommends comments such as, “I’m proud of your effort,” “It took a lot of courage to compete the way you did,” and “How can you learn and improve from what just happened?”

“Remember,” Fish says, “that whatever you say as a parent, if your child feels that you respect him or her, then whether the game was won or lost, the child will get over the disappointment of the game much easier and quicker.”

Greg Bach is a freelance writer.