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High performance parenting: off-field matters most

High performance in elite sport starts with high performance parenting.

When it comes to elite sport, parents shouldn’t underestimate the important role they play particularly in the adolescent years (16-25).  The place where their role is most significant is not on the athletic field but in their brains, their relationships & their behaviour.  Despite what many coaches may think high performance begins at home with parenting, not on the track, field, or court.  Because it’s parents who lay the all-important foundation around values, character and acceptable behaviour.  It’s also parents who help their athletic adolescents make the all-important transition to adulthood.

This role cannot be outsourced.  It has to be taken on full-time with full focus & full-commitment.  Like any other role it requires the right knowledge & skills.  The good news is these skills can be learnt with the right mindset, effort & persistence.

The Wellbeing Science Institute’s High Performance Parenting top 7 tips.

#1. Communicate your family’s values & make them the yardstick for judging behaviour

The most important contribution parents can make to their adolescent’s athletic career is to reinforce the values, character and behaviour that they value.  This reinforcement can be positive or negative.  For example, when an adolescent demonstrates self-sacrifice to help a friend or teammate this behaviour should be lauded – far beyond any athletic performance.  Conversely when an adolescent is dishonest there should be consequences for their actions (see #5 below).

#2. Role model the values and behaviours you want to see in your children

Many parents complain that their adolescent children don’t listen to a word they say.  But this is far from the truth.  Adolescents are always paying attention and are quick to notice discrepancies or inconsistencies in their parents’ words & actions.  It’s critical for every parent to be a role model for the very values they espouse so their adolescent children can see that it’s “not just what I say, it’s what I do”.

#3. Remember adolescents are not mini adults

Because adolescents often have rapid growth in their physical size & maturity it’s often assumed that they are mini adults when they’re not.  Adolescents are not adults in several key ways.

  • Their brains are different – because their brains are a work in progress.  Their brains have not fully integrated & so the localised functions of an adolescent brain are yet to work as an integrated whole.  Current evidence from neuroscience suggests that this integration process is often not complete until around 25 years of age.
  • Their thinking is different – as a consequence of this brain development, adolescent thinking is different.  It won’t be as logical, moral, reasoned or considered.  As such they need constant guidance from mature adults who can reinforce the thinking and resultant behaviour.
  • Their mind is different – our mind is our ability to make mental maps of how we and others see the world.  In our adolescent years this is constantly forming & reforming as we develop our self-awareness & emotional competence.  But again it’s a work in progress & heavily influenced by the support, caring, nurturing & guidance from those around us.
  • Physically they are different – because adolescents often have the same size as adults we assume they also have the same body-brain-mind integration.  This is far from the truth.  It’s important to remember that growing bodies need time for rest & recovery so they can continue to develop normally.
  • Their needs are different – many parents believe that adolescence is a time for them to step away.  But in fact the reverse is true.  Adolescents need their parents more than ever because parents play a vital scaffolding role.  This role is critical when the all-predictable dark clouds loom over an adolescent through upheavals to friendships, disappointment in romance and the inevitable setbacks & failures.

#4. Validate values and character before sport performance

Validation is acknowledging the thoughts, feelings & behaviours of others.  It’s sending a message to someone that they are understood, connected and worthwhile.  Often adolescents who are involved in elite sport receive the vast majority of their validation through their athletic achievements.  This is a mistake on several fronts.   Most importantly because it leads to both parents & adolescents believing that sport is the most important domain.  Instead parents should seek to validate the demonstration of positive values, character and behaviour.   The key message that adolescents need to hear is that sport is something they do, it’s not who they are.

#5. Ensure consequences for poor behaviour

Alignment with family values and the demonstration of character should be a parent’s primary goal for their adolescent athlete children.  Anything less than this leads to confusion and mixed messages about what’s important. At times reinforcing values & character by calling out poor behaviour can be difficult for parents & their adolescent children.  But there are times when it’s important to say “no” even if that means missing a championship game, a trial meet or an important match.  It sends a clear message to the adolescent that nothing is more important than values & character.

#6. Don’t over-invest in your adolescent’s athletic self-concept

Developing positive self-concept is desirable in many disciplines including sport, academia, relationships & careers.  But developing self-concept is the combination of a person’s own self-perceptions and those based on inferences by other people.  The risk for parents of talented adolescent athletes is that they over-invest in one aspect of their child’s self-concept (i.e. sport) at the exclusion of others. This helps to create both a self-concept and a mindset that “I am good at sports & I’m a good athlete” but has less focus on other self-concept domains & diminishes the importance of who the adolescent is as a person.

Taking a thoughtful look at the number of relationships, the frequency of conversations and interactions that are centred on your adolescent child’s sporting life (to the exclusion of other aspects) will give you a pretty good indication of whether there is sufficient balance.  Often the last thing a talented adolescent athlete wants or needs is additional pressure from their parents.  In many cases they’d prefer to talk about anything but sport.

#7. Continually reinforce values, mindset & behaviour

For many parents of talented adolescent athletes the temptation is to be both parent & coach.  But only one of these jobs can be outsourced.  Parenting is the full-time job that never quits.  So it’s best to leave the sports coaching around tactics, skills & drills to the actual coach while you focus on the bigger (& more important) picture of coaching your adolescent’s values, character, mindset & behaviour.  Reinforcing values, emphasising the importance of character and the adoption of a growth mindset will be setting your adolescent up for life – not just the next competition.

High performance parenting is all about developing the person, not just the athlete.  It’s only possible when parents invest time & effort to understand the physiological, psychological & social changes that their children experience and then build the parenting skills required to help their child navigate life, not just sport.  By playing the “long game” everybody wins.

Tags: adolescent brain, elite athlete wellbeing, parenting