For the Win!


If you want your child to come out of their youth sports experience a winner—feeling good about themselves and having a healthy attitude towards sports—then they need your help! You are a vital and important part of the coach-athlete-parent team. If you do your job correctly and play your position well, then your child will learn the sport faster, perform better, really have fun and have his/her self-esteem enhanced as a result. Their sport experience will serve as a positive model for them to follow as they approach other challenges and obstacles throughout life.

Your son/daughter and their coach need you on the team. They can’t win without you! The following are a list of useful facts, guidelines and strategies for you to use to make you more skilled in the youth sport game. Remember, no one wins unless everyone wins.

Step 1: Understand Your Child’s Competition is Their Most Valuable Training Partner

When defined the right way, competition in youth sports is both good and healthy, and it teaches children a variety of important life skills. The word “compete” comes from the Latin words “com” and “petere,” which mean together and seeking, respectively. The true definition of competition is a seeking together where your opponent is your partner, not the enemy. The better he/she performs the more chance you have of having a peak performance. Sports are about learning to deal with challenges and obstacles. Without a worthy opponent, without any challenges, sports are not so much fun. The more the challenge, the better the opportunity you have to go beyond your limits. Your child should never be taught to view his/her opponent as the “bad guy,” the enemy or someone to be hated and “destroyed.” Do not model this attitude. Instead, talk to or make friends with parents of your child’s opponent. Root for great performances, good plays and not just for the winner.



Step 2: Encourage Your Child to Compete Against Him/Herself

The ultimate goal of the sport experience is to challenge oneself and continually improve. Unfortunately, judging improvement by winning and losing is both an unfair and inaccurate measure. Winning in sports is about doing the best you can do, separate from the outcome or the play of your opponent. Children should be encouraged to compete against their own potential. When your child has this focus and plays to better himself instead of beating someone else, he will be more relaxed, have more fun and therefore perform better.

Step 3: Don’t Define Success & Failure in Terms of Winning & Losing

A corollary to step two, one of the main purposes of the youth sports experience is skill acquisition and mastery. When a child performs to their potential and loses, it is criminal to focus on the outcome and become critical. If a child plays their very best and loses, you need to help them feel like a winner. Similarly, when a child or team performs far below their potential but wins, this is not cause to feel like a winner. Help your child make this important separation between success and failure and winning and losing. Remember, if you define success and failure in terms of winning and losing, you’re playing a losing game with your child.

Step 4: Be Supportive, Don’t Coach!

Your role on the parent-coach-athlete team is as a Support player with a capital S! You need to be your child’s best fan, unconditionally. Leave the coaching and instruction to the coach. Provide encouragement, support, empathy, transportation, money, help with fund-raisers, etc., but do not coach! Most parents who get into trouble with their children do so because they forget to remember the important position that they play. Coaching interferes with your role as supporter and fan. The last thing your child needs and wants to hear from you after a disappointing performance or loss is what they did technically or strategically wrong. Keep your role as a parent on the team separate from that as coach, and, if by necessity you actually get stuck in the almost no-win position of having to coach your child, try to maintain this separation of roles (i.e. on the deck, field or court say, “Now I’m talking to you as a coach,” at home say, “Now I’m talking to you as a parent”). Don’t parent when you coach, and don’t coach at home when you’re supposed to be parenting.

Step 5: Help Make the Sport Fun for Your Child

It’s a time proven principle of peak performance that the more fun an athlete is having, the more they will learn and the better they will perform. Fun must be present for peak performance to happen at every level of sports—from youth to world class competitor. When a child stops having fun and begins to dread practice or competition, it’s time for you as a parent to become concerned. When the sport or game becomes too serious, athletes have a tendency to burn out and become susceptible to repetitive performance problems. An easy rule of thumb: If your child is not enjoying what he/she is doing, nor loving the heck out of it, investigate. What is going on that’s preventing them from having fun? Is it the coaching? The pressure? Is it you?

Step 6: Whose Goal is It? It’s Your Child’s Sport!

Number five leads us to a very important question: Why is your child participating in the sport? Are they doing it because they want to, or because of you? When they have problems in their sport, do you talk about them as “OUR” problems, i.e., “our jump isn’t high enough,” “we’re having trouble with our flip turn,” etc. Are they playing because they don’t want to disappoint you, because they know how important the sport is to you? Are they playing for rewards that you give out? Are their goals and aspirations yours or theirs? If they are competing to please you or for your vicarious glory, then they are in it for the wrong reasons. It is quite normal and healthy to want your child to excel and be as successful as possible. If they have their own reasons and own goals for participating, they will be far more motivated to excel, and thus far more successful.

Step 7: Your Child is Not Their Performance – Love Them Unconditionally

Do not equate your child’s self-worth and lovability with their performance. The most tragic and damaging mistake that I see parents continually make is punishing a child for a bad performance by withdrawing emotionally from them. A child loses a race, strikes out or misses and easy shot on goal and the parent responds with disgust, anger and withdrawal of love and approval.

Step 8: Remember the Importance of Building Self-Esteem in All of Your Interactions

Athletes of all ages and levels perform in direct relationship to how they feel about themselves. When your child is in an athletic environment that boosts self-esteem, he/she will learn faster, enjoy themselves more and perform better under competitive pressure. One thing we all want as children and never stop wanting is to be loved and accepted, and to have our parents feel good about what we do. This is how self-esteem gets established. When your interactions with your child make them feel good about themselves, they will, in turn, learn to treat themselves this very same way. In this situation being empathic and sensitive to his/her feelings is what’s called for. Self esteem makes the world go round. Make your child feel good about themselves, and you’ve given them a gift that lasts a lifetime.

Step 9: Teach Your Child the Gift of Failure

If you really want your child to be as happy and as successful as possible in everything that they do, then teach them how to fail! The most successful people in and out of sports do two things differently than everyone else. First, they are more willing to take risks and therefore fail more frequently. Second, they use their failures in a positive way as a source of motivation and feedback to improve. Our society is generally negative and teaches us that failure is bad, a cause for humiliation and embarrassment, and something to be avoided at all costs. Fear of failure or humiliation causes one to be tentative and non-active. In fact, most performance blocks and poor performances are a direct result of the athlete being preoccupied with failing or messing up. Teach your child how to view setbacks, mistakes and risk-taking positively, and you’ll have given them the key to a lifetime of success. Failure is the perfect stepping stone to success.

Step 10: Challenge, Don’t Threaten

Many parents directly or indirectly use guilt and threats as a way to “motivate” their child to perform better. Performance studies clearly indicate that while threats may provide short term results, the long-term costs in terms of mental health and performance are devastating. Using fear as a motivator is probably one of the worst dynamics you could set up with your child. Threats take the fun out of performance and directly lead to your child performing terribly. Communicating this lack of belief, even indirectly is further devastating to the child’s performance. A challenge does not entail loss or negative consequences should the athlete fail. Further, implicit in a challenge is the empowering belief, “I think that you can do it.”

Step 11: Stress the Process, Not the Outcome

When athletes choke under pressure and perform far below their potential, a very common cause of this is a focus on the outcome of the performance (i.e., win/lose, instead of the process). In any peak performance, the athlete is totally oblivious to the outcome and instead is completely absorbed in the here and now of the actual performance. An outcome focus will almost always distract and tighten up the athlete insuring a bad performance. Furthermore, focusing on the outcome, which is completely out of the athlete’s control, will raise their anxiety to a performance inhibiting level. So if you truly want your child to win, help get their focus away from how important the contest is and have them focus on the task at hand. Supportive parents de-emphasize winning and instead stress learning the skills and playing the game.

Step 12: Avoid Comparisons & Respect Developmental Differences

Supportive parents do not use other athletes that their child competes against to compare and thus evaluate their child’s progress. Comparisons are useless, inaccurate and destructive. Each child matures differently, and the process of comparison ignores significant distorting effects of developmental differences. Performance comparisons can prematurely turn off otherwise talented athletes on their sport. The only value of comparisons is in teaching. For your child to do his/her very best, he/she needs to learn to stay within themselves. Worrying about how another athlete is doing interferes with them doing this. 

Step 13: Teach Your Child to Have a Perspective of Their Sport

The sports media in this country would like you to believe that sports and winning/losing is larger than life. The fact that it is just a game frequently gets lost in translation. This lack of perspective frequently trickles down to the youth sport level and young athletes often come away from competition with a distorted view of themselves and how they performed. Parents need to help their children develop realistic expectations about themselves, their abilities and how they played, without robbing the child of his dreams. Swimming a lifetime best time and coming in dead last is a cause for celebration, not depression.


DR. ALAN GOLDBERG, an internationally known Sports Performance Consultant, specializes in helping athletes overcome performance fears, blocks and slumps and trains coaches and parents on specific principles. He is the author of over 30 books and mental toughness training programs, and can be reached at

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