WHEN PARENTS OR COACHES ARE MORE STRESSED IN COMPETITIONS THAN ATHLETES

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This weekend, I was coaching at a youth competition. It's not so common in Austria that the sport psychologist coaches a squad during competitions because normally the coaches/ trainers and parents join & support the team and we just work in the background. This time would have not been any different but the trainer of the regional squad just had a baby and without questioning when I was asked, I agreed to help out. I mean, if I ever had a baby I would certainly want the work colleagues of the dad to jump in for him, too. :)

Being at the competition, I was remembered of how competing was when I was a kid. So much action, positive and negative emotions, screams of happiness, tears of frustration when a climb didn't work (even in the middle of the competition when there were still many minutes left to climb), shouting and gesticulating parents, filming coaches/ trainers, parents hugging their kids when they did badly, old & young meeting their friends after a long time again... It felt like a déjà vu. However, I was in a different position this time and seeing everything from a different perspective made me think about the following question: 

Are parents, coaches or trainers more stressed in competitions than their athletes? How does their behaviour influence their athletes' behaviour?

Are you a parent or a coach? How would you answer this question for yourself?

We all know, watching someone else perform in a competition is often way more stressful than doing something ourselves. We get sweaty hands and root for our fosterlings. Of course, we all want them to do well and give their best. However, we are not in control of what they do, whether they solve a problem or top a boulder/ top, and this lack of control influences our stress level (and sweaty hands). We stand "passively" in the background. And in order to get more control, we try to get "more active" by giving the athletes tipps for solutions, shouting out our emotions when they do or not do a boulder, we gesticulate and we show mimic expressions, we compare "our athletes" with the other coaches' or other parents' athletes ("how did yours do?", "how many problems did they already solve?") and and and. The list could be endless and you can surely think of more "possible interactions" of coaches or parents. And to be honest, I do see myself in some of these points as well: I did cheer mostly for "my athletes", I was "patriotic" for the athletes I was coaching, I did give them tips for betas, I was also suffering vicariously with them when they couldn't do something. 

Is it a bad thing to react like this? Isn't it normal to be suffering vicariously with our athletes?

It is indeed normal and actually, it is a good thing when we are supporting our athletes. However, it always depends on how we define or "carry out" support. Does support really mean that we hectically stand behind the line, gesticulating every movement the athlete does? Does it really mean that you get really emotional and stressed, too? Well, what we shouldn't forget is that stress – experienced by coaches or parents – and the consequent strain, may influence the relationship to the athlete as well as the athlete satisfaction, performance, and general well-being. Our emotions, mood, behaviour & actions are contagious. If we are stressed, how can we expect our athletes to relax? If we are stressed and in a negative state of mind ("ah I don't really believe he/ she can still do this"), how can we expect that this won't also negatively affect our fosterlings – such as e.g. decreased motivation? Don't we also find stressed people less approachable?

According to several scientific articles, athletes are well able to detect coach experiences of stress via their behaviours, appearance, and style of communication adopted. Tone of voice, body
language, and gestures change under pressure; and in turn, also influence individual behaviour but also team functioning of athletes.

Researchers suggest that there are three different reasons why coaches (or parents) react to stress:

  • They might not be aware of the signals that they are giving.  
  • They might be of the opinion that they are able to behave how they wish – irrespective of the potential consequences, or, which may be more likely:
  • They might be unable to manage their behaviours and subsequent impression management to athletes when experiencing stress.

WHAT DO WE LEARN FROM THIS?

  1. Becoming aware of the effects of stress a first and very important step. Are you aware of how you react in stressful situations? How do you deal with stress? What can you improve?
  2. If we tell our athletes to focus on things they can control or influence during a competition, we should do so, too. What is in our control? What is in our influence? And, what is not in our control? As said before, it's not in our control what they do, whether they solve a problem or top a boulder/ top. We can positively reassure them, positively influence them and support them, but we can't control their actions. 
  3. How can we support our athletes in the best possible way? E.g. we can compliment them when they did a good job in certain situations (obviously, compliments shouldn't just be randomly spread without any positive actions), we can help them focus on the process and actions, and not on the results during a competition (again: not in our control; we still have enough time to worry about results later), we can help them strategically and with betas, and often, which is important for parents, it just helps telling your kid that you support them – no matter what result they get. I'm sure you can think of many more examples of how to positively influence and support your fosterlings! Let me know in the comments what you do! :)
  4. Stay calm and positive. Maybe breathing or mindfulness exercises work for you, too? We just learned, our emotions, mood, behaviour is contagious – not only in the negative direction, but also in the positive direction.

 

What experiences have you made coaching at a competition? What experiences have you made as a parent?

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