STRATEGIES FOR PARENTS TO COPE WITH COMPETITION STRESS
In my last blog posts, I was talking about stressors parents have to face – and there are A LOT of them – as well as first strategies of how to become a better sport parent. As promised, I wrote down some more strategies that are helpful to be better dealing with stressful situations and to become a "more chilled" parent. And as always – I really appreciate your discussions, comments & ideas. What do YOU consider as stressful situations? How do YOU deal with stressful situations? This topic is certainly one where we can all learn a lot from each other. Maybe we haven't found "our" best strategy yet but someone else has – and this by coincidence would help us, too. There are so many mental strategies and even if suggest them here, doesn't mean that they'd be "your" strategy and you like them. You have to find your own, personal way of dealing with it. And this is why discussions (or reading such blog posts – to get some new ideas) may help.
1. BECOME SENSITIVE TO YOUR CHILD'S CUES & SIGNALS
The competition is over. Ella places 4th – and you know, she wanted to be on the podium. You even talked to her about it before the competition. She was so determined and hopeful. And you knew she could do it and you confirmed her in it. Now she's 4th. Most likely scenario: You expect her to be upset with herself – and you're most likely to act towards your expectations towards her (you also call this a "self-fulfilling prophecy"). You might even project your own feelings (e.g. disappointment) on her, or tell her how to feel ("you must feel so upset right now, I totally understand"). It's very easy to be carried away by our own feelings and emotions in this moment (because of course, we might be totally empathic). However, become aware of how your child is really feeling in this moment, and in turn, show them that you really care. Maybe Ella was actually content with her performance? And even though she just missed the podium, she might have been totally satisfied? If we project our feelings onto her we take away the chance of finding out how she actually feels. Becoming aware of our child's actual feelings, we learn about what makes them happy, why they want to do/ stay in this sport, but also, what makes them upset or frustrated. The better we know them, the better we will be able to react to it. You will learn what upsets them – is the sport itself the cause? Or the people around it – the team or the coach? Or is it something else? And once again, the better you understand the situation, the better you will be able to react to it.
You can obviously think of many other similar "Ella-situations" in competitions where your awareness, and in turn, reaction plays an important role such as in between competitions or competition preparation ("How is Ella feeling? Is she nervous? Is she chilled?"). Instead of projecting your own expectations at her, learn to trust her and detect the cues she sends you ("She was stressed so many times before, even if she says she feels confident, she'll most possibly be stressed again." – when it might only be you who's stressed).
I would like to add one more little story which might make you think:
I once had a really young athlete coming up to me, saying "My parents don't like me to lose. Whenever I win, I get a cake at home and we celebrate. Whenever I lose – like I don't achieve my goals – no one is talking at home, there is no cake and the atmosphere is really tensed. I feel like they are really upset at me and don't like me as much because I didn't do so well. It makes me feel really upset, too, and I don't know how to handle it."
In this scenario, we don't know what the parents were actually thinking – we can only guess. The parents probably mirrored their daughter's feelings who was upset about her own performance. But instead of experiencing them as being empathic, sensitive and supportive, she experienced the exact opposite: lack of support, lack of empathy. Children are sensitive to your reactions, they might not always see things the same way like you do.
2. STOP COMPARING YOUR CHILD TO OTHERS
...or comparing yourself to other sport parents. Ask yourself the questions: Who do you want to be in this very moment? How do you want to be remembered by your child? How would you have liked your parents to behave when you were young? What's your best possible self?
It doesn't matter what other sport parents do – whether they are screaming around, whether they show off with their child or whether they compare their kids to others. Try to set an example by being a role model yourself. You can't influence how others are or what they do, but you can change your own behaviour.
This counts as well for your children. Teach your child that losing isn't the same as failure. Success isn't only defined by winning, or the other way round. Being successful means having a growth mindset, striving for excellence, not giving up and learning to deal with failure (such as Chris Sharma said, "The reality is, we spend 99.9% of the time not succeeding..."). Sports are fantastic for children to learn these valuable life lessons – while being supported at the same time. So stop comparing your child's success to others – because it's individually different. Stop focussing on external factors which are out of your control – instead, focus on things that are within your or your child's control.
3. TAKE TIME FOR YOURSELF
Driving your kid to training, picking them up from school, bringing them to the physio, sport psychologist, helping them with their homework so they'll be finished in time, accompanying them to competitions, AND SO ON – all this costs a lot of time & energy & money. You're the parent, so it might be socially expected of you. But still, no one has unlimited energy and resources. So ask yourself, what are your resources? What gives you energy? What fulfills you with joy, happiness, strength, energy,...? Do you ever actively recharge your batteries? Do you take time for yourself? We all have different personal, social or materialistic resources – such as family, friends, well-paid job, sponsors (materialistic resources for the child), yoga in the morning or going for a run. There is no rule what is the best resource – most importantly, you have to find out what your personally most important resource is and how you can use this resource to (re)gain energy. Do you make time for your friends and family? Do you have a fulfilling job? Do you sometimes have some "me-time"? If you feel like you lack these resources, how can you actively make more time for them?
Remember, if you "don't function", your child won't be able to go to training, competitions, etc. In fact, your parental support and help in growth & development will suffer.
4. MAKE A PLAN & PREPARE FOR EVERY SCENARIO
If you get stressed really easily at competitions (or because you have too much happening and you feel overtaxed), this strategy might be very helpful. Difficult, stressful, annoying, frustrating situations are always going to happen at some point. If you prepare yourself for them already in advance, you will be better prepared. What do I mean by that? Think of such difficult, stressful, annoying, frustrating situations (with athletes, I also call them "worst case scenarios") and make a plan of how you would like to respond in the best possible way. Thus, if these situations actually occur (and they will at some point), they will be more familiar to you. You already know what to do and how to react, you feel more in control, and therefore less stressed.
I personally really like this strategy. During my education for becoming a sport psychologist, I always made up such scenarios "What if this athlete reacts like this?", "What if this problem occurs?", "How can I deal with such a scenario?". At that point, my supervisors and teachers regularly rolled their eyes. In hindsight, I believe this was (unconsciously – I didn't know back then it was an actual strategy) the smartest and best-learning experience I could have had.
5. REFRAME YOUR NEGATIVE THOUGHTS
Another strategy, which is well used for athletes themselves, is cognitive reframing (Beck, 2011). When we get stressed, we often have negative thoughts coming to our mind ("What if Ella does badly today?", "What if the other kids are faster/ better/ stronger?" etc.). With help of the technique of cognitive restructuring, we become aware of such negative thoughts and restructure them on a cognitive level to be more positive. Let's become more clear with an example: "Oh shivers, Ella lost, she's become 4th but she wanted to make a podium". 1. step: Acceptance: acceptance is a really important first step to reduce stress. 2. step: Reframe the situation: Instead of thinking of it as a loss, think of it as a learning experience instead. Think of the positive sides of it – Ella tried really hard and gave everything. She was really relaxed before the competition. There are many external factors influencing the outcome. Etc. Try to reframe your own negative thoughts in your own words!
As said before, exchanging ideas, communicating with other parents helps a lot as well. Let us know what your strategies are. Do you find these tips helpful? What's your personal favourite? What can you recommend?