By Greg Bach
Long before Caroline Burckle emerged as a world class swimmer and an Olympic medalist, the door to the mental side of competing was nudged open by her father during rides home from her youth swim meets.
Like all young athletes, she had to learn how to navigate the sting of a disappointing performance and sort through the negative debris that accompanies those rocky moments which can chip away at confidence and impede development.
“My dad would say, ‘I know you weren’t super happy with that outcome, but I’m really proud of you. What is it that you feel you can do better?’” Burckle says of those all-important talks that still resonate all these years later. “His questions made me think on my own more than being told what I was doing wrong or right. It was really great being asked questions and supported in that way.”
He didn’t criticize, pressure, or make demands. Those talks were draped in love and encouragement and drove two-way dialogue. And it gave Burckle the chance to learn, grow and later flourish on the world stage.
“It’s interesting because I felt more pressure from myself than I did from anybody,” she says. “My parents were the most supportive individuals when it came to sports, and they were the kind of parents who were like, ’Well, if you don’t want to do it for yourself, then you don’t need to do it.’ Of course, hearing that from your parents kind of tells a child something; it gave me the power of choice.”
As your young athletes head out to compete in sports this spring keep these tips in mind to help foster productive conversations that they will remember for the rest of their lives, just like Burckle does.
Concentrate on what’s in your control
Yes, you’ve heard it said countless times, but young athletes new to the challenges of competing need to be reminded of it so their focus isn’t wrapped up in what is out of their hands. “It’s simple but it’s so true, and young athletes need to be constantly reminded of that,” says Kim Carducci, author of The I of the Tiger and founder of Everything Athletes. “In swimming, if the person in the lane next to you beats you by 10 seconds and you gave your best effort – you can’t control what they do. You don’t control what coach they train with, and you don’t control what nutrition plan they’re on. You can only control what you can control, and I think just reminding your brain of that when you are facing defeat should offer some relief.”
Talk to your kids about their experiences in their practices and games and ask them what they are feeling. You’ll likely hear about their fears or what’s causing some anxiety, and then you can help them begin to understand those emotions. “Everyone experiences fear,” says former Division One swimming coach Christen Shefchunas, author of 30 DAYS TO CONFIDENT: A 30 Day Confidence Challenge for Female Athletes. “But everyone also thinks that they’re the only one experiencing fear and then we start to wonder what’s wrong with me? Am I weak? What’s wrong with me that I’m afraid? It’s 100 percent normal – even the women that are the best in the world struggle with fear and doubts, too.”
Don’t excuse excuses
Young athletes often have a tendency to throw blame around when performances don’t go as expected – a bad habit that parents can help their kids work through and squash. “Having parents and coaches who aren’t willing to accept excuses but do it in a loving and caring way really helped me realize that it’s just swimming – it’s going to be fine no matter what happens,” says Maya DiRado, who won two gold medals among the four she hauled home from the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio. “It kind of helped me realize that the feeling that I hated most was getting done with a race or getting done with a meet and realizing that I had kind of let myself off the hook, like I had accepted a less than 100 percent effort. And that was a lesson that I learned on my own.”
Make time for mental health
“I know young athletes have homework and so many other things to do, but if they can choose one thing that they can do daily just to help their mind and help their emotions,” Carducci says. “It could be listening to a podcast, reading one chapter of a book, or finding a YouTube video of a professional athlete speaking about what they have gone through. You have to support your mental health just as you do your physical health.”
Greg Bach is Senior Director of Communications & Content at National Alliance for Youth Sports.