written by Steve Cockell
This weekend one of my favorite events of the sporting calendar, the Ryder Cup, has been front and center of our TVs, radios and conversations. This event is surely one of the most exciting and easy to watch of any sporting event. Literally every 5 minutes someone is fist pumping, the crowd are going nuts, or there is a drama played out right in front of us on the greens or fairways. Its very easy to get carried away with it all. All the players after the event are exhilarated. There is nothing like it in golf they say. As Justin Rose (England’s best golfer) puts it, “these are the days of their lives” and that is some statement considering last week Rose was winning $10,000,000 at the end of season tour event in the US. Clearly, winning as a team and being cheered on by your thousands of your own fans, this is what sport is all about.
So, what about the concept of team sports over individual? And as a tennis coach with responsibility to nurture young talented athletes in an individual game, what can we learn from this? And as always with my blog, what can we as parents understand that helps in our efforts to support our children’s development in their chosen sports, especially in this case the individual ones.
I think the first point to highlight and remind ourselves of is that individual sports aren’t easy to learn for young athletes. They tend to be technical, with a high level of repetition of training required. They are mentally challenging in the most part, with most players confessing that the mind is the major contributor to success and failure. And they are often emotionally draining with high rates of failure contributing to thousands of crying children walking off court or course every week.
As a parent, they are also very difficult to support. They often require high financial investment, plenty of miles in the car for tournament play and are often only available to practice at anti-social times (I feel for all the parents of swimmers and rowers who get up at 5am!). There is no comfort blanket here with individual sports either. The archaic laws set out by the ancient governing bodies of the games our kids play (such as the LTA or RNA) state rules such as no coaching on the side lines at tournaments. As if it isn’t difficult and emotionally draining enough! In individual sports, you really can be all on your own sometimes.
With these facts in mind it isn’t surprising that individual sports are in the minority. It also explains why the golfers in the Ryder Cup clearly feel a sense of belonging when they are competing as a team. It seems that they love to have team mates around themselves for a change and feel a different kind of pressure – a sense of shared responsibility that helps performance in a different way. On a smaller scale, the same can be said for club or county tennis matches, school swimming galas or rowing regattas. When the individual becomes part of a team, the pressure shifts, and the enjoyment level of participating is maximized.
The events and the layout of competitions can clearly change to help this. More team-based events in specific individual sports would help, as would allowing coaching and more vocal support in competitive events. However, considering that this blog is not about criticizing organizations but helping parents, what can we do now that will help us support our children if they regularly play competitive individual sports and deal with the challenges they face.
1. Understand what they are dealing with – the number of decisions that have to made in individual sports is huge! It is really important to realize that individual sports are nearly always accompanied by regular failure and dealing with this is so important to help children keep their interest in the game. Always, take positives from every performance and never focus only on the result. The conversation often starts between players and parents with “How did you get on?” to which the child replies “I lost.” (sad face). Why not change the first comment to “Well played! You looked like you really enjoyed that” before any analysis of winning or losing takes place.
2. Don’t ever be critical of your children’s performance (especially on the day of the competition) - kids are always worried about failure, especially when their parents are watching. Don’t turn your presence at a tournament or event into something that heaps more pressure on the players. If they are used to you being supportive and not over analyzing their game then they wont worry about what you think when they lose. Get used to saying less at the tournament (especially in the car afterwards) and try to talk more after the event has passed. A good idea is maybe to discuss it when their coach is around or on the way to the next training session to form the link between assessing performance and training hard to improve.
3. Think of yourself as a small team or try to create one – I am sure that after a few goes of playing in competitions, parents will have made a few friends or got to know the familiar faces. Its time to network! Don’t see other parents and players as competition, see them as team mates and try to cheer each other on. If you have 2 or 3 players that you get to know or already know through coaching or training groups, try to support each other’s matches. Firstly, this gives you something else to do when you are hanging around (and there is lots of it), and second it is really important that the players feel that they have friends around them to cheer them on or lean on if they do badly. It also means that they look forward to entering events if they know they are going to meet up with some of their friends and can have some fun outside of the actual playing part of the competition.
4. Set some small goals for each competition or a period of practice – it is so important with individual sports to feel like you are improving but this isn’t always possible. Mastering an individual sport is like climbing a tricky mountain, you can’t just head for the top! Sometimes, you have to spend longer at the same level before it’s the right time to move up (plateauing) and sometimes you have to look around to find a better way forwards (pivoting). Either way, understanding this is so important to supporting your child. There are so many things that can cause players to lose their mojo within their development such as body changes, emotional changes, pressure at school, social distractions etc etc – and it happens to kids of all ages. The way around this is firstly to be patient and secondly, to keep setting small but achievable goals for each event they play or through their practice. This reminds both parents and players are learning even if results are dropping off.
All these ideas are quite easy to put into practice but perhaps need a bit of thinking through either as parents or with a coach. Many players also play more than just individual sports and I would also agree with this too. It is often the case that young players have to wait until they are mature enough to really get into individual sports so mixing an individual sport with team sports is a sensible move. Even if you feel that you have a superstar in your family, keep the balance and allow them to play a few things so that they develop their all-round athleticism, co-ordination and competitive instinct. It will help them no matter what they end up choosing to play as their main sport and most importantly, avoid them burning out early if they are only good at one thing.
Hopefully, this may stimulate conversation in your house about parenting for individual players. If you have any comments then as always, please feel free to email me firstname.lastname@example.org. I am aiming to try and release content via the blog every fortnight or when something of interest comes around so please stay in touch.
On a final note, the Live Love Sport Community is growing too so hopefully more parents now have access to these articles and comment. If you have a friend that would like to sign up to receive the blog, then please go to this link - http://www.livelovesport.com/index.php/about-us/live-love-sport-community/ - where you can register easily to have your name added to my list.
Many thanks for reading and have a great week of sport!