The only six words parents need to say to their kids about sports—or any performance

Photo:  Keith Johnston

I tend to be a disgruntled sports parent.

I get concerned about the ways our culture obsesses about young people’s performance. It only takes a walk to a local park to witness the myriad of parental anxiety and dysfunction that plays out on the sidelines. Sports have such potential to build character, perseverance, and skill. Sometimes they succeed, and other times coaches, parents, and mobs of hot-or-cold fans burn out or puff up kids and teenagers in quite damaging ways.

While trying to figure out how to be a different kind of sports parent myself, I stumbled across work by student leadership development expert Tim Elmore. In it he discusses research on what parents can say both before and after the game to encourage their kids, without centering everything on performance (either positively or negatively). Based on psychologists’ recommendations, Elmore suggests the following as the healthiest statements parents can make as kids perform:

Before the Competition: 

Have fun.

Play hard.

I love you.

After the competition:

Did you have fun?

I’m proud of you.

I love you.

It gets even better. Researchers asked collegiate athletes what their parents said that made them feel great and brought them joy when they played sports. Want to know the six words they most want to hear their parents say?

“I love to watch you play.”

That’s it. Nothing aggrandizing like “you’re an all-star,” and nothing instructive like “here are a couple of things I noticed that you can work on.” Just “I love to watch you play.”

Want to know the six words athletes most want to hear their parents say? “I love to watch you play.” That’s it. (tweet that)

As I gear up for soccer, band concerts, baseball, swimming, and everything else I’ll be watching my three kids do this year, I’m internalizing these six words. I’m sure I’ll say other things, some that are helpful and some that aren't.

But I want my kids to hear that doing what they do, and learning about who God created them to be, is a joy to watch as it unfolds.

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