Sports present unique and playful learning opportunities. They teach us about ourselves, our limits and goals, and how to interact with others in the face of collaboration and competition. But how do we separate the positive social and emotional benefits of engaging in sports from the social and emotional pressures they’re paired with? How do we support our children so that, regardless of everything else, they feel proud of their accomplishments and have the confidence to win or lose with grace and without threat to their concept of self?
Here are 5 tips for supporting children’s mental health in relation to sports.
1. Practice awareness of your own emotions and expectations
As parents, our own emotions and reactions are often tied to our expectations of our children. We want them to feel happy, and we fill with pride over their accomplishments. We can also feel angry or indignant when they’ve been hurt, or when we think they’ve been treated unfairly. Regardless of the situation, our children pick up on how we react and respond when our emotions are elevated. Keeping this in mind, and projecting acceptance and support of our children is a helpful starting point in creating unbiased space for children’s emotions.
2. Model acceptance
Winning and losing are inevitable in sports. Kids will have good days where they play well and get along with teammates, and not so good days where they don’t play so well and experience social conflicts. Modeling acceptance of all sorts of scenarios helps children to develop perspective, and separates their concept of self from any individual performance or moment on the field.
3. Create space for emotional expression
Children have different needs and abilities when it comes to expressing and communicating their emotions. Caregivers can create space for conversation by asking open, unbiased questions. It’s also okay to create space for reflection, and to just be a quiet, supportive presence for your child. When our children are reticent about their emotional experiences, we can also help them develop emotional expression skills by talking about our own emotions, in open and accepting ways.
4. Value the effort
Sports teach us some really powerful lessons. They teach us how to focus and work hard to achieve our goals ,which in turn builds self-esteem and confidence. They present us with physical and emotional challenges, which help build strength and perseverance. Focusing on the effort, rather than the outcome, can help children recognize that their value is not only derived from whether they win or lose.
5. Support social awareness and problem-solving
Playing youth sports comes with a lot of social upside and downside. Being on a team can connect you with a supportive community of like-minded people — but what if you don’t make the team? Or what if you do make the team, and you don’t feel supported? Identifying as a team member can also help children push themselves to get stronger, faster, more skilled, in the service of bringing the entire team to a higher level. But doing that can also make it more difficult to recognize and accept your own – and other people’s – mental and physical limits. Talk with your children about what is happening socially in their sports. Do they feel like they’re an appreciated part of the team? Are they helping other people feel appreciated and respected? This is another area where talking through – and problem-solving around – different scenarios that have happened (or may happen at some point) can help our children strengthen their awareness and build social and emotional skills.