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Three Questions to Help You Better Support Your Youth Athlete During Tough Sport Moments


It happens all the time. You know, the moment when your child walks off the field after a game during which he got little or no playing time. Alternatively, maybe it’s when she suffers an unexpected loss to an opponent who is far below her skill level. Perhaps it occurs when your child just choked under pressure in the big game. Regardless of the situation, these moments are hard for anyone. The child is emotionally charged, and you’re left wondering, “How should I handle this?”  

While we can’t tell you exactly what to say in these situations, we do know that skills like empathetic listening and asking effective questions are key qualities demonstrated by parents who successfully navigate difficult moments with their children (Harwood & Knight, 2015).  

The next time you find yourself in a situation when you need to communicate with your child after a tough sport experience, here are three questions to consider before beginning the conversation: 

Question #1 - Does this need to be said? 

Is what you are about to say to your child important enough that it needs to be communicated? Perhaps what you are about to say is something that they already know. Many times, a child already knows when he or she made a silly mistake, missed an easy opportunity, and/or performed poorly, without anybody telling them. Think about what you want to say to your child and ask yourself if the circumstance requires it to be verbalized. As a parent, effective communication begins with speaking on purpose, with purpose.  

If the answer to Question #1 is yes, proceed to Question #2. 

Question #2 - Does this need to be said by me? 

I can remember watching a Saturday afternoon soccer game, one in which a young, hard-working player got zero minutes of playing time. When the final whistle blew, her head and shoulders were down as she walked by herself across the field to greet her parents. At that moment, my mind was racing with all the possible things that I was certain she needed to hear. With conviction, I stood up and marched toward her. Before I could reach her stride or meet her gaze, a teammate swooped in with an arm around her shoulders and walked along with her sharing empathetic words of support. That hug from a friend was everything the young girl needed. 

If a conversation needs to be had, are you the best person to address it? While parents are significant influencers in the lives of their children, important others can make a big impact as well. There are times when sharing a message is far more powerful when it comes from a teammate. Alternatively, anything related to practice or competitive performances, such as technique or tactics, is best left for the coaches to discuss (Woodcock, Holland, Duda, & Cumming, 2011). As a parent, it is important to remember that both the message and the messenger are key to the communication process. 

If the answer to Question #2 is yes, proceed to Question #3. 

Question #3 - Does this need to be said by me right now? 

Are “now” and “here” the right time and place for this conversation to occur? Are you and your child in the right emotional states to send and receive messages effectively? Children’s perceptions of their parents’ involvement in their sport experiences are impacted by both the timing and context of their interactions (Knight, Berrow, & Harwood, 2017). So, before you begin, determine the appropriate setting for the conversation. Being out in public within earshot of teammates, other parents, and/or coaches might make your child uncomfortable and unreceptive to what you have to say. Try to find a more private location, be it in the car or, perhaps better, at a later point in time, at home. Additionally, consider waiting to let your child initiate the conversation as doing so indicates he or she might be more open to your feedback. Alternatively, a simple question like "when would you be open to having a conversation about the game/practice?" can go a long way. Choosing the right time and setting for a conversation could make all the difference in your message being received. 

If the answer to Question #3 is yes, proceed with the conversation. 

Navigating tough conversations with your child may prove to be difficult at times. When the next opportunity to communicate with your son or daughter presents itself, take a moment to reflect on the three questions above. Asking yourself the right questions first can help you create the conditions for a productive conversation with your young athlete.


Harwood, C. G., & Knight, C. J. (2015). Parenting in youth sport: A position paper on parenting expertise. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 16(1), 24-35. 
Knight, C. J., Berrow, S. R., & Harwood, C. G. (2017). Parenting in Sport. Current Opinion in Psychology, 16, 93-97. 

Woodcock, C., Holland, M. J. G., Duda, J. L., & Cumming, J. (2011). Psychological qualities of elite adolescent rugby players: Parents, coaches, and sport administration staff perception and supporting roles. The Sport Psychologist, 25, 411-443.

photo of Lindsey Hamilton

By Lindsey Hamilton
IMG Academy

Lindsey Hamilton is the Assistant Head of Mental Conditioning at IMG Academy where she serves as a mental conditioning coach for student-athletes and leads the High Performance Mindset training for corporate clients. She received her MS in Sport and Exercise Science from the University of Utah and is now pursuing her doctorate in kinesiology from UNC Greensboro. Lindsey works with her colleague, Christian Smith, to deliver evidence-based sport parent education in an effort to enhance both the child’s experience in sport and the child-parent relationship.

photo of Christian Smith

By Christian Smith
IMG Academy

Christian Smith, MA, CMPC, joined IMG Academy in February 2007 and serves as lead golf mental conditioning coach. From Nottinghamshire, England, Christian completed his BA in Psychology at Coastal Carolina University and MA in Kinesiology (Exercise & Sport Psychology) at San Diego State University. Christian co-leads parent engagement programming alongside Lindsey Hamilton. Together they have developed and delivered evidence-based workshops to parents of full-time student-athletes, camp athletes, and to outside groups and organizations.

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