As with every stage of parenting–from sleepless nights to potty training, all the way to setting curfews and paying college bills–there are adjustments you make in how you care for, discipline and relate to your child.
And so it is in youth sports. You will not, and should not, treat t-ballers the same as 6-8th grade athletes. When kids reach middle school sports, there is now the added challenge of peer pressure, friend drama, and hormonal changes.
If you have a middle school athlete, what does he need from you? Here’s a few suggestions that will help you navigate the potential minefield.
Keep Fun in the Game
At this stage, your child needs to be learning about commitment, hard work, and discipline. She needs to know that sports is not always a laughing matter, but she should never have fun entirely extracted from her experience.
If there is not some element of fun, your middle schooler may decide that sports is not worth the hassle. It is at this point that coaches and parents needs to show kids that fun and hard work can go hand-in-hand in youth sports.
Be Patient With the Process
Every athlete has good and bad games. Every athlete will make mistakes. It’s all part of the learning process, especially at this age. It’s easy for coaches and parents to get impatient with the process. We want kids to learn immediately, or at least in a few days or weeks, but some lessons take much longer.
Stress Being a Team Player
This is the stage when kids begin to realize that they are not automatically guaranteed a certain amount of playing time. All kids should play. However, they will not play an equal amount of time. Many coaches will play the more-skilled players longer, as long as they come to practice, work hard, and are great teammates. This is a tough adjustment for many kids, but your positive support is important. Help your child understand his role and encourage him to shine in that role.
Understand YOUR Changing Role
Your mom and dad roles are changing as you learn to let go little by little. You do not have to have all the answers, you do not have to solve all your child’s problems, and you do not have to smooth the path for every step he takes. Just as your child is learning to do some flying on his own, you must be learning, little by little, how to let go.
Help Your Child Control the Controllables
Help her focus on the process, which she can control–practice, working, paying attention, being coachable, being a great teammate–instead of outcomes, which she can’t–scoreboard, missing a scoring opportunity, not playing much or well. When she has success, reward her with a comment like, “Great job at finishing strong. All that work that you put in is paying off!” and “Way to hang tough and keep a great attitude when things were getting rough out there. You have really become someone your teammates can count on!” When she struggles, focus more on perseverance or some other quality that helps her to deal with adversity.
Allow for Middle School Emotions
This is the age that hormones kick in and emotions are sometimes hard to control. Stay as calm as possible with them and help them learn how to deal with teammates and stressful game situations. Give them tips and tools they can use to deal with their emotions; don’t just let them flounder through the emotional quicksand, trying to get through it alone.
At this age, you might want to start to work with a mental toughness expert. There are lots of them out there, but my colleague Craig Sigl from Mental Toughness Trainer is a good one. He offers some free downloads as well as course options for your child. There’s a lot of people claiming to be mental toughness experts out there; Craig’s the real deal.
I always used to joke with my husband that he could deal with our kids middle schoolers, and let me know when they get to high school. But the honest truth is, middle school kids can actually be pretty delightful. Your patience and tough love will go a long way to seeing them through without too much turmoil.