Parenting young athletes

imagesSRYFQRG9This past weekend, I had the opportunity to speak to a group of parents at Amanda Borden’s Gold Medal Gymnastics in Gilbert, Arizona.  While I was quite confident in the material I shared, it donned on me as I left the building that my presentation lacked a clear, concise title designed to capture the essence of my message.  If my sixth-grade Language Arts teacher was in attendance, I may have received several red marks for this obvious deletion.  After all, a title sets the tone for the story, right?  My sincere apologies to Mrs. Swearingen. 

Well, consider this blog to be a form of redemption.  I’m assuming that many of you reading this are parents of young athletes, so I’d like to share these valuable insights with you as well.  The only difference is that I’m going to provide you with a profound title.  Are you ready?

The best way to parent a young athlete is to do so from the inside-out.

In our current youth sports landscape, a heavy emphasis is placed on what the late Stephen Covey refers to as secondary greatness. Essentially, secondary greatness refers to what we see on the outside of an athlete (i.e. medals, trophies, scores, wins and losses, etc…).  Primary greatness, on the other hand, refers to one’s character; or what’s inside of the athlete (i.e. sportsmanship, work ethic, mental toughness, etc…).

Given the extremely competitive nature of youth sports today, it’s easy for parents to focus all of their attention on the outside.  After all, who doesn’t want their child to be the best at what they do.  Unfortunately, there is a tremendous cost of this outside-in approach.  The cost I’m referring to is the likelihood of your child developing a fixed mindset with regard to athletics.  In other words, they learn to attribute their inherent value to the level of secondary greatness they’ve achieved.  Put simply, the more a parent emphasizes the wins and losses, trophies, scores, or any other form of secondary greatness, the more they fuel this fixed mindset.  In the mind of an athlete, it might sound like this, “I’ve got to receive a perfect score or I won’t be successful.” 

Inside-out parenting is quite the opposite.  Instead of fueling a fixed mindset via a relentless pursuit of secondary greatness, inside-out parents recognize the value of primary greatness, or a growth mindset.  In other words, they seek to empower their child with tools and strategies that are designed to influence character.  Unlike the fixed mindset, which is very narrow and rigid in nature, the growth mindset evokes opportunities for growth, both personal and athletically.  In the mind of an athlete, it might sound like this, “Even though I didn’t win, I’m so proud of my perseverance and positive attitude throughout the game.”

Below are three things you can do as a parent to promote this inside-out mindset in your child. 

Learn to praise the process, not just the result.  Rather than spending an inordinate amount talking about the win or the loss, seek opportunities to empower your child with examples of primary greatness.  Be as specific as possible with regard to the character values you point out.  Here are a few examples.

“I could tell by your body language that you maintained a positive attitude throughout the game, despite being down by four goals.”

“I’m so proud of your courage to come back in the game after your minor injury.”

“I was so impressed by your composure when you chose not to retaliate when an opposing playing provoked you with his words.  That is a great example of mental toughness.”

Be a good listener and encourager.  Every athlete is different in terms of how much they want to share following a game or practice.  Rather than assuming the role of coach and attempting to critique or correct, try being an encourager.  In fact, if you want to start out the conversation with a powerful statement that will almost certainly create a space of safe sharing, I encourage you to read the following article, titled What Makes A Nightmare Sports Parent — And What Makes A Great One

A lot of the insights I share in this blog are borrowed from the above article, which highlights the work of my friend Bruce Brown and his colleague Rob Miller of Proactive Coaching LLC.   

Model appropriate behavior.  Your child will always do more of what you do and less of what you say.  It’s the old adage of monkey see, monkey do.  When a parent projects poise, control, and confidence, the young athlete will likely do the same.  This is the essence of the powerful ripple effect that takes place in any parent/child relationship. 

P.S.  If you’d like to read more about Stanford professor Carolyn Dweck’s work with mindset, please click here. 


  1. Thanks for the great posting! I’ll be sure to use those five magic words at every game.

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