It’s a typical soccer Saturday morning. Time to get to the game. The uniform is on. The water jug is filled. And your child is seat-belted in the backseat for the 30 minute ride to the field.

Mom. Dad. You have your first major test of the morning.

With the time you have on the drive to the game, do you:

A. Try to motivate them with some ideas that motivate you?

B. Tell them 2-3 things you want them to do in the game?

C. Say nothing, and let them prepare on their own?

D. Ask them what they want to get out of the game today?

Game on! 20 minutes left in the second half. From your perspective it doesn’t seem like your child is playing to the best of their ability. Fortunate for you they are playing on your side of the field and are within earshot.

It is clear to you that there are 1-2 things they should be doing differently or better. Do you:

A. Shout your ideas to your child when they are close enough to hear you?

B. Walk around and tell the coach your ideas?

C. Say nothing. Let them figure this out on their own?

D. Continue cheering and supporting them with general positive encouragement?

Just like every week, this game is yet another nail biter. There is little time left on the clock and the referee has clearly missed a crucial foul that would give your child’s team a free-kick.

You feel the referee has been inconsistent all game, so now you decide to:

A. Shout across the field to the referee that he or she missed the call?

B. Yell at your child to do the same thing because the referee will not call it?

C. Bite your tongue and say nothing?

D. Positively encourage your child and team to keep playing their best?

The game is over. It was not the result you were hoping for, and you are not sure how your child is feeling about the game.

During the 30 minute car ride home, do you:

A. Commiserate on how poorly the referee officiated the game?

B. Ask your child to share 1-2 good and bad take-aways from the game?

C. Say nothing about the game unless your child brings it up?

D. Ask your child if they played as well as they wanted to play?

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Parents, how many of you can relate to these scenarios? If you are like me, your answer would be “all of them.” As the Performance Specialist for a soccer club in Florida I get to help players, coaches, and parents navigate these situations. As the parent of two club soccer players myself, the struggle is real.

When thinking about this article I loved the idea of turning it into a “Choose Your Own Adventure” approach to parenting. Those were my favorite books growing up as a kid because every choice had an impact on the rest of the story. I believe that life is no different. When it comes to being the parent of a child playing sports we have endless opportunities to either positively or negatively impact their experience. How we respond to all of the different opportunities will have a short-term as well as long-term influence on their development and love for the game.

How did you answer in the four situations above? One thing I am careful about when working with parents is reminding them that solutions are never “one size fits all,” especially when it comes to our children. Every child is different. Kids are motivated by different factors intrinsically and extrinsically. What works for one child may not work for another. So, looking at the answers above, I wanted to present them in a way where there is not a clear “right or wrong” answer.

But, in the choices above I would argue there is a key difference that ultimately will have a positive long-term impact on your child. For all of the answers, choices A & B are all about you and your expectations as the parent. Choices C & D are about honoring your child’s individual experience.

This is huge. And, it is really difficult.

As a former player, coach, and now specialist, it is really difficult for me to resist wanting to impart my “wisdom” on to my children.  I often catch myself thinking that, “If they would only do this” they would have a major breakthrough! Can you relate? When the fact is all I am really doing is projecting my experience, beliefs, fears, and expectations on to them.

Expectations. Let’s talk about those for a moment.

If you look at options A & B they only represent the expectations of the parent. The motivation is based on how “you” want them to play, and about how “you” think the coaches and referee are doing, and how “you” think the game went. Whether you are conscious about it or not, the long-term message to your child is based on whether or not they are living up to “your” expectations.

I once worked with a child whose parents would pace up and down the sidelines during the game, often having to go sit in the car to deal with their frustration watching their daughter play. As a player she was miserable. She also just happened to be the most talented player on the team. And, she was 10 years old.

As a sports parent you also know that it is near impossible to go to a game and not hear parents shouting instructions to their child from the side, berating the referee after every call, and treating every goal as if it’s a World Cup Qualifier. You might sometimes be that parent. It’s easy to do (but not good).

The reality is, when you let your emotions and expectations get the best of you the game ceases to be about your child…because now it is only about you. Instead of your child having an experience where they get to learn and figure things out for themselves they must now worry about whether or not they played up to your standards.

In contrast, choices C & D to all of the questions above are about respecting your child’s individual growth and progress. It is trusting they have an inner teacher and compass that is allowing them to develop and learn at their own speed. And, it has nothing to do with you and your expectations. Instead of you getting in your child’s way, you are now standing beside them.

I was giving a parent workshop last year when a mother shared that before every game she tells her son, “Play as well you want to play!” I love it so much it made it into the answers above. Think about that statement. It’s a subtle shift from “Have a great game,” or “Play to your potential!” Why? Because it is about your child’s expectations, not yours.

Then, after the game you can ask your child, “Did you play as well as you wanted to play?” If the answer is “yes,” you can ask them to share what that looked like. If the answer is “no,” you can ask them why not. But whatever the answer, it is only about their expectations. It has nothing to do with you.

I made a special point to include questions about the car rides before and after the game. It is precious time that can turn into a real positive or negative aspect of your child’s experience. Again, as the parent you might want to talk and motivate your child before the game. And after the game you want to hear from them about how they think they played and felt. But maybe they don’t want to talk about the game. If they do, let them start the dialogue. Perhaps they need some time to reflect on the game and it might be a few hours or the next day before they want to talk about it. All kids are different. Regardless, be careful not to hijack the car ride into a forced debrief session for your child where they are held hostage in the back. If you feel your emotions bubbling up, remember, you have just made it about you.

Take a step back and ask if your behavior is setting your child up for long-term success by allowing them to take ownership of their growth (even if it is painful to watch)? Or, are you looking for short-term results by controlling their every move?

Remember, you have a choice how you show up on your adventure. The question is, will you let your child choose their’s?

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