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  • Writer's pictureKelly VanderBeek OLY, Broadcaster, Trainer, Artist



Now a mother, there is only one thing I know for sure as I hurtle into parenthood; our kid will play sports.

Why am I so certain of this fact? It’s not due to health reasons (although there are endless reasons on that front), it’s also not due to aspirations that he too may grow into a professional athlete as his father and I were/are. The biggest reason I know our child will play sports is for one simple reason; so he will learn how to lose. More importantly though, he will learn that he can survive failure and be stronger for it.

In a society that is more and more driven to make all kids feel like they are winners, I think the value in learning how to lose is critical. If there is anything a successful individual knows, it is that you loose far more than you win. Far...far...far...far more.

To avoid failure is to avoid success because you are not attempting to live beyond your comfort zone. As an Downhill Skier I can attest to not waking up one morning and being able to ski at speeds over 140km/h. It took a lot of work, countless hours of pushing my comfort zone, and a million small failures to get there.

In any sports arena, no matter how special you (or your mom) may think you are, there is no skirting the fact that you must perform and that only focused hard work garners results. There is simply no faking sport or talking your way around it. It is because of this harsh aspect of sport that when accomplishments are achieved, even small ones, they can be extremely rewarding. It’s an incredible feeling to achieve something tangible and an even more incredible feeling to witness a child experience that true sense of accomplishment for themselves. No words or praise needed, they simply know they did something worthy of praise and therefore feel it from within.

For example, I am not a runner in any way shape or form. However, when I completed a half marathon race with my sister I was ecstatic. I was brutally slow, but it didn’t matter. I had done something I didn’t think I was capable of doing, that accomplishment was something I could hold onto and take pride in - it was real. The value in sport isn’t about winning medals, it’s about real and measurable achievements, no matter how big or small.

Reserved Praise

The best, and most affective, coaches I ever worked with were extremely reserved when it came to giving praise. It was incredibly difficult to earn even a hint of admiration.

As tough as it was to work with these coaches, their reservation in giving praise resulted in myself, and other athletes, holding their opinion in high esteem because we trusted it was honest. The results these coaches achieved and the admiration and respect their athletes showed them made me question parenting methods of being quick to praise? Are we actually doing our kids a disservice?

Research is showing that kids receiving praise too quickly can actually have an adverse affect; severe fear of failure, resulting in not taking on challenges in which they may fail. (Book: Mindset, by Dr. Carol Dweck)

One thing that surprised me in my reading, is the moment when a child realizes that “mom” is the only one who thinks they’re “awesome”, no one else is saying it. This causes them to doubt the objectivity of their own mother; it feels good to praise our kids at the time but if it is not connected to reality, they’ll figure it out.

When we praised too easily, and when we make every kid feel like a winner, kids will not develop the persistence needed to overcome challenges. (Dr. Robert Cloninger, brain research on the prefrontal cortex with different kinds of praise, at Washington University in St. Louis). Dr. Cloninger went on to say that if we rave too easily, kids will eventually learn to cheat, to exaggerate and lie and to avoid a difficult reality. They have not been conditioned to face it.

- “Sport taught me to persevere.” Audrey Lacroix, Canadian Olympic Swimmer

This is where sport comes in, especially individual sports like tennis, golf, skiing, etc. There is no way to avoid the realities of competitive sport. I don’t think sport is an easy path to choose, however, I do think it’s a valuable one regardless of outcome.

Types of Praise

Obviously our son will be perfect. (Note my strong touch of sarcasm in the aforementioned statement) However, sport will still be one of his many essential learning blocks as he builds and develops his character.

The challenge for my husband and I will be to monitor the type of praise given. Dr. Robert Cloninger found that praise when related to process is extremely productive. For example, praising your child for their work ethic is ideal. However, praising them with terms like, “you’re so talented, or you’re so smart” is dangerous because it breads fear in kids. They don’t want to take on further challenges for fear they’ll loose that title of smart/talented should they not succeed.

Many people see competitive sport as a tough and even cruel journey to put a child on. This may be true at times, but I strongly believe that the tools learned from failure are invaluable.

There is no talking your way around it; sport is simply, and sometimes cruelly, honest. Research shows it’s this type of honesty that will breed strong, confident adults.

This is why I know our child will play sports, and as his parents we’ll simply do our best to support him through the ups and downs that come with that path. He will have our unconditional support and love as he faces the challenges sport will present him. However, I will do my best to reserve praise for when it is truly earned. And those words are needed.

#Wellness #Parenting #Athletes #Coaching

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