6 ways to help your athlete stay at the top of his game

By Janis Meredith | Posted 12/7/2016

Helping your young athlete play his best, and be at the top of his game, goes well beyond just what happens on the field. It actually boils down to focus. Specifically, are there things in your child’s life that distract him from doing his best in sports?

Parents are essential to helping their child harness the skill to stay focused. Remember, you have the ability to eliminate a lot of the distractions that keep him from having fun and doing his best. 

Here are steps you can take to help your child stay on top of their game:

Focus on your child’s effort, not on his ability

In a study of elementary school children, researchers concluded that telling kids they were smart or good made them less likely to work hard. Instead, the positive re-enforcement should be altered just slightly. Rather than telling them they are great for no particular reason, remind them of how hard they worked, after they succeed at an endeavor. This will make them more likely to take on challenges and actually enjoy them. When your child accomplishes something in youth sports–from scoring goals to hitting home runs–tell him how hard he must have worked to do that. They’ll want to score even more goals and home runs.

In the same way, if you want to reward your child for a job well done, don’t pay for a goal scored or a touchdown made.

Harvard researchers conducted study involving 18,000 school kids and concluded that paying kids for grades doesn’t work. That’s because children are naturally short-term thinkers. Grownups make the connection between investing in hard labor now for an eventual payoff later. In other words, if I work hard today, then I’ll nail the project, get a good year-end review, and get a raise. Children can’t look that far ahead and make the connection between turning off the TV to study now, and earning $20 by getting an A in social studies later.

However, researchers found that paying kids for their habits, not the outcome, is much more effective. In other words, if you do decide to incentivize your child, then it is more effective to pay for the habits that lead to a great outcome.

Stop Swooping in for the Rescue

This is one of the hardest things for a parent to resist. We all want our kids to make the team, get the starting spot, or even just get off the bench. So, what do we want to do when things don’t look well for our kids? Mom or Dad to the rescue!

There are some very good reasons to resist this urge. By taking over for your child, you send a signal that your child doesn’t need to work hard and fight his own battles. Essentially, you train your child that you will fight his battles for him. If your long-term goal is to raise an independent adult, then fighting your kids’ battles actually hinders that goal and promotes weakmindedness.

Instead, let your kid learn how to work hard and achieve success without your help. You can talk with her and provide advice with things she is struggling with, and let her know you are there if she needs your help, but that she must learn to fight her own battles.

Be involved

You don’t have to be the team parent, but you do need to know what’s going on. Always attend the parent meeting at the beginning of the season, even if you know the coach and have heard his speech many times. I went to so many parent meetings that I could probably have given the coach’s spiel myself! I didn’t go because I needed the information, I went to show support and let my kids know that I wanted to be involved in their lives. If you can’t make the meeting, then arrange a quick chat with the coach, just to show support and interest.

As much as you can, volunteer to help, even if it seems like it may be insignificant.

Make Studies a Priority

Your child’s academics should not suffer, no matter how demanding a sport is. Yes, she will feel exhausted after practice, but knowing her grades must be upheld in order to play will incentivize her to make the most of her time.

Encourage your child to adopt smart study habits. Don’t let her use sports as an excuse for a bad grade. You will only be enabling a lazy attitude, which can ultimately affect every area of his life, including sports.

Know the Rules

Schools and leagues should have a clear set of rules and disciplinary guidelines. Be sure you and your child are familiar with them, as well as with the consequences of infraction. The rules should cover missing practices and games, behavior expectations, dress codes, use of electronic devices, and acceptable language.

Keep the YOUTH in Youth Sports

Positive sports parents know that youth sports is for the kids–for their fun, their development, their growth–and NOT for the parents. If you are an overly-invested parent, you are distracting your child from playing at the top of his game.


Janis B. Meredith, sports mom and coach’s wife, writes a sports parenting blog called jbmthinks.com. Her new book 11 Habits for Happy and Positive Sports Parents is on Amazon.