top of page

The
Parent-Athlete
Experience

A Guide to Mutual Understanding

Introduction

Parenting is a challenging journey on its own right, and navigating the world of parenting an athlete can add an extra layer of complexity.

This guide breaks down one of the most common challenges in the parent-athlete dynamic and  illuminates both experiences, offering valuable insight and strategies. 

Most Common Challange: Communication Breakdown

Three primary factors contribute to communication breakdown in the context of parent-athlete relationships:

  1. Ineffective Communication:

    • Definition: Focus on determining right versus wrong rather than fostering understanding, driven by heightened emotionality.

    • Impact: Hinders the ability to communicate effectively, leading to misunderstandings and conflict.

  2. Poor Emotion Regulation:

    • Definition: Difficulty in recognizing when emotions are triggered, resulting in heightened activation and an inability to self-soothe.

    • Impact: Emotional responses become intense and unmanageable, contributing to breakdowns in communication.

  3. Poor Distress Tolerance:

    • Definition: Limited capacity to endure emotionally triggering situations while maintaining calmness.

    • Impact: Inability to navigate challenging scenarios without emotional escalation, further complicating communication.

 

Example:

  • Scenario: An athlete underperforms, experiencing heightened emotions (communication difficulties, low tolerance, poor regulation), expressing frustration through negative behaviors (sulking, throwing, kicking, isolating).

  • Result: Triggers the parent, who also feels frustration and helplessness despite attempts to assist.

  • Feedback Loop: Parent's efforts often lead to increased emotional responses from the athlete, perpetuating a cycle of communication breakdown.

  • Outcome: The overall feeling of defeat and frustration prevails, affecting both the parent and the athlete negatively.


The Child/Athlete Experience: Barriers

For the child/athlete, these barriers may be contributing to the breakdown:

  1. Barriers to Open and Effective Communication:

    1. Sensitivity and Perception:

      • Challenge: Feeling burdensome and hesitant to contribute to family issues due to heightened sensitivity to the emotions of parents and family members.

      • Impact: Hinders open communication as the child/athlete may withdraw to avoid perceived emotional burdens.

    2. Internalization of Unintentional/Unconscious Pressure:

      • Challenge: Covert or overt communication of pressure, leading to internalized stress.

      • Impact: Creates a sense of obligation and may hinder authentic expression due to fear of disappointing or falling short.

    3. Instinctual Desire to Please:

      • Challenge: Driven by a natural inclination to seek approval and please others.

      • Impact: May compromise genuine self-expression, as the child/athlete prioritizes meeting perceived expectations.

    4. Internalization of Parental/Familial Projections:

      • Challenge: Absorbing projections from parents or family members.

      • Impact: Can lead to a distorted self-perception and may contribute to a sense of being misunderstood.

    5. Fear of Reactivity, Misunderstanding, Blame, Diminishment, Invalidation, Dismissal:

      • Challenge: Anxiety about potential negative reactions to their thoughts and feelings.

      • Impact: Creates reluctance to express oneself openly, fearing adverse responses.


 

The Child/Athlete Experience: Triggering Scenarios

In addition to potential barriers, children/athletes simultaneously contend with:

  1. Emotional Flooding:

    • Challenge: Overwhelmed by intense emotions.

    • Impact: Hinders the ability to think clearly and communicate effectively, contributing to breakdowns in communication.

  2. Undeveloped Skillset:

    • Challenge: Inability to understand and communicate thoughts and feelings due to an undeveloped skill set. 

    • Impact: Results in unuseful attempts at communication, exacerbating emotional distress and flooding.

  3. Poor Distress Tolerance and Emotion Regulation:

    • Challenge: Limited capacity to tolerate emotionally charged situations and regulate emotions.

    • Impact: Aggravates emotional responses, making it difficult to navigate triggering situations.

  4. Combination of Barriers and Challenges - In emotionally triggering situations, the child/athlete experiences a convergence of these barriers and challenges, leading to:

    • Feelings of misunderstanding, blame, diminishment, invalidation, and dismissal.

    • Increased difficulty in effectively expressing and managing their emotions.

Understanding and addressing these challenges can contribute to creating a supportive environment that promotes open communication and emotional well-being for the child/athlete.


 

The Parent Experience: Barriers

For the parent(s), these barriers may be contributing to the breakdown:

  1. Subconscious Unresolved Emotional Challenges:

    • Challenge: Influenced by unresolved emotions from their own childhood and life experiences.

    • Impact: Unintentionally contributes to pressure, overt/covert messaging, and projection onto the child/athlete.

  2. Unintentional Pressure, Overt/Covert Messaging, Projection:

    • Challenge: Subconscious expression of expectations and emotions.

    • Impact: Places unintentional pressure on the child/athlete, involves overt or covert messaging, and projects unresolved issues onto them.

The Parent Experience: Triggering Events

In addition to potential barriers, the parent(s) simultaneously contend with:

  1. Emotional Flooding:

    • Challenge: Overwhelmed by intense emotions.

    • Impact: Hinders the ability to think clearly, contributing to a breakdown in communication and increased emotional distress.

  2. Limited Skillset:

    • Challenge: Inability to understand and effectively communicate thoughts and feelings due to minimal education and modeling.

    • Impact: Leads to misunderstandings and further exacerbates emotional tension in parent-child interactions.

  3. Poor Distress Tolerance and Emotion Regulation:

    • Challenge: Limited capacity to tolerate emotionally charged situations and regulate emotions.

    • Impact: Aggravates emotional responses, making it challenging to navigate triggering situations constructively.

3. Combination of Barriers and Challenges: In emotionally triggering situations, parents may experience a combination of these barriers and challenges, leading to:

  • Feelings of frustration, confusion, helplessness, hopelessness, fear, and worry.

  • Difficulty in managing their own emotions, which can contribute to the breakdown of effective communication.

Understanding and addressing these challenges can support parents in fostering a healthier dynamic with their child/athlete and contribute to improved communication and emotional well-being for both parties. (Book recommendation: The Origin of You.)

Strategies for Communication

1. Learn Effective Communication:

  • Focus on expressing and understanding feelings and experiences rather than assigning blame.

  • Utilize "I" statements to communicate personal thoughts and emotions.

2. Active Listening:

  • Practice active listening to truly understand the child/athlete's perspective.

  • Avoid interrupting and provide validating responses to their feelings.

3. Validation:

  • Consistently validate the child/athlete's feelings and experiences.

  • Avoid dismissive or diminishing responses, as validation fosters a sense of being heard and understood.

4. Being Present:

  • Show up and be available for the child/athlete, letting them know you are there to talk whenever they need or want.

  • Presence alone can provide comfort and support, reinforcing the idea that they are not alone in their challenges.

5. Creating a Plan:

  • During a calm period away from competition or practice, engage in a dialogue to collaboratively create a plan for handling emotional moments.

  • Define specific actions and responses that support the child/athlete's emotional well-being.

6. Implementation of the Plan:

  • In emotionally charged situations, enact the pre-established plan to navigate through challenges.

  • Afterward, discuss the situation at a mutually agreed-upon time to reflect and make any necessary adjustments to the plan.

7. Consistency is Essential:

  • Establish a regular schedule for brief check-ins to reinforce the practice of open communication.

  • These routine sessions offer a dedicated space for parents and children/athletes to discuss recent challenges, ensuring that their concerns are

    acknowledged and heard.

8. Tailor to Different Age Groups:

  • Recognize that children, motivated by approval and a natural desire to please, are adept at learning and adapting.

  • Implementing these skills and strategies doesn't have to be age-discriminatory. Adjust the language used to explain, teach, and model these

    approaches to suit the understanding of different age groups.

Implementing these coping strategies promotes a healthier parent-child/athlete relationship, facilitates open communication, and enhances emotional well-being for both parties. Creating an environment where the child/athlete feels at ease expressing their thoughts and feelings genuinely and honestly is one of the most effective ways to navigate mental health challenges. 

Strategies for Support

  • KIS (Keep It Simple!)

    • Instead of guessing how someone feels and guessing how you can help them, just KIS and ASK!

  • A Simple Equation to Help Guide Your Conversation

    • Validate + Reflect + Ask

      • Validate: Affirming someone’s experience, which lets them know you’re listening & understanding (e.g., “Wow, that sounds really sad/exhausting/disappointing/etc.)

      • Reflect: Demonstrate you’re listening and understanding by repeating back to someone what they’ve just told you in your own words

      • Ask
        “How do you feel about that?” 
        “How did that make you feel?”
        “What was that li
        ke for you?”
        “Can you tell me more about that?”
        “What can I do to help?”
        “What do you need?”
        “How can I support you?”

  • The 6 Main Types of Support

    • Listening: Providing a safe and comforting space for someone to vent to avoid causing the person to feel apprehensive about how you’ll react or respond.

    • Validating: Reflecting and affirming the person's feelings and experiences.

    • Advising: Offering advice based on your prior experience or what you feel is best for the person and helping the person consider alternative perspectives.

    • Fix: Helping the person figure out an answer or solution to their problem.

    • Misc.: Whatever way the person expresses would be most helpful. (e.g., going for a walk, watching a movie, processing, etc.)

  • Let Them Know You're There and Let Them Come to You

    • When people are emotional and/or dysregulated, it’s easy to become overwhelmed or overstimulated. This makes it difficult to have a rational conversation or answer questions. Therefore, it can be really helpful and important to allow the person time and space to cool down, regulate, relax, and process before trying to inquire and/or address them. *Especially after a disappointing performance*

    • Example: “I can see you’re really upset right now. That’s okay. I’ll be available if and when you need to process, vent, or get support.”

  • No One Likes to be Told How to Feel

    • Avoid telling people how they should feel

      • Examples:

        • "Get over it"​

        • "Don't be sad"

        • "Don't let them see you cry"

        • You're better than this"

        • "Don't be weak"

  • Telling people how they should feel is massively invalidating, dismissive, and diminishing of the person's experience.

  • Repeated invalidation has pervasive negative effects on a person's psyche. (Which can also negatively impact performance.)

  • Validation helps:

    • Develop a healthy acceptance of one's emotions and other's as part of the normal human experience 

    • The ability to understand one's emotions and feel sympathy/empathy for others

    • Create effective communication skills

    • Promote self-confidence, autonomy, and self-esteem

    • Maintain an open line of genuine and honest communication

    • Increase focus

    • Strengthen coping abilities

    • Improve resiliency

    • Fosters a strong rapport 

  • Other Tips:

    • Avoid performance analysis and negative feedback immediately after a competition - particularly if the athlete is disappointed or upset with their performance. (Aside from crucial and necessary feedback.)

    • Balance positive and negative feedback.

    • Avoid hyper-focusing on only the negative.

    • Regularly check in with athletes about their lives outside of sport.

    • Promote emotional connection and acceptance of all emotions through modeling and encouragement.

    • Acknowledge that emotions are a part of the human experience and that completely suppressing emotion is unhealthy and can subsequently have negative impacts on performance. 

    • Welcome feedback and model acceptance of it. 

    • Check your own anxiety at the door to make sure you're not projecting it onto an athlete, consequentially exacerbating their own.

  • Get to know your athletes, how they typically behave and speak, how they prefer to be supported. Set aside time to have this discussion during pre-season training - before the heat and pressure of the season begins. 

Resources

The Better podcast
episode 45:athletes & mental health

In this episode, Brynne and Joe sit down to talk about athlete mental health, athlete identity, anxiety, and working on how to turn down the dial on those demons.