How to help athletes be confident, seven things to avoid when it comes to raising good decision-makers and how to strengthen your athlete's decision-making skills this month from TrueSport.
How to help athletes be confident in tough situations
As a young athlete, your child is occasionally faced with big decisions, as well as hundreds of smaller scale decisions on a regular basis. Parents should not only teach good decision-making habits and strategies, but also help their athletes feel confident about making tough decisions.
Dr. Carl Pickhardt, PhD, practicing psychologist and author of 15 books on parenting, including his most recent book, WHO STOLE MY CHILD? Parenting through four stages of adolescence, shares his expertise on how to teach your young athletes how to feel confident about their decisions, from the early days of T-ball all the way through college visits.
Teach your athlete to recognize decisions when they're being made
To be confident about making tough decisions, a child needs to learn how to make smaller, simpler decisions for themselves from a young age. "You don't empower younger athletes to feel like they can make their own decisions; you empower them by helping them recognize all the athletic decisions they are already making for themselves," says Pickhardt. "This is the personal power base you want them to be able to build upon."
Helping a child become decisive during practice or games can help to build a strong, resolute nature that will later be used for more than just game-day small-scale decisions. Pickhardt adds that the younger a student is when he starts making decisions for himself, the easier it will be to make complex decisions later on. Think of decision-making like a muscle that needs to be worked out and regularly used to stay strong. The stronger that muscle gets, the more confident your athlete will be in their decisions.
Help your child see the importance of consequences
"Decisions can determine direction, and setting one's own direction can feel satisfying," says Pickhardt. Children often don't feel that they have true decision-making power, so when a choice is within their control, make sure you're explaining how and why the decision matters.
"Choosing shows what one cares about, but also brings with it the risk of disappointment," Pickhardt adds. "Choosing is also losing -- time and energy spent on activity X means time not spent on activities Y and Z, and so this brings the risk of regret." For example, a young athlete can choose to focus on soccer or track for the spring season.
Because they must choose one thing over the other, children often don't want to make a decision or will avoid making one. But athletes will gain self-confidence by making these tough choices, so don't try to force your child into a decision that you think is the right one.
Acknowledge the difficulty of making choices
From an adult perspective, some choices seem obvious to you -- but that doesn't mean it's obvious to your child, and that's okay. "If the child wavers back and forth or keeps changing their mind, they may be experiencing honest ambivalence -- wanting and not wanting to do something at the same time," says Pickhardt.
Be patient, and don't push your athlete toward a decision that you want, but instead, help your athlete come to their own choice. "All decisions are partly an entry into the unexpected," Pickhardt reminds parents. "Thinking through decision-making is important because by predicting possible outcomes before deciding, one can evaluate a possible decision before choosing it."
You can help your young athlete by teaching smart decision-making tactics, like listing out pros and cons of different options, and by looking back at similar decisions that they've made in the past. Remember, an adolescent's emotional intelligence is still developing, and they may not yet have all the tools to make a rational, thought-out decision.
It's tempting to simply equate confidence in a decision with making the 'right' decision, or a feeling of sureness. But unfortunately, most decisions aren't black-and-white.
Things like focusing on a club team versus a school team, or choosing a college to attend, won't be simple choices with an obvious right or wrong answer.
"Rather, confidence in hard decision-making is not so much being sure of the outcome, but being secure that whatever the outcome, you will be okay and glad you gave it a try," says Pickhardt. "That's true confidence."
Seven things to avoid when it comes to raising good decision-makers
Young athletes are faced with a constant barrage of decisions, ranging from when they should take a shot to what sports they ultimately want to play. But logical, careful decision-making isn't always a skill that comes naturally -- it's often a skill that needs to be nurtured. It can be a challenge for parents and coaches to find a balance between helping athletes develop those decision-making skills through trial and error while also ensuring that athletes find some success along the way.
Dr. Jim Taylor, a sport psychologist and parenting expert, has a unique expertise in helping parents and coaches raise well-rounded athletes who not only excel in sport, but who are able to make rational, well-thought-out decisions from an early age. Here, he talks about the biggest mistakes he sees adults make when it comes to raising a good decision-maker.
Not understanding your role
In early stages of development, when a child's executive functioning isn't entirely developed, it can be a challenge for them to make a rational decision. You need to pay attention to your child's maturity levels (which can ebb and flow over time) and adjust your role in the decision-making process accordingly.
"The role of the parent in decision-making evolves as your child grows," Taylor says. "It starts as dictator, where you have all the power; then it goes to governor, where you're giving them some options to choose from; then to consultant, where they consult you for feedback on good decisions; then you become a sounding board, where you're just listening to them puzzle through decisions. You're progressively ceding control."
Offering too much choice
"It's trendy to focus on ownership and agency, letting kids have a sense of control over their lives," says Taylor. "But they'll make millions of decisions throughout their lives, they don't need to make 50 today. It's exhausting and confusing."
It's okay to moderate some of the decisions your athlete needs to make. Taylor adds, "I use the metaphor of forks in the road. Children are constantly faced with forks in the road: it might be just two, it might be ten choices. We need to help our kids learn to recognize the forks in the road, what the options really are and narrow them down.
Research has shown that the more options you're faced with, the harder it is to make decisions.
Offering too little choice
On the other side of the spectrum are the parents who don't offer children any agency, whether it's choosing their sports for them, laying out clothes to wear, and picking their books to read. Coaches can have the same problem, laying out the game play-by-play and micromanaging athletes until they feel like pawns rather than players.
"Don't make all of your kid's decisions," says Taylor. "Once they become old enough to choose things for themselves, we need to start offering some choices."
Offering choices that don't exist
"Often, we make an attempt to give a kid a sense of agency where none exists, with the hope that they will make the 'right' decision," says Taylor. "That's disingenuous. Don't offer them decisions in areas where you're not actually going to honor their choices."
Saying a decision is wrong or bad
Raising a good decision-maker doesn't mean raising a child who always makes the right decision, just one who is capable of being decisive, weighing both sides of an argument, and coming to a firm conclusion. If a child chooses soccer when you think he should play baseball, don't tell him that was the wrong decision.
"Decision-making is a skill, it comes with experience, but it takes confidence. So when you allow a kid to make a decision, it's not just about that specific decision. It's about boosting their ability to make a decision later on," Taylor adds. "You want them to sometimes make bad decisions because that's how they'll learn to make good decisions."
Letting your child avoid decisions
If you're the parent or coach of a child who's obedient to a fault, that may not be an entirely positive thing. "There are some kids who are naturally risk-averse and don't want to make the wrong decision," says Taylor. "That fear of failure can be problematic down the road. They start attaching fear to making bad decisions."
Start pushing the child to make small-scale decisions. Rather than picking your child's clothes because he or she can't decide what to wear, Taylor suggests offering two options (the red shirt or the blue shirt). That way, your child is still making a small decision, but it likely won't be paralyzing.
Not talking about decision-making
Making a choice might seem obvious to you as an adult, but kids need to be taught how to make decisions and that doesn't come naturally. "Talk through decisions, look at how to list the options, and discuss the costs and benefits of each. Talk about which is the right thing to do. Talk about what is in your kid's best interest," says Taylor.
Taylor recommends following up on decisions: have the conversation with your athlete a few weeks after a decision to check in on how that choice looks now. "You can't go back in time to change that decision, but if you have a period of reflection and talk through it, you might not make the same decision again."
Remember, you're a role model for your athlete. Decisions are ultimately made based on core values, and to raise an ethical decision-maker means walking the walk. "Teach kids to be deliberate about decisions," Taylor says.
"Whatever you value, you'll make decisions that align with that. If you value winning at all costs, you might take performance-enhancing drugs. If you value sportsmanship, you won't. And those values may transfer to your kids," says Taylor. "Instilling healthy, positive values in kids is the foundation for making those good decisions."
And while it can be maddening waiting for a child to make a decision when you're trying to tick an item off of your to-do list, remember that you're not trying to raise someone who can make abrupt decisions. You're trying to raise a child who can make measured, carefully considered decisions.
How to strengthen your athlete's decision-making skills
Whether it's making a decision about how to properly prepare for a competition, practice a recovery plan, or stay away from shortcuts, good decision-making, although challenging to teach, is a skill that is critical to an athlete's success.
According to the Decision Education Foundation (DEF), which seeks to empower youth with effective decision-making skills through curriculum and courses in decision quality, teaching teenagers how to decide is more effective than teaching them what to decide. For example, the popular D.A.R.E. campaign that was implemented in schools nationwide simply told adolescents about the negative effects of drugs and had adolescents sign a pledge to say no to drugs, but it didn't have a significant effect on actually preventing youth from illicit drug use according to a report by the U.S. General Accounting Office.
Chris Spetzler, DEF Executive Director, recommends helping students understand how to make better decisions as the first step to "increasing their thoughtfulness when engaging their values, creativity, and critical thinking in making and following through on their personal choices."
As a coach, it's important to develop an understanding of the decision-making process, as this will better equip you to help shape the way your athletes approach decisions on the field and throughout their lives. DEF explains that there are six elements that must be considered in order to reach a quality decision, including helpful frame, clear values, creative alternatives, useful information, sound reasoning, and commitment to follow through.
Keeping in mind these six foundational elements of a good decision, here are five DEF exercises we've tailored for coaches to use at practice with their team to help strengthen an athlete's decision-making skills:
Explain decisions you've made
Sharing a personal decision-making story of your own can help you build trust with your team, make you more relatable, and allow you to break down the decision-making process with them. Being able to pull from your experience and explain the rationale behind the choices you've made will help illustrate the six elements of good decision-making for your team.
Case studies from sports
Whether it's deciding who should take the final shot of a game or how to deal the temptation of performance-enhancing drugs, sports come with a lot of decision-making opportunities.
Walking through a sports story that involves decision making is a great way to start the discussion on the topic with your team. Using case studies of athletes who have made poor choices in the past provides your team with the opportunity to dive deep and analyze the situation, reasoning, and outcome of a real decision with real consequences.
Interactive role play activities
Inviting your team to participate in simulated decision-making scenarios allows them to critically think and practice the elements of good decisions in real-time.
Have your athletes act out relevant situations, such as deciding how to react to a teammate who consumes energy drinks before practice, to help them evaluate their values and learn how to make more informed decisions.
Breaking your athletes into groups and giving them a sport-related challenge to work through is another way you can give them hands-on decision-making experience, while also encouraging them to consider the values and logic of their teammates.
Encourage your groups to share their outcomes and explain how they reached their final decision.
Many coaches are familiar with the practice of having athletes visualize skills or upcoming games, but you can also apply this technique to your athlete's decision-making.
For example, practice setting a goal with your athlete and walk through the decisions they would make to reach that goal. Encourage them to visualize their future after achieving their goal and evaluate the steps they needed to take to get there. Would they be proud of the decisions they made to achieve their goal?
Creating a space that encourages the development of an essential life skill like decision-making should be a top priority for the coaches of youth athletes. Continue to encourage your team to evaluate their decisions and take ownership over their actions so they can be proud of the paths they choose.
TrueSport®, a movement powered by the experience and values of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, champions the positive values and life lessons learned through youth sport. TrueSport inspires athletes, coaches, parents, and administrators to change the culture of youth sport through active engagement and thoughtful curriculum based on cornerstone lessons of sportsmanship, character-building, and clean and healthy performance, while also creating leaders across communities through sport.
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