The other day a mother approached me, concerned about her son. She described him as being a worrier. After a brief discussion, I asked about his father. She said that his father/her husband was very active in their son’s life, but went on to say that she believed her son’s anxiety had a lot to do with his father. “My son,” she said, “worries about what his dad thinks of his athletic ability. In fact,” she continued, “a lot of the boys on his team are the same way with their fathers.” Worried that he won’t play his best on the field, Junior becomes anxious. Mom believes this may carry into other areas of his life. I agree.
I’ve seen this behavior before both as a player and a spectator. My hand on the ball in the middle of 1200 high school football fans, I could hear one particular woman screaming at us. I know this had a negative effect on her son. While watching middle school basketball, I’ve observed players glancing in the stands at their parents after each pass or shot as if to say, “How was that?” The child, consequently, is playing two opponents. One she is trying to outplay and the other, mom and dad, she is trying to please.
No doubt there are parents who push their children so much that emotional issues are inevitable. However, the mother I mentioned at the start made it clear that her husband was not one of these. He was a proud father who watched his son with enthusiasm, but did not relentlessly push him to perform. So, what’s going on? Why does a father who is not overbearing cause his son anxiety on the field? Was the child naturally anxious? Maybe. Some personalities lean in this direction. Was dad doing something that he did not realize? Possibly. Anxiety can be produced in a child by some of the most well-equipped parents. Let’s look at what may be happening.
Junior plays well and gets regular encouragement from his parents, but what happens when he does poorly? There’s less excitement, nobody feels like post-game milkshakes, and the encouragement you try to offer probably isn’t welcomed if he thinks you’re just trying to make him feel better, as every caring parent would want to do. These are all typical occurrences after a loss. What is also typical is what may be happening in Junior’s mind as he filters the events that follow a poorly played game. After a win, everyone is happy. After a loss, everyone is sad. The coach (typically a male) is disappointed, Junior is disappointed, and the ride home is quiet and depressing. With all these negative cues adding up in your son’s head, the following belief could formulate. “If I please you when I do well, then I must be displeasing to you when I do poorly.” It’s likely you don’t think this, but certain messages after a loss can culminate in this belief. It’s no one’s fault really because these are natural responses to what is happening, but parents must work to counteract them.
So, what should you do? First, you can offer a listening ear after a loss. His own self-criticism might be difficult for you to bear, but because he’s in an emotional state, logic and reason are not going to make it into his vocabulary. So don’t offer it. He may say, “I hit like a two year old!” Just let him vent. Second, when he’s less emotional, you can offer sincere encouragement by helping him see what he did well and validate what he needs to improve on; especially if he mentioned it. Maybe he did hit like a two year old, and could use a few hours in the batting cage. This will help him gain an appropriate perspective on his ability by seeing the good and the bad, which will lead him toward improvement. Finally, if you believe you are inadvertently causing anxiety in your child, it’s what you do in between games that can make the biggest difference.
When he does something well, it’s natural and exciting to point this out, but do you ever tell him, for no particular reason, that you appreciate him? He knows you love him. It’s what you’re supposed to do, but do you ever let him know that you’re glad he’s your son? Grades, sports, or social status aren’t referenced. You’re just glad he eats dinner with you. This happens less naturally, so a conscious effort must be made to let Junior know that he’s tops in your book. Giving random gifts, praise for something that took work but that might otherwise go unnoticed, and quality time over a sundae at Baskin Robbins for no reason at all can do wonders for your child’s perception of what you think of him. Conveying your feelings will not trigger an unshakable self-confidence overnight, but little by little it will build within him the belief that he is worth something, not because of his athletic performance but because he is yours. And with this self-concept, he will be able to conquer anything because you are on his side.