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Nurturing Sporting Potential

 
“Your dad, he’ll be looking down on you with such pride today, won’t he?” 
“No, he will not.” Kitrina Douglas answered the reporter’s question after she won the British Golf Open.
Her dad, who had been a major inspirer of her faith and golf, had sadly died a few months before.
Kitrina went on to say: “My dad’s pride was never affected by what I did with a little white ball on freshly cut grass, my dad was always proud of me.”
 
I don’t know about you but that is some high bar parenting there! Do my own three children think my pride in them is affected by their sport, school, or faith achievements? 
Sport plays a unique role in our society and offers the parent many opportunities, but also a number of challenges. 
 
At its best, sport offers our children fun, a team to be part of and an opportunity to grow in character as they experience the highs and lows which sport at all levels brings, alongside some wonderful experiences. For those of us with the Christian faith, I remain fully convinced that sport also makes a great partner in disciplining our children. 
 
At its worst, sport offers an all-consuming win-at-all-costs culture where failure, loss and mistakes are all seen as weaknesses and met with disappointment. In this culture, our children’s intrinsic value lies in their “trophies” of success, rather than being loved for who they are. 
 
The challenge for us as parents is that two children on the same team can have such a diverse experience of their time participating in sport. It is parents who are key to shaping their sporting experience. Obviously good coaching matters, but the research says again and again that the way parents interact with their children around sport has a massive impact. Now we all have a caricature of the ‘bad’ sports parent yelling from the sidelines, but it is the well-meaning sports parent who often stumbles in a number of areas that lead to the biggest impact on a young person’s sporting experience. I have the joy of working with coaches, parents and children in premiership football clubs and national teams as well as watching my own children take part at grassroots levels. The impact that well-meaning parents are making on their children in all of these settings is powerful and lasting for their child’s sporting experience and potential. 
 
So how do we as parents best support our children in getting the most from their sporting experience?
 
  1. Love them. Simple, hey! I think loving our children in a sporting context means that we express our pride and joy in who they are as they get out of the car to go play sport. Not as they get back in the car. Tell them you love watching them play. This is important because so often our children misread what we focus on. If they win, we tend to have a really excitable conversation with them, and if they lose we tend to change the conversations ASAP! Home is a harbour for our child’s sport experiences. Having a good, safe harbour enables them to have the joy and confidence to explore the waters beyond the harbour wall. 
  2. Ask them. Andy Stanley once said, “Our questions reveal our values.” Ask them this: “What’s the best thing I can do for you on game day or before/after training?” Then listen and take action. Sport is their journey. However, when they feel unhelpful but well-meaning pressure from us, that can start to derail that journey. As parents, there are times we will want to set out a child’s direction, but it is better for them to set their own as they participle in sport.  To provide a home that nurtures potential we need to support our children’s growth through being open and honest. Asking what they need from us regularly will are helping this nurturing. I ask all three of mine this once a term, as they grow and age the answers change, sometimes there is a difficult conversation, but always there is growing closer together as we learn to be open and honest about our feelings and needs. 
  3. Let them stuff it up. It’s never easy to see your child make a mistake in the sports arena, especially one you know they didn’t need to make. Homes that nurture sporting potential make mistakes. There is the grace to learn, the grace to forgive yourself. There is a love that doesn’t define a child by a missed opportunity. There is also deeper learning, around how we handle mistakes being made. In my experience, kids know about these mistakes and often are harder on themselves than we are. Making mistakes is part of life and so what a gift to help our children process the emotions, frustration and disappointment which comes from perceived failure. There are those parents who try to airbrush the error out. Saying things like “it doesn’t matter” or “it was the coaches/ref/other teams’ fault”. Such attempts sanitise the child’s experience to help them avoid the pain of experiencing a mistake, but this is not helpful. I don’t like seeing my children in pain, but helping them express that and process their mistakes is an essential skill in all areas of life. 
  4. Help them make headway. Yes, home is a harbour, but home also prepares children for the open seas of sporting life. We are open and honest and real about our mistakes so that our children can once again return to the sports arena and go again. We don’t just keep them in the harbour, we support them in having the courage and joy to continue the adventure. We listen, ask questions and tell stories that support them using our family values and character to enable them to thrive wherever sport or life takes them. A home that nurtures potential expects progress. 
 
I don’t want my pride in my children to be affected by what they do with a little white ball, a hockey stick or tennis racquet, but I do believe that the way I provide a home that nurtures potential will give them the skills and character to thrive in success and failure at work, home, church and on the sports field.
 
Richard Shorter is a Baptist minister and parenting coach. His business “non-perfect dad” works with some of the country’s top elite sports teams and schools. He supports coaches, parents and athletes to have quality conversations for better outcomes for young people. Visit www.non-perfectdad.co.uk to find out more about his work.
 

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