Prep Sports

Think before you speak after youth competition

Justis column: Listen to your athletes before postgame conversations

Postgame conversations with young athletes should include a relaxed approach that let the child do the talking. (The Gazette)
Postgame conversations with young athletes should include a relaxed approach that let the child do the talking. (The Gazette)

My family members are huge sports fans, if you haven’t already figured that out.

Now that we are watching our two grandsons participate in various competitive activities, our enthusiasm has risen to new heights. After all, we have a personal interest in the performances and outcomes.

The brothers have different personalities. As a result, we are learning one kind of post-event conversation is not fit for all. Or if any conversation is appropriate immediately after.

The eldest grandson is more introspective, quiet, serious. Even at age 11, he takes sports seriously. He listens to his coaches, absorbs the instruction and tries his best at practice and during games. He reflects on his and his team’s performance between games, often going off by himself to watch other games instead of romping with his teammates.

The youngest is more open to conversation after his competition. That doesn’t mean he isn’t taking his performance or training seriously. He just shows how much fun he is having more demonstrably than his brother.

As grandparents, we are finding it difficult not to approach the oldest immediately after the game, give him a hug, tell him what a good job he did win or lose. But we’ve learned to back off. He wants time to catch his breath, to steady his beating heart. He will go to his mom and dad after competition, but the rest of us have to wait our turn. And when it’s our turn, I let him start the conversation.

In his blog “Coaching Young Athletes,” Darren Wensor advises not to tell children about their performance with the first thing out of your mouth.

“I might first greet them with a high five ... I will avoid making observations, providing feedback or analyzing what just occurred. Their response to the initial remark will indicate how much they want to chat about their performance at that particular time. Whatever they say, don’t contradict their opinion.”

His second bit of advice is to avoid hitting an athlete with a myriad of questions.

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“Use ‘how did you feel about that?’ to invite, but not pressure, them to share more. Other suitable questions may include ‘what did you most enjoy today?’ or ‘what were you most happy with?’”

Jack Perconte, a former Major League Baseball player and current author and youth sports coach, wrote in his blog, “CoachBook,” the postgame message also should be about the character traits kids should learn.

Coaches can tell their athletes:

l “We are proud of you. You gave your best, and that is all we ever ask of you. I hope you feel the same way. If you aren’t sure, that’s OK — as long as you make the choice to give a little more the next time.

l “We must continue to learn from this game and apply our knowledge to the next practice and game. No one expects you to have everything figured out at your age ... Walk out here with your heads high and enjoy what we have accomplished.”

Wensor also notes it’s important not to assume an athlete’s feelings.

“Assuming that they are happy with a performance (well done, that was great) when they are not can lead to a very annoyed athlete. Worse still, assuming that they are unhappy with a performance that they are actually proud of can deflate the athlete.”

In a nutshell:

l Be relaxed in your approach and mindful of your impact.

l Let the child lead the conversation.

l Prompt the child to talk, but not about the performance.

l Avoid offering observations, feedback or analysis.

l Avoid assuming how an athlete feels.

At the end of the day, Mike Robbins, author of “Bring Your Whole Self to Work” and “Focus on the Good Stuff,” notes “If you’re having trouble figuring out what to say after a game, start with something simple. Try, ‘I loved watching you play.’ It’s a true statement even when the outcome isn’t what your kid was hoping for.

“You can’t control the outcome, but you can control your attitude and your effort.”

l Nancy Justis is a former competitive swimmer and college sports information director. She is a partner with Outlier Creative Communications. Let her know what you think at njustis@cfu.net

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