After the game: Talking to young athletes

A few weeks ago, I went to watch a few high school basketball games. Aside from the fact that there were four games in a row, it was a typical day in a high school gymnasium. There was a mix of great moves, bad passes, off balance shots, and whistles blowing followed by fans yelling. In each of the games, high school basketball players showed they were just that – high schoolers.

In one evenly matched game, both teams played well, but could have been better. The lead changed back and forth throughout. Near the end, the team in the lead missed a set of free throws to seal the victory, and a completely unsuspecting player made the game-winning three pointer. As usual, one team walked off with excitement, smiling and joking with each other, while the other team walked off slowly, shoulders sagging and heads down. Soon enough, however, both sets of players would return to joking around, because that’s what high schoolers do. A typical day in high school sports – ups, downs, and then back to normal.

About an hour later, another, less fortunate, typical high school sports moment occurred. As I walked back into the gym from a trip to my car I passed by families heading home, recognizing one player from the game mentioned above. A man walked with him – I’m assuming his father – talking about the game. From a distance, it was just a father and son walking to the car together. As I drew closer, though, the look on the son’s face said everything. His lips tightened, keeping all the things he wanted to say inside. His eyes glanced from his father to anything else that could capture his attention, hoping for a distraction. As my eyes caught his, they rolled ever so slightly, hoping I wouldn’t hear the conversation.

I may be making a lot of inferences here, but I’ve seen this look too many times after games. The parent/relative giving advice, and the kid simply just wanting to go home or be with his friends. And this kid’s team had won the game. They beat a good team and he had contributed to the win. Yes, he could have been better, just like every other kid on the floor. He should be enjoying a great moment, but instead he was subjected to endless words of wisdom from his parent.

Sports give athletes many opportunities to learn about themselves, to take on challenges, and overcome adversity. As a parent, that is one of the reasons we put our children into sports. I am confident, however, that I don’t know a single athlete at any age who looks forward to replaying their entire game or taking advice from others on the ride home.

As a former player and current coach, here are a few suggestions for post-game interactions with your child:

• Keep your advice to a minimum (this is for coaches, parents, and others). Players are only going to remember a few pieces of information anyway. If you have to say something, keep it short and sweet. (Keep an eye out for the following blog post about specific ways to approach advice.)

• Ask them they how they’re doing. They might say they’re hungry, thirsty, or tired. Hopefully you’ve brought some drinks and snacks. They might say something dismissive or nothing at all, at which point it’s probably best to move on to something else.

• If they’re frustrated and want to share, listen to them. Empathize with them. Let them know you hear their frustrations, but don’t feel like you need to solve anything at that moment. The 24-hour rule is generally good for letting the frustrations of a game boil down. Encourage them to talk with a coach the next day. You could even email the coach letting them know your child was a bit frustrated and wants to talk.

• If they don’t want to talk about the game, don’t talk about the game. That is the benefit of a bus ride for middle/high school teams, which inevitably turns into typical joking and laughter.

For kids/athletes of any age, let them be athletes on the field and kids off of it. Let them face the challenges of the game and then let them move on. If they want to talk, you’ll know. The game is hard enough, don’t make the ride home even harder.

2 thoughts on “After the game: Talking to young athletes

  1. Great points made here, Chris. My advice to parents was to ask if their kid was hungry (they usually are after they play) and to tell them that you enjoyed watching them play. If they have something to say, they’ll let you know.

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