What should parents say to their children after they play sport? Are some phrases better than others? What does the research suggest is the best (and worst) things to say?
First we have to understand what motivates a child to play sport. Recent research suggests children participate in sport to have fun, learn new skills and to spend time with their friends. Within football, The FA have found six most common answers for why children play. They are:
Why Children Play Sport
- Trying my hardest is more important to me than winning
- I love playing football because it’s fun
- It helps keep me fit and healthy
- I like meeting new friends through football
- It’s a really good game and I love it
- I like playing with my friends
What Not To Say
A recent survey found that 45% of children said that bad parental behaviour made them not want to take part in sport. So here are seven sentences to avoid:
‘Did You Win?’ – The natural temptation is to ask this question straight away. This communicates to your child very strongly that the most important thing to you is that they win. If a child’s self-esteem is linked to the result, then it can be very fragile and can fluctuate each week depending on the result. Unlike the other sentences below, we aren't suggesting that you never ask this question, just don't make it your first one or your main focus.
‘You Played Rubbish’ – This takes the fun out of sport and involves making a judgement call on how they played. At best, you are right that they didn’t play well and this confirms their doubts. At worst, they think they played well and your withering assessment shatters their confidence.
‘Why Did You Do That?’ – This is a very challenging question. It is all about assigning blame. The aggressive nature of it will make your child feel bad. It may be said with the intention of wanting to learn more about their thought process, but there are much better ways of doing this.
‘You’re So Talented’ – Focusing on natural ability can lead to a fixed mindset, which is the belief that talent is decided at birth and cannot be improved. This can lead to children trying to protect this perception of their talent, resulting in them taking fewer risks and even disengaging.
‘False Praise’ – Giving lavish praise can be detrimental to young children as this can ‘convey a message of low expectation’. Children can be quite apt at telling when they are being praised for no reason.
‘You Were So Much Better Than X’ – A recent study looked at how parents praise their children. They found that praising your child by comparing their achievements to others increased their levels of narcissism.
‘It Doesn’t Matter’ – Of course, in the long run, the performance and result of an U10 match doesn’t really matter; but, at the time, it may matter to your child. It is good to try and provide context, but trivialising the defeat won’t make them feel any better.
Based on the above survey by The FA, as well as research from sport psychology, we recommend any of the following 7 sentences to say to your child, regardless of the score:
‘Did you have fun?’ – Sport is meant to be fun. It is why most kids want to take part. If this is the first question you ask, you’ll reinforce this. As an added bonus, kids who enjoy what they are doing increase their intrinsic motivation and are less likely to drop out from sport or exercise.
‘How did you play?’ – Another way to increase intrinsic motivation is to focus on how they performed and not what the score was. This is because their performance is more within their control, as opposed to the score, which, at best, they can only influence.
‘What did you learn?’ – Children and teenagers who have a growth mindset persist for longer, are more open to feedback and cope better with transitions. Asking ‘what did you learn?’ will help them foster a growth mindset.
‘What would you do differently next week?’ – This is a great question that still focuses on learning, but is framed in a way that stops them dwelling on past mistakes. It helps children look forward to next week. It is also a nice question to ask as it doesn’t involve any judgement by the parent. This sort of question will improve their metacognition, which can have a positive spill-over effect in their school life.
‘Did you try your hardest?’ – Kids enjoy trying hard at sport. If you want your child to be a professional, they will need a great work ethic. If your child’s future is not in sport, then work ethic is still a valuable trait. Though it is still early days for the research, success in school, university and generally in life have all been linked to persistence and grit.
‘I’m proud of you’ – Research into the fear of failure consistently shows that the fear of shame and disappointment is the biggest in youth sport. Telling your child that you are proud will help reduce their worries that they have let you down.
‘I love you’ – First and foremost, you are their parent, not their coach. Remind them that your love is not conditional on their performance or the result. The comfort and support that comes from hearing ‘I love you’ will stay with your child long after memories of the match fade.