As a parent or as a coach, it can be tricky giving young athletes advice or motivation, and some of the old cliches that you may have heard in your own school sport days are less helpful than you may remember. Sayings like “toughen up” or “don’t be nervous” may sound like helpful tough love before a game, but they often do more harm than good.
Here, TrueSport Expert Kevin Chapman, PhD, clinical psychologist and founder of The Kentucky Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders, shares five common phrases parents and coaches should strike from their repertoire—and explains what to say instead.
1. “Don’t be nervous.”
“One of the biggest problems in sports is this idea that athletes should not experience emotions,” Chapman says. “That’s called thought suppression, also known as cognitive avoidance. But the problem is that when I try to push away an emotion, it backfires and makes me have more of it. Often, telling someone not to be nervous actually makes that emotion more intense for the person. And even more importantly, it’s normal and healthy to experience nervousness in competition.” In fact, an athlete should be a little nervous. That enhances arousal, which can improve an athlete’s performance.
Instead, try helping your athlete shift their focus from nerves to process-based performance tasks, like warming up or visualizing the next play.
2. “Don’t feel bad.”
Like the idea of telling an athlete to not feel nervous, telling an athlete not to ‘feel bad’ if they didn’t make a goal or missed a shot is decidedly unhelpful, Chapman says. You may have heard the phrase “don’t think about pink elephants.” Once you hear that, you can’t help but think of pink elephants. Similarly, if you tell an athlete they shouldn’t feel bad, now, they are either going to think about all the reasons they should feel bad and get stuck in that thought pattern, or they are going to suppress those thoughts of feeling bad entirely.
“Doing that comes back to cognitive avoidance,” Chapman says. “It may feel like it makes sense in the moment to help a child feel better, but ultimately, it actually contributes to the maintenance of negative emotions. Those negative emotions won’t go away until they acknowledge them.”
Instead, try asking your athlete if they want to talk about how the game went, rather than assuming you know how they feel.
3. “Get out there and win/score a goal.”
Outcome-driven directives are difficult for athletes because they’re impossible to control. An athlete alone can’t win a game: that’s determined by a multitude of factors (including who’s playing on the other team!).
Instead, try saying “Get out there and have fun!” or “Get out there and try that strategy we worked on in practice.”
With these phrases, you focus on the process by considering tangible things that your athletes can do on the field, like sticking to the team tactics they discussed. “Rather than focusing on the outcome, focus on the things that lead inevitably to the outcome,” says Chapman. “And honestly, one of the simplest things a coach can do is to tell the athletes to treat the game as a fun reward for all the hard work that they put into practice.”
4. “We’re all depending on you.”
While you may be trying to develop strong leaders, putting this kind of team-based pressure on one athlete can cause them to crumble. “This kind of language increases individual perceived pressure, and it also puts outcome-based pressure on one athlete. Now, one person is owning all the mistakes that have nothing to do with them, adding to the individual pressure they may have already been feeling,” Chapman says.
Instead, try this phrase: “Can you help me motivate your teammates today?”
“When talking to a team leader, guide them to encourage and communicate effectively with their teammates. Shift the focus from performance to leadership.” This also ensures that the student athlete doesn’t spend the game barking orders and criticisms at their teammates, both of which can negatively impact the other players.
5. “You’re looking lean” or “Have you gained weight in the offseason?” or ANYTHING related to an athlete’s body
Yes, even seemingly positive reactions to an athlete’s body can be problematic. Telling an athlete that they are looking particularly lean implies that this is the way the athlete ‘should’ look and ignores what it may have cost them to get there (disordered eating, overexercise, etc.). It also sets up a false dichotomy for the athlete that this level of leanness (or leaner!) is good, while gaining weight is bad. “Talking about body composition in any way is not going to add anything positive to what happens on the court or the field or the pitch,” says Chapman. “Rather, I help people set goals that are focused on having enough energy and nutrition in their systems so that they’re prepared to do the work and compete.”
So instead, try: “Is everyone fueled up and hydrated for practice today?”
Coaches and parents often have the best intentions when they say things like “Don’t be nervous,” but those well-intentioned phrases often backfire. These tips will help you understand why those phrases don’t work and how to communicate with your young athletes more effectively.