As a parent of three children in sports, I’ve had several of the “talks” after a game. Sometimes they’ve went well, and other times, not so much. But from those moments, I’ve also learned. Most of us just want the absolute best for our kids when it comes to sports. The reasons vary (scholarship opportunities, personal growth, etc), but to hit that mark - we’ve got to take how we communicate seriously.
Though it may not feel like it in the moment (especially after a “bad” game), how we communicate with our kids after the final whistle blows has far-reaching consequences.
Here are three things you can always say after the game to build your young athlete up.
1. “I Love Watching You Play”
This is a phrase I took directly from Greg Berge on X (you can read all of his tips on this same subject here). No matter how your young athlete plays, this is an ideal way to start any conversation. It’s something we should always tell our kids (especially at younger, developmental ages) - that we simply loved watching them compete. When we do, it instills in them everything that we’re wanting sports to give them in the first place:
For many kids, their love of the game came directly from you, the parent. You taught it to them, exposed them to it and they’ve likely taken to it much the same way you did. Because of that, they really care what you think about how they did. There are no critiques in this statement, only the backing of the person whose opinion they care about most – you.
2. Acknowledge Their Performance (Good or Bad!)
After the game, your kid probably is already aware of they performed. If they had good game, they’ll know it. They come off the court racing up to you with a big smile on their face. These moments are great, celebrate them!
However, every single athlete on earth has a bad game. Or hey, even bad stretches of games! Nobody is immune to that, and it’s one thing that, oddly enough, makes sports so wonderful. So, walk through these lessons with your athlete.
If they played great - let them know! Reinforce the things that went well. I try to call out a particular play that I know they were proud of:
- “I saw that pass you made when your teammate cut, great court vision!”
- “We’ve been working so hard on finishing with your left, way to hit it in game.”
This lets them see the value of the work they put it, which is a wonderful lesson to learn early. As parents, we want to encourage our kids no matter the outcome of their games, but we also want to show them that things don’t come free - the more work you put in, the better you get. There is a balance here that’s often difficult to find, but after a particularly good game? That’s an ideal time to show them the value of their hard work and practice.
If they had a rough game, be a parent - not a coach. Kids are all different, and some respond to a poor outing with anger, others may be embarrassed, while others are simply discouraged. In many cases, their core fear is that they let you down.
In these moments, hear them out first before you start talking. Try to correlate their experience with one you’ve had, or maybe a similar situation their favorite athlete has experienced:
- “I know what you mean, I had a game once where I had so many turnovers - it was a tough night!”
- “You know, Steph Curry has games where his shot is off too. Everybody has a night like that.”
By letting your athlete know that it’s normal to have off nights, you’re instilling in them a “next play” mentality without even knowing it! Miss a play, make a play - right? There will be another game, which is another chance to improve. Hang their hat on that.
Remember, one good game doesn’t mean they are the best baller in town. By the same token, one bad game doesn’t mean they are awful at the sport. It’s a body of work that shows where they are really at, developmentally, so remind them of it.
When they’re young, you want them to love the game more than anything. The rough nights and games will happen, no doubt. So guide them through it, and let them know you are in it with them. Let the love of the game grow, don’t stunt it by being overly critical when they are already down.
3. Switch Your “Buts” with “Ands”
In the end, maybe they are in the mood to chat about the game. If they are, be sure to switch your “but” with “and”. This helps you boost what went right while helping them correct what went wrong. Check out the difference in these two statements:
- “I thought you played great defense, but we need to do better switching off of screens.”
- “I thought you played great defense, and if you switch off of screens - you’ll get even more stops.”
The first statement dampens what they did well by immediately pointing out what they did poorly. The last statement lets them know what they did well, while also showing them how they can improve their skills even more - without taking away from what went right.
But notice that this is the first time I’ve mentioned talking about the game. Try not to start here, instead - lead with the first two tips above. Then, once they are in a good head space to hear your feedback - simply use the word “and” when pointing things instead of “but”. This helps them be cognizant about their wins while also facing up what they should improve.
Every parent wants their kids to excel. While there are outliers out there, who simply disparage and criticize their kids no matter the outcome, most of us just want to do right by them. Sometimes, we get it wrong. The competitive juices start flowing, you only notice the mistakes they’ve made - whatever the case may be.
In those times, remember to play the long game! You may think you’ve always got to “push” them to raise a great athlete, but we forget about the stages of development. You can teach them that hard work and practice are essential to succeed in sports while also building them up no matter how they perform. A good mental game will carry them far.
After all, the time will come when they are older - where it gets real. It’ll get hard. But, if we’ve raised them to love the game, have taught them how to navigate the highs and lows - we are setting them up the best we can to have an impactful athletic career.