Guidelines for Being a Sports Parent

Monday, September 23rd, 2013

Being a parent is a difficult that is at best gut instinct and trial and error learning. Being a sports parent just raises the bar that much more. The role of the sports parent depends on many factors including the nature of the sport,  age and temperament of the child, accessibility to quality coaching and facilities and the resources of the family.

As I look back at my own experiences, both as a psychologist, sports psychology consultant and parent of an athlete, I can recognize some of my own strengths and weaknesses. In spite of perhaps more “knowledge” than the average parent, I recognize I was far from the “perfect” sports parent myself. However, I do come away with the satisfaction feeling I did a pretty good job and did the best I could at the time with the knowledge and resources I had.

I humbly have come up with a few guidelines of how you might become a great sports parent.

There are many ways to identify and encourage an interest in sports. Here is a short list.

  1. Expose your child at an early age to the sports available in your community, both individual and team sports.
  2. Watch sporting events on television together.
  3. Plan some family events around going to some sport events.
  4. “Play” ball with your child early and often.
  5. Notice what activities he/she seems to like.
  6. Look to your local community for afterschool and weekend programs.
  7. Summer camps, both day and sleep away, provide great opportunities to be exposed to many sports and activities in a short period of time.

Don’t be in a hurry to specialize in a single sport early on. Some of the best known coaches like tennis Guru Nick Bollettieri advocates promoting cross training to build essential athletic skills as a foundation for sports. Participating in a number of sports also helps reduce the risk of burnout and overuse injuries.

Provide your youngster with good equipment so they can safely and effectively participate in their sport.  It is not necessary or even desirable to buy the best and most expensive even if you can afford it (with the exception of safety related items).

At the recreational level, the level of coaching/teaching might be variable as some instructors may be volunteers or have minimum training and experience in working with kids at a particular age and skill level.  If possible, interview the coach, go to several practices and games to be sure the values and interactions the coach demonstrates are compatible with your own. Some issues that I personally had in this area were: 1. My son was once on a soccer team where the coach did lots of yelling and criticizing and treated the kids as if they were marine cadets!  2. In my own childhood, I was a good pitcher in baseball so the coach had me pitch entire games until I eventually threw my arm out.

If your youngster moves from recreational to competitive sports, DON’T be the coach. In my opinion mixing the role of coach and parent has led to far more problems than solutions.

Be careful not to re-live your own sports careers through that of your child. If you find yourself using phrases like, “We are going to have a tough time playing against Plymouth High this weekend”, watch out! YOU are not playing: your son or daughter is and this may be a sign you are overly involved or invested.

Encourage but don’t insist. The desire to play and practice should come from the child and not from you constantly pushing to practice more, try harder, etc.

Do not abdicate your role in character development. If you see your youngster, cheating, cursing, talking  or behaving badly whether on or off the court or playing field, act accordingly. If your child throws a tennis racket in anger and frustration and it breaks and you immediately just replace the racket, you are just reinforcing this kind of negative behavior.  Talk with your child about feelings and behaviors, cultivate the right attitudes, reward good behavior and when necessary, punish bad behavior.

If you as a sports parent, get overly anxious or angry and can’t control it yourself, get help. Remember the adage, as ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure! You are your child’s most important role model. Actions speak louder than words. You can’t TELL a child to control their temper if you are losing yours!

Teach responsibility. Based on their age, give your children chores: walking the dog, helping put away groceries, doing laundry, setting their own alarm clock, being ready to go to a practice, lesson or game on time, attending to school, etc.

Choose your coaches wisely steering towards those who seek to develop your child as a whole person first and away from those who advocate a “winning at all costs” mentality. Remember the karate kid? Which teacher would you want your child to train with?

My most practical guideline for being a good sports parent is this: imagine everything you do and say is being recorded on video and the highlights will be broadcast on the national evening news. Choose your words and actions wisely; once given, they cannot be easily taken back.

Sports Psychology for Parents

Friday, October 19th, 2012

Sports psychology for parents is an important component for helping kids perform at their best. I often get questions from parents of young athletes wanting to know how they can positively contribute to their child’s athletic development and if they are doing anything that might be causing problems.

In my sports psychology practice, I usually meet with the parents and young athlete separately and together. It is not unusual to get differing stories as to what the problems are and what causes them.

In most cases, sports psychology for parents involves a few sessions of helping them better understand how I will evaluate and work with their child along with educating them about some specific things they might want to do more of or less of. In some situations one or both parents may be inadvertently causing or contributing to their child’s problem. One parent thought he was helping his kid reach his goal to become a star tennis player on his high school team. After a full day of school and 2-3 hours of practice, he would come home at which point he father would insist that he serve 300 tennis balls before dinner! The kid got burnt out and quit the tennis team. Some parental behaviors are more subtle, like grimacing whenever the player makes a mistake. Sometimes parents fail to intervene when they should, like a child throwing a tantrum on the court or throwing a racquet in anger or disgust.

Many of these issues can be addressed in a short amount of time. Occasionally, family counseling is needed and in cases where the parents are unwilling or unable to change, I work individually with the young athlete to teach coping skills to be able to better manage those people and situations he may not be able to control.

Dr. Robert Heller is a psychologist and sport psychology consultant based in Boca Raton, Florida. He is the author of numerous self improvement guides and the widely used mental conditioning CD-ROM training program, TENNISMIND.

(This blog was originally posted in Tennis Enthusiast)

Sports Psychology for Athletes

Friday, October 19th, 2012

Sports Psychology for athletes has become increasingly popular over the past number of years as professional athletes increasingly attribute their success, comebacks and ability to overcome obstacles to their work with sports psychologists. In fact, there is a popular television drama series that features a sports psychologist who consults with football players, tennis players, coaches and managers. While the television sports psychologist role is exaggerated and over the line in some cases, it is true that many of the problems athletes demonstrate on the field are often a reflection of problems they are having in their lives off the field.

While sports psychologists teach mental and emotional skills that can be helpful for athletes to perform better in their respective sport and these skills can also be applied to their personal lives, often times, it is the personal counseling over a period of weeks and months that often makes the most difference in the long term success of the athlete.

A quick consultation or brief session or two can be helpful in the same way  band aid or a field adjustment by a personal trainer to attend to a strained muscle can provide a temporary fix. However, the long term solution usually requires both a more comprehensive evaluation and a more in depth treatment.

In my sports psychology practice in Boca Raton, Florida, because of the many tennis and golf academies, I tend to see many of these types of young athletes. They are referred by coaches and brought in by their parents and almost always come in for “performance related” concerns. I have found that often times these performance issues affect them in many areas of their lives. For example, a tennis player who gets very anxious before a match to the point of throwing up, responds in a similar way before taking a test in school or giving a presentation in front of the class. While teaching the athlete how to relax would be a part of the treatment package, other components would include helping the athlete understand the connection between his or her thoughts and feelings and teaching cognitive coping skills to create healthier attitudes and beliefs.

By understanding and working on the “big picture”, young athletes can learn to perform to the best of their abilities and develop in emotionally healthy adults.

Dr.Robert Heller is a psychologist and sports psychology consultant based in Boca Raton, Fl and author of the mental conditioning CD-ROM program TENNISMIND.

(This blog was originally posted in Tennis Enthusiast)

Sports Psychology for Seniors

Friday, October 19th, 2012

Sports Psychology for Seniors

Sports Psychology is not just for professionals, advanced players or only youngsters.  Many seniors pick up competitive sports, especially sports like golf and tennis, later in life. Sports psychology training can help them to learn, play and compete in their sports better and have more enjoyment in the process.

Mental and emotional skills like physical technical skills can be learned and enhanced at any age or ability level. Mental skills training is one aspect of sports psychology and depending on the needs of the player, skills like goal setting, managing distractions, improving concentration and guided visualization can all aid in helping the senior player improve their results.

Another part of sports psychology for seniors is helping them deal with emotional issues that can interfere with performance and enjoyment. One of my clients wanted help to feel more confident. In his case, it meant learning to care less what his doubles partner in tennis might think if he missed a shot or played poorly. A female client was so worried that she wouldn’t be moved up on her team if she didn’t play well that she created a self-fulfilling prophecy: By focusing in so much on the end result, she distracted herself by not playing in the moment and didn’t play nearly as well as she could have. A “weekend warrior” just coming back from a serious hip injury had overly high expectations of himself with respect to movement and speed. His disappointment turned to frustration and self-anger.

Sports psychology for seniors might result in teaching them how to better give and receive constructive criticism from coaches, partners and opponents, how to communicate more effectively with others and how to regulate their emotions through self talk and relaxation methods.

Mental coaching offers seniors and others the opportunity to perform to their highest potential more of the time and to enjoy their sport for years to come.

(Originally posted in Tennis Enthusiast)


Reducing Anxiety in Sports

Tuesday, October 9th, 2012

Reducing Anxiety in Sports

Reducing anxiety in sports is largely about managing expectations. In my work as a sport psychology consultant I work with a large number of high level junior tennis players. Almost all young athletes I work see have the goal of playing with less anxiety.

In many cases the tennis athlete is far more anxious when competing against a weaker player than a stronger player. In playing a weaker player the expectation is “I am better. I should win easily. If I don’t put this opponent away quickly, others will think I am not very good”. This added pressure sets the player up for increased muscle tension, decreased concentration and a greater chance for mistakes and poor play. In fact the worry cycle might begin if he/she losses a few points or games. The fear of losing to a “weaker” player comes to the forefront and increases with every lost point.

In contrast, when playing a stronger player, anxiety is less because the thinking is, “I am not supposed to win. She is the ranked player. No one is going to think less about me if I lose.” As a result, the player plays more relaxed and with a greater sense of freedom. They often perform at their best and may, at times, pull off an upset win.

Another method to reduce anxiety in sports is training the athlete to monitor and modify their breathing. By learning to breathe, slowly and deeply through the belly, the athlete can take the edge off of negative emotions and anxiety and anger and maintain a steadier composure in the face of adversity.

Combining strategies from cognitive therapy with behavioral methods provides the athlete with specific tools they can use to reduce anxiety in sports and perform closer and more consistently to their true potential.

Defeating Negative Thinking

Friday, September 28th, 2012

Defeating Negative Thinking

Negative thinking is easy to acquire and once it becomes a habit, requires consistent effort to change. Defeating negative thinking requires you to first become aware of what your negative thoughts and when they occur. Next, you need to make a list of the negative thoughts. Then, you need to come up with a “better” thought to “replace” the negative thought and practicing thinking and saying the replacement thought whenever the negative thought comes to mind. You must practice saying the new healthier thought STRONGLY and PASSIONATELY in order to get a change at the feeling level.

Defeating negative thinking requires systematic practice. Here is a mental exercise you can practice with: (I use this with tennis players, although you can see how easily it can be adapted to use with other sports or even in non-athletic related situations.)

Here is a list of common negative thoughts associated with playing competitive tennis. For each negative statement, write a more desirable positive statement.

1. Oh no. I have to play this opponent in the first round, I have lost to him twice before.

2. I can’t believe I missed that shot. What’s wrong with me?

3. I am down 3-0. I don’t have a chance.

4. That’s the second backhand I missed. My backhand is the worst.

5. I double faulted on game point. I really suck.

6. I should be killing this guy. I’m so much better and I’m down 3-1.

7. It’s unbelievable. That’s the second shot of mine that hit the line and he called it out. What  a cheater!

8. I was ahead the entire set and now it’s 5-5. I’m terrible. I’ll probably end up blowing the set and losing the match.

9. My overhead was great in practice all week and now in the match I have missed 2 of them.

10. I can’t get over that bad call last game. It was such an important point.

Write any additional negative thoughts that are specific to your situation on the back of this page.

On  a separate sheet of paper for each negative thought, come up with a more desirable thought to counter the negative one.

Now you have completed the first step in defeating negative thinking.



Tuesday, September 18th, 2012

Resiliency, the ability to come back when behind, is a key mental skill to have both in sports and in life. A recent NBC show highlighted the resiliency of pro golfer, Michael Allen, who for most of his life struggled to make a living as a pro golfer.

Although he believed in himself, after 334 PGA starts without a win he called it quits. In an effort to better support his family, he tried other jobs. After several more years, with the support of his wife and the financial backing of friends he tried again.

His wife convinced him he had to do something different in order to have a better chance at a successful comeback. This time, he worked more on his fitness, hired a new “swing coach” and worked with a “sports psychologist”.

Resiliency combined with doing things differently paid off. After 20 years, Michael won his first PGA Senior tour and for the past 5 years has been a leading money winner, winning several other major tournaments.

The interview was conducted by veteran news reporter, Jayne Pauly. When asked by Matt Lauer of the Today Show, which of the changes she felt were most important in turning things around for Michel Allen, she said, the “sports psychology”.

As a sports psychologist, I live and work in Boca Raton,Florida, a Mecca for golf and tennis and home to numerous professional athletic events. In my experience, mental skills like resiliency and confidence are partly inherited, partly learned through early childhood experiences and partly improved upon through teaching,  as are many life skills.

Through counseling and various types of emotional skills training athletes and non-athletes can learn to make changes and improvements in their performance both on and off the playing field.

The key is to get the help you need, make the necessary changes and put in the time and effort for things to come together.

Cheating in Sports

Tuesday, August 28th, 2012

Cheating in sports sadly occurs from time to time in virtually every sport and every level of competition. The drive to win at any price or cost stems from a lack of morals within a particular individual and a sports culture which places an over emphasis on winning above playing fairly and by the rules.

To some degree, cheating in sports mirrors the larger attitude of society which elevates athletes to the hero level and at times extols the virtue of the robber if he/she is clever enough to get away with it.

Cheating in sports takes many forms. In a tennis match, it might be a player calling a ball out that he knows was in. In football, it might be holding a players helmet or shirt to slow them down. In other instances, it might mean taking a “banned” substance to become stronger or perform faster.

The most recent scandal surrounding cheating in sports involved one of the world’s greatest endurance athlete’s of all time, Lance Armstrong. Armstrong, winner of seven Olympic Gold medals in bicycling, was stripped of all of them after it was found that he had be using illegal substances to improve his performance.

Sadly, when athletic heroes are cheating in sports, it sends a message to the hundreds of thousands of young athlete’s that this is what is expected of you if you want to become great in your sport. This results in a new generation of “cheaters” and the cycle is perpetuated.

Let’s hope that parents, teachers and coaches will teach ethical behavior and moral development and that sports officials will enforce rules for cheating with immediate and significant penalties. In these ways, cheating in sports will hopefully be kept to a minimum and even have a positive impact on the larger society in general.

Tennis Camps

Tuesday, August 28th, 2012

Tennis camps come in all types and forms these days. In my younger years I went to several tennis camps and later in my career taught at tennis camps.

Tennis camps can range from recreational programs for kids to attend after school to high performance training programs for elite athletes. Some tennis camps are more social and recreational and held at beautiful hotels, resorts and country clubs while others are more like “boot camps” and designed for the individual who wants a really vigorous workout.

Some tennis camps are geared towards school vacations or summers while others offer year round programs.

Increasingly tennis camps incorporate physical conditioning, a sprinkle of education on nutrition and a smattering of mental coaching or sports psychology in their programs. Some include these activities as part of the package while others offer them as an extra you can pay for if you wish.

It is important to have a clear idea of what is and is not offered at a particular camp. Is it mostly drills, game play and/or instruction? What is the quality and experience of the instructors? How many students will be on the court with each instructor? How many different levels of instruction are offered?  What is the opportunity to move up or down  group or level? Are there groupings by age and/or ability level? What does a sample day or week look like? Do they use cameras to video tape your progress? What “off court” programs and activities are offered? What court surfaces are offered? Hard, Soft, Clay, Asphalt, Grass etc. Are there indoor courts available if it rains?

Sometimes people are drawn to tennis camps because of the name of a well known player. For example, “The Rod Laver Tennis Camp”. It would be important to know if and to what extent Rod Laver is there and actually teaches. If so, will he teach you or your group? Will you pay big bucks to have a “private lesson” with Rod, etc.

If you ask the right questions and do your homework and some planning you can have a great experience at a tennis camp.

How to Become Resilient

Sunday, July 1st, 2012

When you are resilient, you can handle adversity, come back when you are behind and channel pressure into helping you perform at your best. Resilient people use an ABCD or 4 step approach.

First of all, when they make a mistake, resilient people quickly(A) analyze it without judgment or emotion. They know they can’t do anything about what has just happened but seek to prevent future mistakes.

Secondly, they (B) breathe- slowly and deeply. This relaxes the body and calms the mind. It helps to forget the mistake, keep it in realistic perspective and move on.

The third step resilient people use is (C), they correct the mistake by focusing on what they might do differently the next time to insure a different result.

The fourth step is they (D) decide on a plan or course of action that they will immediately implement in order to move forward with greater confidence and effectiveness.

Resilient people have learned these skills either through trial and error or by being taught by someone who is resilient themselves.

If we use the sport of tennis as an example, consider a resilient player. He or she double faults. Instead of becoming self critical or overly negative, he mentally reviews the source of the error and decides the ball was tossed too low. He takes a calming breath to help let go and forget the last shot and pictures himself tossing the ball higher at the next opportunity. As he prepares to serve he thinks to himself “Higher toss” and pictures his arm releasing the ball as his arm raises past his eyes. All of this is accomplished in a matter of seconds.

Resilient people practice this 4 part process in most things they do. Try it yourself for three weeks in a particularly area of your life and notice what results you get.


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