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What to say to your young athlete after a game

What to say to your young athlete after a game

Parents make these common mistakes during post-game conversations with their young athletes. Dr Jay-Lee Nair shares her strategies for fixing them

As the parent of a young athlete, you want to be a pillar of support for them.

But emotions run high and often take the better of you after a game. During the debriefing – that is, the conversation with your athlete on the trip or car ride home after a game – you unintentionally say things that sound hurtful to your athlete or make them anxious.

Or you feel that your athlete is shutting you out. Walking on eggshells around them, you struggle with what to say – and end up saying nothing.

These tension-filled moments can be hard for both you and your athlete.

Sports psychologist Dr Jay-Lee Nair recently published Good Sport, a book that guides parents and coaches in supporting young athletes before, during and after the game.

Dr Jay-Lee, who specialises in working with young athletes, notes that the young generation can be highly resistant to advice. Rather, they want to be empowered to think for themselves and adapt quickly on their own.

While debriefing provides a golden opportunity to help young athletes learn and improve, how it is conducted can affect its outcomes.

In this blog post, we highlight 3 common mistakes during debriefing and share what you can do to make post-game conversations work for both you and your young athlete, as shared by Dr Jay-Lee in her book.

Mistake 1: Power imbalance
Parents want their young athletes to listen intently during debriefing and share what they were going through during the game.

However, if you find that your athlete is tuned out, confrontational or tries to avoid any discussion by, say, pretending to sleep or listening to music on headphones, there’s probably a power imbalance between you and them, Dr Jay-Lee says.

In the book, she shares several situations where the power balance is tipped in your direction, including the following:

● You’re overly directive and instructive. You’re doing most of the talking, and your athlete is listening with little participation. You can’t tell what they are thinking or feeling.

● You’re asking leading questions like “Do you think it is a good idea to do X?” You want to make your athlete “think” about their actions. If the answer is obvious, your athlete won’t respond.

● You’re correcting your athlete’s responses. When they describe their experience, there are no right or wrong answers. If you correct their responses, they will be less likely to tell you the truth in the future.

How to fix it: Make it two-way
If you want your athlete to participate and share more, you need to create a two-way debriefing process. Here’s what you can do:

● Ask questions before giving any feedback.
● Avoid rhetorical or leading questions.
● Ask questions with genuine interest and curiosity.

“When you allow curious questions to lead the way, the tone of your debrief will change from interrogative to supportive and collaborative,” says Dr Jay-Lee.

These questions will help your athlete be more aware of how they can compete at their best.

Mistake 2: Focus on dissecting errors
With the best intentions to help their athletes improve their performance, some parents believe the debriefing is an opportunity to go through their mistakes during the game.

“This approach builds situational awareness and strategic knowledge, but it does not shape a confident and resilient athlete,” says Dr Jay-Lee.

Your focus on dissecting their errors will make your athlete feel more anxious. They may focus more on trying not to make errors or even avoid performing certain skills and actions in their next game.

How to fix it: Build awareness of the Red Zone and the Green Zone
Dr Jay-Lee recommends reviewing moments that are in the Red Zone and the Green Zone. The Red Zone and the Green Zone are frameworks that help young athletes recognise their thoughts, feelings and actions during their game.

To capture your athlete’s experience in the Green Zone, you could ask:

When you were having fun and felt happiest during the game:

● How did you approach the game?
● What did your movements or techniques feel like?
● What were you thinking about or focused on?

For the Red Zone, you could ask:

When you felt annoyed, frustrated or down during the game:

● Did your actions change?
● What was different?
● What was your reaction to your errors?

“These questions will allow your athlete to understand how they contribute to the ups and downs in their performance, and what they can lean into or focus on more strongly in their next game,” says Dr Jay-Lee.

Mistake 3: The compliment sandwich
Some parents like to use the “compliment sandwich”. They start the debriefing with praise, follow with critical comments and then finish with a final positive comment.

Dr Jay-Lee acknowledges the “sandwich” as an easy way to give feedback. However, if you keep dishing it up, your positive comments tend to become more generalised and the negative ones more specific.

“Over time, when your positive remarks are vaguer, your athlete’s attention will be drawn to the specific criticisms and dismiss the compliments,” says Dr Jay-Lee.

How to fix it: Use the Good-Better-How alternative
In place of the “sandwich”, Dr Jay-Lee suggests using a simple 3-question debriefing system, which she calls Good-Better-How:

● Good: What are 3 things you did well?
This question helps your athlete be more aware of positive behaviours and habits.

● Better: What is 1 thing you can improve?
By being clear and specific on one thing, your athlete won’t feel overwhelmed.

● How: How will you go about doing this in your next training session?
This question empowers your athlete to take ownership of their progress instead of waiting for someone else to tell them what to do.

What if your athlete is a perfectionist?
Dr Jay-Lee says there are two sides to perfectionism in an athlete. On the bright side, which she dubs “striving perfectionism”, qualities such as high personal standards, attention to precision and a strong work ethic can energise your athlete. On the dark side, called “strained perfectionism”, qualities like high self-doubt, excessive self-criticism and concerns over mistakes can be destructive.

As a supportive parent, you can help your athlete harness the brighter side of perfectionism and keep the dark side under control, says Dr Jay-Lee. At the same time, you can also help ensure that your striving perfectionist does not push themselves to unhealthy extremes.

If your athlete tends not to want to talk to anyone after the game, they are likely to be relentlessly thinking about their errors during the game and agonising over the “could haves” and “should haves”.

In this case, don’t review their errors during the debrief, for that creates more frustration and anguish for your athlete. To help them reflect productively, build awareness of their performance in the Red Zone and the Green Zone. (See above.)

With such awareness, your athlete can focus on what they can work on for their next game. In other words, you are helping them activate the “striving perfectionist” in them.

Some perfectionist athletes are never satisfied with their performance, even if they have played well. Over time, this attitude may lead to the loss of drive or purpose, and they may think: “What’s the point?”

You can guide your perfectionist in overcoming their negativity by celebrating their victories, no matter how small. Acknowledge the times they performed their key habits well, tried new things or took a risk. In doing so, you help your athlete value their performance process and not be focused solely on the results.

Final thoughts
The above strategies are aimed at helping you help your young athlete thrive in competitive environments, become confident and resilient and continue to enjoy and love their sport.

That said, these strategies don’t only work for parents and coaches of young athletes. They also empower parents who want to help improve their children’s performance in school or daily life in a supportive and encouraging way.

By using these strategies, you can help lessen your child’s anxiety and enable them to adapt to stressful situations in life. And you will build a strong and healthy relationship with your child along the way. __________________________

Dr Jay-Lee Nair is a renowned specialist in sport psychology in Asia. She is listed as the Top 18 most highly rated psychologists in Singapore in 2021. She specialises in working with young athletes experiencing performance anxiety and perfectionists in all performance areas. For more on Dr Jay-Lee’s strategies for parents and coaches, get a copy of Good Sport.