Like many of us, I sat on the couch watching the Olympics with my family over the past few weeks. My five-year-old aspiring gymnast was twirling, cartwheeling, and mimicking all the moves she saw on TV. She was excited and confident that she would be competing in the Olympics one day. Watching Simone Biles vault (which the athlete later called “petrifying”) she said: “Mama, even the greatest athletes of all time make mistakes, but that’s what makes her great, you can then learn to be better—she’s the best.”
She did not know the struggles Simone Biles or that of any other athlete. She only saw a strong athlete, doing difficult things and learning how to be better. Simone continued to demonstrate strength by seeking help — showing that an athlete must set her own boundaries.
As both a parent and a professional sport psychologist, the concept of competitive sport presents a conundrum. It’s difficult to balance the pride of watching athletes reach their goals, the desire to encourage competition and push the limits, along with feelings of pain, fear, judgement, sadness and loss.
I have dedicated my career to this competitive environment by assisting athletes with their mental and emotional performance through advocating for mental health and shifting the culture of sport. As a parent, I have seen the impact sport can have on children and have lived the experience of watching sport through their eyes.
By taking a stand to ensure her safety, her well-being, and in helping her team from the sidelines, Simone embodies the mission many of us have in sport psychology and mental performance — to enjoy sport, grow, and make the world better through lessons learned. Resilience is an individual decision that we as parents can encourage and cultivate.
“Resilience is an individual decision that we as parents can encourage and cultivate.”
There is a new sense of invigorated hope for our next generation of athletes, but it can not stop here. It can not stop with just words, awareness, acceptance. Conversations need to continue to happen in the home, in sport environments, and actions need to be taken.
Parents — let’s start paying attention to our children, their voices, their behaviors. Help provide an environment where your children can talk to you, ask questions, be a secure base of support. Love them for who they are and who you want them to be. As parents, we have an opportunity to provide spaces for our children to thrive, but we also need to listen and learn from our children.
Here are a few tips to help support your child’s mental well-being:
- Focus on connection: spend time talking and listening (distraction free)
- Shared experiences: go for walks, watch a show, travel to a game and adventure to a venue while at sporting event
- Focus on sleep: sleep is essential for improving mental and emotional well-being
- Relax: Take 5-10 minutes to just sit and be
- Ask: do not assume
- Seek help: Pursue outside resources when behavior change or emotional concerns are warranted.
Sport is what you do not who you are, a common saying I was told by my mother, and perhaps words you too have shared. We cannot minimize the impact it has in shaping our development, but note we have the power to shape the environment to help our children thrive.
Hillary Cauthen, Psy.D. CMPC and Stephen Gonzalez, PhD. CMPC are executive board members of the Association for Applied Sport Psychology.
Before you go, check out some of our favorite mental health apps for giving your brain some TLC:
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