"I'm not a big fan of talking too much before my son's games, for fear of placing anxiety on him... but I also think pre-game focus is important. Thoughts on how to handle this?"
There's a sensational video campaign from Hockey Canada called "Relax, It's Just a Game" which hysterically pokes fun at overbearing parents in youth sports. In one of my favorite parody videos, a dad is lining up an important golf putt in front of his friends while his overbearing son is peppering him with unsolicited advice on how to line the ball up, how to focus, how to stand. It's hysterical and scary at the same time. Surely this is a message to parents who do the same thing to their young athletes. And to be fair, I've been that parent on occasion. But then I was reformed!
Your question is a common one because there's been so much research telling us why we shouldn't do the post-game analysis with our kids on the drive home from a game, but there's been little research on how to handle the drive TO the game. Perhaps that's because every kid is different. My Advisory Board of educators, psychologists, coaches, former pro ball players have some recommendations:
1) Know your athlete: is your child self motivated, focused, lazy, competitive, intimidated, aggressive? All of these will dictate how much of a pre-game pep talk they need. Some kids rise to the occasion every game and don't need a reminder to focus. Others need a gentle push. Still others will resist any suggestions parents give them on the way to a game. So choose wisely.
2) Set your player up for success WELL BEFORE the car ride: make sure they ate a good meal, are well rested and hydrated. This all begins 12-24 hours before the game.
3) Ask your child how they like to get focused: some kids like to listen to music on the car ride to a game, some like to play video games, some like to just talk with friends, others like to talk strategy. Ask and observe what seems to get them most focused. It might not be what you think....and it might not be the same thing that gets you focused.
4) Set goals: It's great to talk about your child's goals before a game, but only if they are part of a holistic approach to player improvement. Asking your child to score two goals in a soccer game is not a goal....rather, that's putting pressure on the child. Instead set goals at the beginning of the season that are tied to skills and a mindset of pushing your comfort zone. Especially for the younger players, set goals such as trying a new move or taking on a defender in a one-on-one situation. These are goals that can be discussed in the car ride to the game without stressing a kid out.
Finally, at iSport360 we believe in close collaboration between parent and coach. That's why we created a mobile platform for coaches and parents to set goals for their kids, share ongoing feedback and conduct fair player evaluations. Point being: if your pre-game conversation with your child is contrary to the coaches pre-game conversation with your child.....you have a BIG problem. I remember coaching my daughter's u9 soccer team and experiencing this problem. A young midfielder on the team had great ball handling skills and an aggressive spirit. Before each game I coached her to take a few touches and then release a beautiful through-pass to her strikers. Unfortunately, in the car ride to each game, her parents were telling her to try to dribble through all of the defenders and score 3 goals. The result was a confused and stressed player who had to decide whether to listen to her coach or parents each game. Sad. So let's get parents and coaches on the same page...for the pre-game conversation...and throughout the season.