JENNY R. SUSSER, PH.D.

POWER & PERFORMANCE SPORT PSYCHOLOGY SERVICES

Less than a village…

Posted by on Sep 14, 2019

Who is in your tribe?

“It takes a village to raise a child,” is an African proverb found in many languages, reflecting a culture of family and community, people working together to create community and growth. We all have our tribes, families, communities, neighborhoods, groups, teams, and even work groups surrounding us all of the time. Each of us has several important groups we rely upon in each of the areas of our lives without even realizing it. They are rarely thought about as community or village, I would contest, instead we just think of them as the people we engage with. But from a system’s theory, every person in every group, has a much greater impact on you than you realize because we are all more than the sum of our parts.

Lessons from this proverb are much easier to see in sport. For example, how parents impact the performance of a young athlete is unmistakable. If your reaction was, well, of course parents impact the performance of their child, that is obvious. But what about the impact of the roommate on a college athlete? Or the impact of the rest of the team on performance? Or the coach? Or the boyfriend/girlfriend? Those instances aren’t as obvious as the parent impact on a child, but are they less impactful? And what about adult athletes? How much impact does a parent, or anyone, have then? The answer is more than we will ever know. Only one person stands on the podium, but the number of people contributing to that can be countless. Maybe our podiums should have room for more people…

I have worked with hundreds of young athletes over the course of my career and each one proves the point of the system’s theory, that we are greater than the sum of our parts. Some parents are great sport parents, and some are not, even if they all want to be. Years ago, I did a presentation at Lendon Gray’s Dressage 4 Kids show in upstate New York on “How to be a great sport parent.” It was a fun talk, with lots of participation from the parents. I thought I was killing it because they all seemed to love what I said, cheered when I stood on my soapbox and told them how to behave and especially how NOT to behave, and clapped loudly as I finished. Afterwards, I walked up to Lendon, all full of myself and my newly won-over crowd, and Lendon just laughed and smiled. “It’s pretty easy when you are preaching to the choir, isn’t it?” As all the air rushed out of my body, she continued, “Too bad we didn’t get any of the bad sport parents to attend, those are the ones that really needed this talk!” And she wandered off as I stood there speechless, as if someone had just shot me with a stun gun. “Duh,” I finally concluded, “of course the ones that are good sport parents would attend this talk.” If you are tough on your kid, hard to please, unsatisfied with any performance, irritated by how much money you are spending, living vicariously through your child, or just overall a bad sport parent, why would you want to be told that?

Early on, I would take any client because that is what you do when you are starting out. As I have matured and my experience has increased, I have gotten to the place where I “vet” my young clients as much as they “vet” me. While this might seem arrogant, it actually creates a better chance for success. Kids are at the mercy of their parents anyway, but a young athlete has even more dependence on their parents. Most parents are well-meaning and just out of resources to help their child by the time they call someone like me…which is why it is usually a good thing when they call. I can tell in the first, short chat whether or not the parent is willing to work in a way that will support the child. If they are overly determined, there is little I will be able to do to help.

Pressure is at the core of the parent-child issue in young athletes. Learning to deal with pressure doesn’t come naturally for all, which is why many kids suffer as they “grow up” in sport. Pressure comes from many sources, and I almost completed that sentence with “when you are an athlete,” but then I thought, well, we have pressure, no matter what we do. The countless sources of pressure for a young athlete can include not only the parents, but the coach, the team, wanting or needing a scholarship to college, professional dreams or goals, winning, losing, injury, teammates, identity tied to winning, being on a team with a superstar, having a superstar athlete as a parent, or even not wanting to be an athlete. The pressure kids are feeling today is astounding and has just kept increasing over the last two decades. I remember working with a high school junior who was a wrestler. He came from a wealthy family, was a good athlete, good enough to compete at an Ivy League college (which was his only choice), and an excellent student. During our first session, I asked him to describe his weekly schedule to me so I could figure out when and where he could do his mental toughness training. He was a quiet and incredibly polite young man, introverted but highly social, and very likable. After he finished detailing his week, I chuckled out loud, “Just wait until you get to college, your schedule will be much easier.” He looked at me in shock and I simply smiled, knowing that the pressures he was enduring would change in college. We worked to improve his response to pressure so he could perform better. He worked hard at it and got better and got into that Ivy League college to wrestle. Years later, I got an email from him, a “thank you for helping when” kind of email. He said he didn’t understand how college could be “easier” than high school, but it was. He was still using his skills for pressure and was having a great college career.

How the parent supports the young athlete with their response to pressure is key. The two most important ways to do that are to (1) develop and grow your own pressure responses, and (2) protect them from too much pressure. As adults, we sort of think we have it all figured out. If your young athlete is yelling at the refs or coaches, take a quick look in the mirror to see if they are just modeling your behavior. “Do as I say, not as I do,” is the biggest hunk of crap ever in the history of parenting ideas. Children model behavior, it’s called mirror neurons—we literally learn by imitation. So, if you are hard on the other people participating in the game, your child will be, too. The second most important thing to do as a parent is to moderate their pressure. Kids don’t always know how to or feel comfortable enough to say that is too much. Injury is a sure-fired way to get out of sport so if your young athlete is getting (or complaining of getting) injured a lot, there might be some conversations to have there. We have to figure out a way to allow them to experience enough pressure such that they grow and enjoy it, but not so much that it ruins their relationship to sports.

One of the best emails I ever got was from a concerned parent with a young athlete. It was long but thoughtful, considerate, intelligent, and caring. The young athlete was a high performer, competing at a high level, doing well, but beginning to show some signs of anxiety and it was spilling over onto the rest of his life. The parents were concerned and really wanted help, so I scheduled my normal 15-minute “vetting” call. When they called, they were as lovely over the phone as they were on email. Thanking me for taking the time to talk, they asked what I thought would be a good plan for mental toughness training. I asked how old the young man was. Ten, he is ten years old. Full stop. What? Ten! Ten years old and already experiencing anxiety enough to call a sport psychologist? Oh no, he is too young for this. I thought he was at the very least in high school from the email, so I was shocked and had to gain composure quickly. “From a developmental perspective, he is most likely experiencing this kind of anxiety because he is not suited to this level of pressure at this age. Can you back off the pressure?” I was trying to say, give him a break, he is telling you he can’t take it. Part of the problem was the young athlete pushed himself and wanted to compete, no matter what. The parents naturally interpreted this as maturity, which it is not. It is simply a child saying they want to do something, which as we all know, is not always reliable. This is where the parent has to protect the child and make them wait. A life-long anxiety disorder is not worth a college scholarship, no matter what.

Best-selling author, David Epstein, recently published his second book, Range: Why generalist triumph in a specialized world. Full of science, logic, and going against culture, he suggests we stop making our little children do one sport and try to be Tiger Woods. The body, the mind, and the spirit grow better when in better balance. Tiger was an anomaly, an outlier, not a normal personality, and this is what made him so extraordinary (and even a bit troubled). We look at the top performers and think they are normal, and that their level of excellence is reachable by all. But it is not. Most of us are going to be good a few things, sucky at many, and hopefully, excellent at one. But what is excellence and what is considered one? It takes a lifetime to figure out these things out, especially what excellence is, to not only others, but to yourself. This is where our tribe comes in and can play an incredibly important role. My mom wanted me to be an Olympic champion, not to crush me with the impossible pressure that desire created for me, but because she loved me and wanted me to be happy. My dad wanted me to be the best athlete I could be and did what he could to help me tease out every last bit of talent possible. He never pressured me, never put my athletic success ahead of my personal happiness, and never tried to make me the athlete he wasn’t. Both my parents wanted me to be excellent and happy out of pure love for me. My mom gave me the starry-eyed look to give it a try, and my dad helped me balance reality so I could find my own level of excellence and thus, happiness. Without both sides, you know, more than one member of my tribe contributing, my swimming career would have been very different. We need that for our young athletes, but don’t forget we still need that for ourselves today. Have you used your tribe today?