In my work as a psychologist I've been in the privileged position of seeing up close the common parental tendencies that support the development of both children's tennis mental toughness and well-being. One such tendency is a consistent bias towards focusing on children’s competence rather than faults or weaknesses.
Among the most powerful times I learned this lesson was when I was lucky enough to interview some of the world's best coaches, players, and also parents of champion players (including Grand Slam champions), as part of my Psychology Masters thesis in which I explored the development of mental toughness in tennis several years ago.
Although I had seen this pattern many times before, I was still amazed at how often coaches and players spoke of the power of parental influence on children's self-belief development based on the frequency of what I would call competence reinforcement...
And not surprisingly, when I concluded my study, the #1 predictor of player mental toughness was the frequency of parental focus on player competence (more importantly than coaches)...
As described in my study,this is the tendency to focus more on what your child does well than on his/her perceived weaknesses, faults, or what they executed poorly in practice/matches.
Lets look at the differences between focusing on incompetence and competence below by comparing some representative quotes from coaches and players who talked about parental behaviours in my study (study identities have been kept confidential as per study requirements):
When Parents Focus On Incompetence...
A common parental trap is to focus on children’s weaknesses thinking this is the best way to be helpful, but this can easily lead to a sense of incompetence as can be seen in these quotes (brackets indicate the participant quoted):
“When I was growing up my father would always criticize my backhand volley and tell me I needed to improve it. He thought he was helping but throughout my career, whenever I had to make a backhand volley under pressure I would always be hounded by these memories and feel massive anxiety. It was something I never got over.”
(This player reached a ranking of approximately 100 ATP)
“I have seen many parents focus on negative experiences which is debilitating for the kid. A couple of parents of kids I work with will in front of their kids say “such and such always loses the big points, or such and such always loses matches under pressure.” It is really important not to remind them of where they have failed in the past. Words from parents can cut like a knife as far as I am concerned. And it might only be a few instances where a kid might hear from their parent and doubt themselves for the rest of their life.”
(This person has coached several top 50 ATP players and junior Grand Slam champions)
“It can be tough for coaches to change kids because they spend such a small percentage of time with players compared to the years they spend coming out of their home environment, and (Player x) had a father who was very negative, he would always have a reason why something couldn’t work and she came out of that negative environment and was a product of that, which makes it hard to make a difference.”
(This person has coached a World #1 ATP player, as well as multiple junior world #1's)
Let’s Compare This to Competence Supportive Parents...
“I remember (Player x) in (Tournament x), before she had won anything, I think she was ranked about (#), because her parents had instilled in her that she was going to be very good, so once she got in the position to do something very big, the moment wasn’t bigger than her, because she believed all along since a very young age that she would be there.”
(This coach coached a female Grand Slam champion...He is referring here to a multiple Grand Slam champion)
“I don’t know what it was but I always had the feeling that I could achieve the things I went for. I guess my parents were always very supportive, always telling me I could do it and looking for the positives even when things weren’t going as I wanted.”
(This player was a top 50 WTA player and considered in the study to have overachieved (considering her physical talent) throughout her career)...
Over time by consistently focusing on your child’s competence he/she will come to internalize these messages and automatically ‘see’ himself/herself and the world from a perspective of self-belief.
This will encourage his/her further exploration, pursuit of challenge, and eventual success.
Beware of ‘Fake Praise’
There's 1 more important point to remember regarding this competence focus.
We've all seen the parents that go overboard in communicating what I call ‘fake praise.’
This is problematic because the child will see through this and communications can then lose meaning.
What we are advocating here is simply, on balance, to more often point out your child’s competencies than his/her faults.
If you would like access to our 10 Commandments of Parenting Mentally Tough Tennis Checklist You Can Get It Here...
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