Discover 7 Ways to Help Build Confidence in Your Child

Early on, children learn how sports-oriented the culture is around them. As the headlines frequently tell us, some parents, and even star professional athletes, seem never to have learned the fundamentals of good sportsmanship.

As early as age 3 and 4, children are introduced to basic sports skills such as throwing and catching. By 6 or 7, those who haven't mastered these and others may already feel left behind. Because the mainstream culture values competition, first-graders will know who's the best and who's the worst at sports in their class.

Catching up can already seem like a hopeless task. This is the time for practice with a parent or a friend -- but make sure it's fun! Parents will need to take care that their own eagerness doesn't backfire and become pressure for the child.

Some parents, eager for their children to succeed in sports as well as with friends, start them off early and give them hours of deliberate practice that risk taking the fun out of the game. Parents often take winning more seriously than their children, who just like to play the game.

Whether a child is a gifted athlete or always the last one picked, sports bring out differences that we can help our children accept. Rather than smooth them over, why not be honest about such differences? Our job is to help our children accept themselves. This will be easier for our children if they can be sure that their self-acceptance is more important to us as parents than their performance in sports.

That means we parents should encourage our children to play games for fun, not for winning.

Here are 7 ways you can help build confidence in your child:

1. Firm expectations: Lying and cheating are no way to deal with losing a game. Being a good sport, even when you lose, is tough. But congratulating the winners is a sign of real strength. A child who can do this can feel proud. Being a good loser is one of the most difficult things in life. Sports are a way to learn how, in childhood. Parents and coaches must help teach that skill.

2. No pat reassurances: "You were great!" or "Don't worry, next time you can win!" -- are liable to backfire. Help children face their disappointment and even the anger they feel toward themselves. "How do you think you did?" If the child blurts out: "I stunk!" parents may be alarmed. But the child is pulling himself out of his dejection by sharing such feelings with them.

3. Empathy: Acknowledge and accept the child's feelings of anger, frustration and self-doubt. But reserve your right to draw different conclusions from his ("You may think you're no good, but that's your opinion, not mine"), and to prohibit unacceptable actions that might arise from these feelings.

4. Face-saving: Help your child look for ways to understand the failures that do not devastate his self-esteem. For example, "It's not just up to you as the goalie to protect the goal. The whole team is responsible for that."

5. Honest appraisal: To a child who insists "I'm no good," a parent might reply, "You have skills, and maybe you are ready to think about some that you would like to improve."

6. A balanced approach: A child may need some help in stepping back, taking perspective: "Do you think that you'll be able to have another try when you play again?" The child may be ready to value how hard he tried, even if he didn't win. But perhaps most important is the clear message that winning or losing is the child's issue, not that parents'. If you've been too involved, your child will know and will feel even more disheartened. You'll need to admit it if you've added to the pressure, and to apologize.

7. Encouragement: Reassure your child that he can get back on track. Let him know that he needn't be so hard on himself: "It's hard to keep trying when you feel so discouraged. But if you keep on trying, you'll feel better."

Whether your child wins or loses, the point of the game is to have fun.

Learning to play as a team: A special challenge of team sports is learning to share the glory and the blame. It's a struggle for children of any age to keep from venting frustration against teammates and instead to focus on encouraging one another. When the team loses, it's tempting to protect one's own self-esteem by singling out others to hold responsible. Children's abilities are bound to vary enough for everyone to see when one or two of the children really couldn't live up to the demands. Then, even children who don't want to hurt others' feelings are caught in the dilemma. "Do we tell the truth, or pretend that we all stunk?"

Young "stars" may also need help with their shortcomings -- for example, hogging the ball or poor teamwork. The best athletes may also need to work on calming themselves down after making a mistake so that they can learn from it. Coaches and parents can privately offer individual children (the stragglers and the stars) a chance to practice needed skills.

Learning to lose is one of the hardest things a child has to do -- but the child must learn how.

Parents can help children handle their frustration without hurting the other kids. After a soccer defeat, for example, some children may want to kick the ball -- as hard as they can -- at the goal, over and over, until they're spent. Others will collapse into silliness, chasing after each other, tumbling on the ground. Let them. But if they gang up on a teammate, let them know that they are exhibiting poor sportsmanship: "Sure everyone's upset about losing. But we're a team and we've got to stick together. That's part of playing the game." Sadly, many coaches and parents make such lessons take a back seat to winning -- for younger and younger children.

Teammates may be helped to see that tearing down a player's self-confidence will only hurt their game. Coaches and parents can model the importance of focusing on the positives, on hopes for the next time.

Special thanks to the Contra Costa Times for the above article.
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