Youth Sports: Sports Parents’ Behavior during the Car Ride Home

by Patrick J. Cohn, Ph.D.

We recently interviewed a successful youth sports coach about one of his biggest challenges—helping parents understand what to say to young athletes during the trip home after a game.

Coach Brian Gardner of St. Louis, Missouri has coached ice hockey for 10 years and even led one team of 11 to 12-year-olds to a national championship. Some of Gardner’s players’ parents drive for as long as 1.5 hours to get their kids to the ice rink. That’s a long time for parents to be alone with their kids after a game, says Gardner. Especially if they spend that time talking about the players’ performance.

"A lot of times, parents think more about their kids’ success than the whole team," says Gardner. The result: They give too much instruction, which can undo Coach Gardner’s lessons and coaching system.

"At the least harmful level, the parents second guess some of the systems we put in place, such as a power play system. They say ‘You should do this, not what Coach says," Gardner relates.

On a more harmful level, parents tell their kids that they played badly. Out of frustration, parents sometimes even suggest to kids they should consider giving up the sport. This behavior, while well-meaning, is counter-productive to Coach Gardner’s efforts and not helpful for the players, he says.

So, what exactly is the best way to talk to a young athlete after a game? (As sports parents who have made lots of mistakes, we know this isn’t an easy question).

"As parents, we supply our sports kids with all the best in equipment and coaches. But just having the right mindset using sports psychology is the least expensive and most effective investment in them." ~Julia Dreyer, sports mom to two champion equestrians

First of all, it’s critical to support the coach, as we discuss in our new youth sports workbook/CD program, The Ultimate Sports Parent. You’ll only confuse your child by disagreeing with the coach or offering counterproductive coaching.

Second, you need to encourage your child as often as possible. Even if your athlete’s team lost, you can find something positive to say about his or her attitude, effort or about two or three positive plays. As a sports parent, your goal is to build your child’s confidence—not tear it down.

During the car ride home, you should avoid discussions about mistakes and what your child did wrong in the game. Young athletes know what they did wrong in a game and don’t need to dwell on it during the car ride home.

Allow your athlete to cool off after the game for 30 minutes to one hour before jumping in to discuss her performance. Let your child initiate the conversation rather than you bring up the missed pass that cost her team the win.

Dr. Patrick Cohn is a master mental game coach who works with athletes, sports parents, and teams of all levels. For more information about Fear of Failure, call 888-742-7225.


Jeremie Rentas Barlow, M.S., can be reached at (502) 553-8299.