Training Parents For Competition


Winning With Character, ESF Subject Matter Expert Dr. Jim Loehr’s new podcast, delivers science-based strategies on how to improve performance and leverage competition to build character. The podcast is targeted towards listeners from all competitive fields, but it is particularly aimed at parents and coaches interested in maximizing competitive experiences in children and young adults. The goal of the podcast is to foster lifelong values such as integrity, perseverance and resilience.

Listen to Training Parents for Competition, Part 1


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I’d like to start with a couple of statements. First: As parents, you know, we simply want our kids to be successful in life. I have three sons, and I deeply wanted to do everything that I could to help them develop the tools necessary to have great lives.

Both my parents played sports, and I was introduced to sports at a very young age. I am certain that the lessons I learned from sports participation made a pivotal difference in my life in countless ways. I think back when I was in high school as a basketball player, a coach by the name of Guy Gibbs suddenly entered my life, and when I think back about the lessons and the contributions he has made, I am almost overwhelmed with emotion because he made me feel very special, gave me a sense that I could do something really important on this team and that I had the right stuff. I believe that was the beginning of a very, very important step in my evolution. Coaches are so powerful in getting young people to believe in themselves and to go outside their normal limits.

The second thing I would like to mention at the beginning is that we as parents, we navigate the sport experience with our children by the seat of our pants. We have no formal training. There are no formal rules for parents. We are basically making decisions by instinct. So often, with the best of intentions, parents get it wrong. And all too often there are serious consequences.

As much as 50 percent of my work with elite athletes over many decades from almost every conceivable sport has been working with the parents of those athletes to help them get it right, and I will tell you, it’s very complicated. So, the most important thing I can do with parents to help them get it right is to establish something very important in the very beginning: they have to get the purpose right for why their sons and daughters are involved in competitive athletics. Why have they put them into sports in the first place? What is the real purpose for doing so?

I’m going to put this as simply as I can: The purpose of junior sport should always be first and foremost to help sons and daughters, young people, to grow up and become better, stronger, more character-driven adults. Period.

It’s not to win. It’s not to get a high ranking. It’s not to make the Olympic team or win a gold medal. It’s not to become famous or become a professional athlete. To become rich. To break records. These are what I would say are secondary goals, and if these happen, they’re icing on the cake. What must happen is that the involvement in these competitive experiences, some of which are very powerful, have to make them better, stronger human beings. If that doesn’t happen, there’s no trophy, no record, nothing that can balance out that cost.

Changing the purpose for why someone does something changes everything. If you think the purpose of competitive sports is to really get your kids to become very well-known in school or to get them to get a college degree, or maybe to get a college scholarship, that changes the entire dynamic of what happens to them during the experience itself. When parents get the “why” wrong, when they really don’t get the purpose nailed down exactly right, the sport experience, from my experience, is put on life support almost immediately.

You know, it’s interesting that one of the real risks for parents is to unconsciously begin using the experiences of their children in sports to meet their own needs. Their own needs for feeling important, for self-esteem, for competence, and in fact, some parents even begin to believe that if their kids don’t do well, they’re not good parents. If they don’t win and really become quite successful, somehow, they’re not good parents.

That is a tragic mistake.

Every time the child doesn’t measure up, it’s almost like it’s an indictment of the parent. The parent looks embarrassed. How could I have possibly allowed this to happen? We spent all this money on lessons, we’ve traveled all over the country and on and on, and this is the way my son or daughter performs?

They really take it personally. They often times become more upset and more disturbed by a bad performance than their children do. That means they’re deeply involved in the outcome rather than what is actually happening to their sons or daughters, which is the single most important thing they need to be focusing on. The winning and losing is basically irrelevant to the ultimate purpose.

You know, if you change golf to not just the lowest score, but the lowest score in the shortest period of time, it changes everything. You have a different scorecard. You start training differently. You start looking at everything through a different lens. And so it is with sports. As a parent, you change what the purpose is, you’re going to change everything you do fundamentally as it evolves in the course of that child’s sports life. So, if parents really get this sense of purpose in sports, and they get it right, it is fundamentally to build muscles of character—muscles of character that I divide into performance character strengths and ethical moral character strengths.

If they get that, they begin to carry with them a different scorecard. They begin to look through a different lens at what is happening to their son or daughter as a result of the sport experience. Who is your son or daughter becoming as a person as a consequence of their involvement with this coach, with these players, with the competitive leagues? What is the growth cycle that is taking place inside of them as human beings, as people who must at some point in their life be responsible, be disciplined, be focused and be able to deal with the demands of life in a very mature and responsible way?

This concludes part one. Part two will cover the specific strengths of character that parents need to be most concerned about.


Jim Loehr is the co-founder of the Johnson & Johnson Human Performance Institute, a New York Times Bestselling author and an ESF Camps Subject Matter Expert. During his 40-year career as a Performance Psychologist, Loehr has worked with hundreds of world-class performers from the arenas of sport, business, medicine, military and law enforcement. He has been instrumental in developing ESF’s 8 Character Virtues and is a consistent resource in aiding our efforts to build character muscles in our campers.

For more information, Visit Dr. Loehr’s website, Winning With Character