Having listened for many years to coaches, teachers and parents talk about kids and kids talk about themselves, when it comes to being an athlete, it seems most people believe in a clear-cut line. A child either is or isn’t an athlete and there’s no in between. But what if it’s not that simple? Can the slowest and smallest child be just as much (if not more) of an athlete than her biggest and fastest peer? I think so.
Athlete is a powerful word. It signifies strength and sweat and glory, our heroes and cultural icons. It’s a title that must be earned. But although our standards for what it means to be an athlete seem objective, we often use a false measure, especially when it comes to kids. So it all comes down to your definition of an athlete. According to my dictionary (yes, the physical book version!) an athlete is “one who engages in sports or other exercises.” Pretty simple, pretty straightforward, yet not satisfying for those who load so much more into the word, myself included. While playing is one of the first and most important steps for kids leading active lives, I’d like to explore how to raise an athlete a little further than just participation.
We’re often quick to celebrate as natural athletes the kids who score the most goals, win the most games, stand the tallest and run the fastest. Children who are small, slow and uncoordinated categorized as “lacking athletic ability.” But why do we use these measurements to determine whether or not a child is an athlete? If you were asked to state your definition of success, would you think only of money and power and fame? For most of us, we attach deeper meaning to the term. And when it comes to figuring out how to teach a kid to be an athlete, it’s important to take the same approach.
Before getting to specifics, I have to say, genetics are important. I’ve had hundreds of conversations with parents and coaches about what it means to be an athlete. When I state my view that “natural talent” is very overrated and being an athlete can be taught and learned, the biggest pushback is always about genetics. There are certain inherited traits that can give some kids advantages over others- no amount of practice will make you taller- however, most of what makes an athlete, especially a great one, comes from things that we can control, and believing that is the most important thing when trying to raise a young athlete.
If you want to raise an athlete, teach them to:
Some kids develop faster than others and that can be helpful in sports. But quality of movement is so much more important. As humans we often make the mistake of focusing on what’s working at the moment (like being tall) rather than what will have the most benefits long term. Getting kids to move better through increased body control and awareness not only helps them with athletic endeavors, but in everyday life. Kids should feel comfortable and in control when moving. Yoga, gymnastics, and martial arts are some of the best sports to help kids connect to their bodies. Besides finding great programs and coaches to help teach proper movement, it’s essential to give kids time to explore. Free play is essential to physical and athletic development, so let them play!
From a behavioral standpoint, praising movement instead of physical traits is a great practice for parents and coaches to emphasize this lesson to children.
Example: Instead of saying, “You’re so fast!” try, “I noticed how much better you’ve gotten at changing direction!”
Care about function first
Athletes believe that the way you use your body is much more important than the way the body looks. Teaching children that function matters more than their bodies’ shape or size is a crucial lesson that empowers them to make the most of what they have. More importantly, it helps develop a healthy sense of self and body image.
Is it more important how much a child knows about a sport or activity now, or how much he is willing to learn?
Even if your child doesn’t know a lot about something now, are they open and eager to learn? Whether it’s as simple as the rules of a sport or as complex as a complicated move, true athletes are learners. Often times by admiring kids who catch on quickly, we make the mistake of praising their knowledge or skill set rather than the path they took to get there. This can handicap kids who advance early, because it can make them think they simply possess something valuable rather than understanding how they got there. For kids who might take longer to catch on, ignoring the process can have a different kind of damaging effect, discouraging them because they think they are not “gifted.”
As adults, our job is to encourage learning and the process to get there. After a game or practice or class, make your first question, “What did you learn?” before you ask about whether or not they had fun or if they won or lost. By putting learning first, your kids will too.
Enjoy winning, embrace losing
On a similar note, one of the most valuable lessons coaches and parents can teach kids is how to embrace losing. Even more than kids understanding that you can’t win every single time, embracing a loss as a learning opportunity teaches them to turn a negative into a positive. As a coach, I enjoy winning, but whenever one of my teams loses, it gives me much more valuable insight as to what we can do better the next time or where to shift my focus as a teacher.
Instead of asking kids why they lost or telling them not to worry, ask them (in a calm and kind way) what they can do better next time.
Self-confidence is important, but it means little if kids don’t how to apply it towards taking initiative and being independent. A common mistake of coaches and parents is limiting opportunities for young athletes to make their own decisions. Self-direction is one of the most valuable characteristics a child can learn, and while adults should help with structure, giving kids space to explore, decide, and make mistakes is equally important.
Try their hardest
It sounds cliche, but how hard you try really does matter more than winning or losing. While trophies and medals are fun for kids, learning to try their hardest will reap much greater rewards. In my opinion, effort is the most undervalued quality of a true athlete.
Instead of congratulating your kids on their team’s victory or how many points they scored, praise effort first. Even in failed attempts, making it known that you recognize their effort creates more incentive for kids to continue trying their hardest.
Finish what they start
There’s no shame in kids trying something, not liking it, and deciding to stop. But athletes finish their commitments. If your child is signed up for a three month soccer season, make sure she finishes it. Parents and coaches are often quick to accept when children decide they no longer want to play, but this puts us at risk of missing underlying reasons why they want to quit- their teammates, the coach, a feeling of not being “good enough.” Finishing what you started is an important lesson for kids to learn and more often than not, relieving them of an easy out will help them overcome their previous hesitation and fear. If at the end of the commitment they’re still not interested, then it’s best to move on.
Believe in the “Growth Mindset”
Carol Dweck, a psychologist and author of Mindset (one of my favorite books ever), coined the term “growth mindset.” It is a belief that one’s “most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work.” It is the idea that we can teach kids and ourselves to focus on improvement through things we can control- like learning and trying our best- rather than feeling stuck within the confines of our “natural abilities.” If a child believes that he is an athlete and is willing to put in the work, the belief almost always becomes a reality. This doesn’t necessarily mean that he will be playing in the NBA, but it does mean that he learned to embody the most important characteristic of any great athlete- a sense of control.
Kids tend to believe what their parents do, so the most important first step is to believe it yourself. Trust in your child’s ability over “natural talent.”
When it comes to children and the way we view them as athletes, we tend to forget one very critical piece of information- they’re kids. When a child is five or ten or fifteen, there are so many years of growth in front of them that it would be foolish to make snap judgements about their athletic abilities. Instead the focus should be on developing the proper mindset, personality, and movement quality to help kids succeed not just as great athletes, but as great people.
Personally, I’m not a big proponent of the “everybody wins” strategy nor am I a fan of losing. But I am a firm believer in a world where effort and personal growth are celebrated over trophies and awards. Becoming an athlete is not something determined by fate. It is something earned and something learned. Whether or not your kids will be six feet tall or have ambitions of playing professional sports, they can and will be athletes- if they’re taught how.
Steve Ettinger is a kids fitness expert and children’s book author. He travels around the country speaking at schools about fitness and making workout videos for kids. Learn more at www.SteveEttinger.com.
I'm a registered dietitian, mom of 4, avid lover of food and strong promoter of healthy habits. Here you will find lots of delicious recipes full of fruits and veggies, tips for getting your kids to eat better and become intuitive eaters and lots of resources for feeding your family.Learn More about Natalie