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The Long Ride Home: Talking with your student-athlete after losing a game

The Long Ride Home: Talking with your student-athlete after losing a game

By Jaimie Duffek, NCSA Head Recruiting Coach February 22, 2017

USA TODAY High School Sports has a weekly column on the college recruiting process. Here, you’ll find practical tips and real-world advice on becoming a better recruit to maximize your opportunities to play at the college level. Jaimie Duffek was one of the top 50 high school softball players in Illinois who went onto play outfield for Drake University. Jaimie is just one of many former college and professional players, college coaches, and parents who are part of the Next College Student Athlete team. Their knowledge, experience, and dedication along with NCSA’s history of digital innovation, and long-standing relationship with the college coaching community have made NCSA the largest and most successful athletic recruiting network in the country.

Jimmy has been on a losing streak. In his last several high school tennis matches, he choked at the last minute, and today was no different. As he walks to the car, head hanging, his parents share an expectant glance. What will they say? During their last car ride home, Johnny’s dad, a former college tennis player, shot tips at him.

“Hit your groundstrokes high to the back hand and vary your serves.”

His mom said, “Kevin’s mom told me he runs sprints every morning. Maybe we can start having you do that, too!”

Jimmy didn’t respond well to that feedback. So, what should they try this time?

Sound familiar? The car ride home after a loss can be a particularly tricky time for parents. Maybe your car ride home becomes a shouting match, culminating in slammed doors and fuming tempers. Or perhaps it’s your student-athlete retreating within themselves and pulling away. While there’s no “tried and true” script for getting through to your child after a loss, you can better understand what’s going on inside their brain and appeal to how they’re feeling.

The teenage brain is still developing (and what that means for parents)

If you haven’t noticed, your teenager doesn’t think like you. And you can blame it – in part – on biology. Through brain scans and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), researchers have found that adolescents’ brains go through an intense growth and development period. Some parts of the brain have reached maturity, while others are working on catching up. These imbalances can potentially cause the mood swings, bursts of anger, poor decision making and other actions in your teen that might be cause for your exasperation.

The frontal cortex takes longer to mature than other parts of the brain. This area controls reasoning, helps us think before we act and modulates mood. Dubbed “the area of sober second thought” or the CEO of the brain, the frontal cortex doesn’t fully develop until your teenager reaches their early 20s. With these imbalanced systems, teenagers’ desire for rewards and social pressures overrides rational thinking. This stage of brain development is also marked by misreading or misinterpreting social cues and emotions, getting in fights and engaging in risky behavior.

So, what does this mean for you as a parent?

Not only is your teenager likely to be emotional, but they will misinterpret your intentions, disregard your logic and fight you over it. – Intense emotional events can make them respond instinctively or reactively without thinking clearly. Adults can help their teens “apply the brakes” when faced with emotional situations until they are mature enough to do it themselves.

1.Try empathy rather than criticism, advice

So how do you help them “apply the brakes” after a tough loss? Respond with empathy. Meet your student-athlete where they’re at. Acknowledge their feelings of disappointment, anger and sadness—and keep your own emotions at bay. If you have advice for them, save it for later. Or, better yet, save it for their coach to tell them. Here are some tips for talking with your student-athlete on the next car ride home.

  1. Take a relaxed tone.

Watching your student-athlete lose a game might make you tense and anxious. However, before you get in the car, breathe it out. They will be just as – or more – tense than you.

Be empathetic. One way to ensure an empathetic response is to share a story where you were you lost and were disappointed yourself. By showing vulnerability, you demonstrate you know how they are feeling.

  1. Save venting for later.

You may have a serious complaint with the refereeing, the teammates, coaching or even the brightness of the sun, but as a parent, you need to shelve your issues. This moment is about your student-athlete and helping them bounce back from disappointment.

  1. Listen more, talk less.

Retreating in silence won’t help the situation. Encourage them to talk and make sure you listen attentively.

Stick to honesty. If your student-athlete had a poor performance, avoid lying and telling them they did a great job. Your student-athlete already knows their performance was sub-par, and your comment will probably be met with a sarcastic retort.

Consider Jimmy and his parents. What if the ride home began with, “We know what you’re going through; losing can be painful. How are you doing?”

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