In my work as a family therapist, one question comes up often is that of determining the best way for parents to respond to their child's involvement in competitive sports. This issue also comes up in regard to other competitions as well, for example in the worlds of music, dance, voice, drama, debate, art, and mock trial. Any time a child participates in a competition, adults have several possible ways they can show interest and give feedback. Parents usually know when they have said the wrong thing to a child after a competition, as when they have expressed disappointment in their child's performance, or when they have offered unsolicited advice or criticism. It is fairly clear what kinds of things parents can say to hurt their child in such situations. What is less clear is what parents should say after they have watched their child compete that will be both honest and at the same time will build connection with their child.
Several years ago I read an article by Bob E. Brown and Rob Miller of Proactive Coaching, LLC. These two men speak to athletes and their parents at all levels of competitive youth sports, from grade school through college. Based on their years of experience with student athletes and having asked the athletes themselves what they most liked hearing from their parents after a competition, the athletes came up with a simple response. The six-word response they liked hearing most from their parents was, "I love to watch you play."
"I love to watch you play" is so powerful, both in its simplicity and in its positive effect on a child. It is the role of coaches to give critique and feedback when needed, and it is the role of parents to be their child's number one cheerleader. The beauty of "I love to watch you play" is that it celebrates the courage of a child who puts him or herself out there and takes the risk to compete, rather than merely focusing on whether the child played well or struck out, sang beautifully or were off key, remembered their lines or froze in the spotlight, won or lost. In our very competitive, win-at-all-cost culture, the child does not need more attention focused on the whether he or she won or lost. Instead, our children need our admiration, encouragement and unconditional love.
I love to watch college basketball and so this time of year is basketball heaven for me. The NCAA men's basketball tournament, going on right now, consists of sixty-eight teams that made it into the tournament--quite an accomplishment in and of itself. Sixty-seven of those teams will go home having lost the last game they played. If those players and their teams only measure success or value when it comes to competition as winning, then only one out of sixty-eight teams will consider themselves completely successful.
The measure of success and value that is being lifted up in the statement "I love to watch you play" transcends the value of merely winning the game. "I love to watch you play" celebrates the passion, discipline, commitment, dedication, and courage of anyone who is willing to put him or herself out there to compete in any way. It celebrates the long hours of practicing, memorizing, learning, listening, making new friends, and the joy of the chosen activity.
So as I watch college basketball games over the next few weeks, will I be hoping my favorite teams win? Sure I will. But whether they win or lose, I will still enjoy every minute of the games. Why? Because, "I love to watch them play!"