Kids have a bad game? Here’s some parenting advice on how to talk through the postgame conversation
When Jack Gillies has a bad game or suffers a tough loss, his mom and dad don’t talk about it on the drive home.
“My parents know to just let me be, let me cool down,” said Gillies, a junior and three-sport athlete from River Dell High School.
If senior teammate Jack Racine doesn’t want to discuss the game, he texts his parents, “Can’t talk.”
And Michael DeSantis, a senior and multi-sport standout at South River High School, will “ask my mom to take me home rather than my dad.”
The ride home after a rotten game can be a potential minefield, a tension-filled trip that, if handled improperly, can explode into anger and resentment that lingers for days, years or a lifetime.
River Dell's Jack Gillies looks to pass in the North 1, Group 3 sectional semifinal against Paramus in Paramus. (Photo: Chris Monroe/Special to NorthJersey.com)
The experience for dad and mom is “trial and error,” said veteran parents whose children play sports. The most important lesson learned is that every kid handles this situation differently and, before proceeding, you must “read your child.”
“It was ‘learn as you go,’ ” said Mark Gillies, who has a daughter and two sons. “You always feel like you just kind of play off how your kid is. Sometimes they want to talk right away, sometimes they don’t.”
How parents talk to their kids about the game is critical, said Dr. Sarah Carson Sackett, a member of the Association for Applied Sport Psychology and mother of two young sons.
“The questions they ask after a game, which might seem completely innocuous and well-intended and just trying to show interest, if phrased a certain way, can actually lead to some pretty bad outcomes,” Carson Sackett said.
Having the conversation
Parents can discuss the game during the drive home, if the child is willing, but it’s imperative that you ask open-ended questions and be more of a listener than an inquisitor.
“Ours tend to be more of a ‘How do you feel about how you played?’ ” said Keith Racine, whose son, Jack, is the older of two sons. “It’s a chance for them to feel that it was a tough game, that they felt like they did things wrong, and to talk about things that they felt they could have done better.”
HOW TO ACT: What parents should (and should not) do at their child's sporting events
Don’t harp on an error, strikeout or bad play. Most kids realize it was a mistake and don’t need to be reminded.
“You’re not going to get anywhere with that,” said Mike DeSantis, who has two sons. “Because now, the next time he gets up with the bases loaded, maybe he’s not going to be thinking about the pitcher, or getting a hit, but maybe the car ride home if he doesn’t get a hit.”
Michael DeSantis is a three-sport athlete at South River High School. (Photo: _)
Instead, DeSantis said, talk about the things that the athlete can control, such as effort and attitude.
“For lack of a better word, the ‘negative’ ride home is not really about performance,” said DeSantis, who coached his son Michael in youth sports and is an assistant baseball coach at South River. “A lot of our discussions are about if his attitude is good, if his effort was good, if he was a good teammate, if his body language on the field was appropriate. It was things like that, that I think he could control, that I like to talk to him about, whether it’s a positive or a negative.”
Be supportive, but honest
If a child asks a parent for an appraisal of how he or she played, be supportive and honest. And don’t make excuses for them.
“I always tell them, ‘We’re going to be honest,’ ” Keith Racine said. “And if I think you made a mistake, or I think you could have worked on something, that’s what we tell them, that’s what I tell them.”
“There’s a tendency for parents to try to overprotect their kids from failure,” Carson Sackett said. “So kind of making excuses like, ‘The refs totally blew it,’ or ‘Coach made a bad call,’ or ‘Teammates weren’t pulling their weight,’ because they don’t want their child to feel bad. Again, all well-intentioned, but it’s not really productive, because it’s not allowing them to see failure for what it is, which is not a bad thing in and of itself.”
Avoid talking about what teammates failed to do. Discussing who struck out, missed a key shot, dropped a big first-down pass, is counterproductive.
“You don’t come down on somebody, because that could be you next week making that mistake,” Kristin Racine said. “So be much more supportive.”
Be especially supportive of a player who lacks, or lost, confidence and whose mindset is “I can’t do it.” Utilize the power of the word "yet," Carson Sackett said.
“Shifting from ‘I’m no good,’ which basically says, ‘I’m never going to do this,’ to ‘I’m not good at it yet’ is what we call a growth mindset,” she said. “It allows for the acceptance that failure is part of the process, you’re going to get there, and where you are now isn’t an absolute terminal endpoint.”
So when is the right time to talk?
Again, it’s all about reading the emotions of each individual kid. And each child in each family can handle a bad experience differently.
"My daughter [Erin] was always somebody who wanted to talk about it right away," said Brandon Flanagan, River Dell's baseball coach and father of two. "And my son [Brandon] not so much. And if he's not talking, I know he doesn't want to talk about it, whereas Erin would get in the car and say, 'Can you believe that?' or 'I really need to go hit this weekend,' or 'Should I have made that play, should I have caught that ball that went over my head?'"
Joe Leicht, who coaches Wayne Valley High School boys basketball and Indian Hills High School softball, is a proponent of the post-game cool-down period. He coached his two daughters in softball.
"The worst thing that can happen is the boy or girl gets in the car and you start right in," Leicht said. "They feel bad enough as it is. I think you have to give them a little bit of space. I think you have to let them get home, have a big dinner, take a couple of breaths. After that, a few hours, you might want to say, 'Do you want to talk about it?' And if you approach it that way, they are more apt to talk about it."
Keith and Kristin Racine's approach is that they are willing to discuss it in the car, unless their sons don't want to talk.
"They'd usually respect and give me time to cool down," said Jack Racine, who plays football and baseball. "Because if we talked right away, it usually wouldn't go as well as they hoped."
Mike DeSantis prefers talking in the car, because he doesn't want to bring the discussion into the house.
“I would rather get it done in the car, where it’s one-on-one,” DeSantis said. “And then we can get home, the air was cleared, and everything, for lack of a better term, is ‘back to normal.’ Eat, homework, just a normal house.”
The worst time to talk
And when do Jack Gillies, Jack Racine and Michael DeSantis think is the worst time to discuss it? Because of the physical nature of the sport, it's right after a bad loss in football.
“Coming out losing after battling for so long is always tough, especially close games,” said Michael DeSantis, a quarterback who will continue at Delaware Valley.
So, parents, be patient and understanding with your children. Athletes, be equally patient and understanding with your parents. Make it a conversation, not an interrogation, and avoid the potential minefield of an ugly drive home.
“Let your kids come to you, and I think I’ve learned that through years of experience, whether it’s a sports situation or any situation they won’t discuss with you,” Dawn Gillies said. “I think you get more out of them when they are willing to share, as opposed to trying to drag it out of them. Fortunately, you learn that lesson, but sometimes you wish you knew that earlier.”
“And you should always,” Mark Gillies said, “go to Dairy Queen, whether it’s a win or a loss.”
Greg Tufaro contributed to this article.
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