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Building an "inner coach"

QUESTION: I am a coach of a girl's softball league, with ages ranging from 11-13. I find that some of my players are excessively self-critical when they miss the ball, at bat or on the field. Some of the girls I couch seem to be dealing with so much at home, such as divorce, alcoholism, or troubled family relationships, that it affects their self-esteem and ability to perform. I feel helpless; yet want so much to make a difference. Is there anything I can do to help?

ANSWER: The regular course of puberty can by itself be trying for parents as well as pre-teens. Hormonal shifts and a rapidly changing body can bring self-doubt to any young girl at the threshold of adolescence. And it can precipitate stress in the parent-child relationship in the best of times. But life stress related to divorce, parental employment, alcoholism or other family problems, while undergoing the normal adolescent crisis of identity can undermine a child's self-esteem at a more permanent level. You are right to be concerned!

The good news is that children respond to someone who believes in them. As a coach, you can provide emotional support and encouragement at a pivotal point that can make a difference in young people's lives. Do not underestimate your power to nurture their growth by listening and encouraging them in the context of their sports related activities. But there is more... You have a unique opportunity to teach them self-appreciation and psychological skills that will last them a lifetime. Read on!

Take this opportunity to educate your team members to the mind-body connection in sports performance. Teach your players the fundamentals of a positive "inner coach" . And make the extra effort to personally and consistently coach these girls who are consistently self -deprecating. Let them know that disappointment when they strike out is inevitable and natural. But educate them to the fact that positive self-talk like "I am doing my best to learn, and I will have chance to practice to improve my game", rather than negative statements, "I am such an idiot. I will never learn this game" make a difference in performance.

Appeal to the common sense of your players, by clarifying that anyone who berates themselves puts extra stress on their body which they must then recover from, instead of spend that same amount of energy improving their skill level. Make it clear that they put themselves at a disadvantage when they add insult to their disappointment in times of failure. But do not stop there!

Use the metaphor of the body as their temple. Teach them that taking care of themselves is mental as well as physical. And do not shy away from using drama to get your points across. For example: Have one player role play the "body" while another plays the role of the "mind". Ask that the player in the role of the "body" respond naturally to what is being said. Children of this age love to dramatize and will easily act out the part of the "beaten down body" or the "comforted body". The link to performance will be a natural and intuitive one they will not forget.

Let them know that they each can develop an "inner coach" that can help them through difficult times. Be aware that your relationship serves as the role model for this internalization and act the part! Be supportive and nurturing, especially when you know one of these girls is particularly hard on herself. Refrain from ridicule. Make positive suggestions when criticizing performance, when you are frustrated, rather than condemnations. Model the positive attitude you want them to adopt.

And remind your young women of quotes that people of greatness have said in the course of their lives. Martin Luther King's statement is one.."It is not what you do when things are going well that is the measure of a man (or woman). But how you respond in times of trouble that is the measure of greatness". Encourage all of your players to aspire to their own individual greatness, and make it clear that you believe in them.

Low self-esteem in response to poor performance and continued self-deprecation when missing the ball can precipitate a particularly viscous cycle, if not interrupted. Self worth that swings wildly up and down, depending on your last catch or foul can create a downward spiral, resulting in an ongoing depression.

Your role as coach can be an instrumental one in the lives of these developing young women. You have a unique context for teaching life skills that reach far beyond the playing field. Do not underestimate your power to influence. Instead, use it wisely!

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Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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