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What is a healthy amount of pressure?

QUESTION: I am a mother of a ten-year-old girl. She is playing on a local community soccer team and doing quite well. The problem is that my husband and I both get overly involved in her successes and failures. I am noticing that the games are becoming more tension producing, more negative, less fun. Help! What can we do to regain the fun of the game? I am afraid we are going to drive our little girl crazy with the pressure to win.

ANSWER: You are right to be concerned about turning enjoyment into pressure. Your daughter is at a vulnerable point in her development. Winning can reinforce confidence, but pressure to win can cause long-term feelings of inadequacy to fester. If a child feels she is only as good as her last game, she is indeed in trouble.

Teach your child the value of playing her best and feeling proud of it. Your daughter will fare best if she adopts an attitude of learning, rather than winning. Help her focus her attention on improving her own game, at her own rate, whether her team wins or loses a particular game.

It is natural for parents to become overly involved in what they see as their child's success in sports, since sports play such an important part in our culture. But it is your job as parents to protect your child from undue pressure that curtails rather than encourages growth at this age.

Daniel Boyle, MD in his book, Sports Medicine for Parents and Coaches, suggests "Ten Commandments" for parents of young athletes. The following common sense guidelines are based on his approach for helping parents maintain a healthy perspective on their child's sports activities:

Do not live vicariously through your children

While it is natural for us to identify with our children, keep in mind that your child is a separate person! They may or may not play as well as you did at their age. Remember that it is not their job to either repeat or make up for your own childhood aspirations. And keep in mind, that they are probably playing as well as you did (or better!) at that age. Encourage them in their sports activities, but do not force them to participate or pressure them to practice outside of their regular practice times.

Give positive feedback

When correcting your children, be positive 90% of the time, and critical 10% of the time. When you do criticize, pay attention to appropriate timing. Do not criticize your child immediately following a costly error made during a game or even in a practice game! She will already be upset with the outcome. Wait until the heat of the moment is over. When feelings have cooled, help her to understand her mistake and give constructive feedback when she is ready to hear it. This will make it more likely that your child will learn from her mistakes, rather than feel condemned by them.

Show respect for coaches and game officials

Do not berate coaches or officials for errors you perceive them making. Instead, consider that this is not the seventh game of the World Series. Show restraint and respect in your behavior when differences between your view and what is played out on the field arise. Maintain your perspective, and act accordingly!

Be positive and proud!

Your child is having fun and learning about the game, about how to approach the playing field and how to accept and learn from successes and failures alike. Show that you are proud of her, independent of winning or losing.

How you respond to your daughter's experience will point the way. In other words, how you approach your daughter's game sets the stage for developing a healthy attitude towards the ups and downs that life will undoubtedly provide. Let her know that it is her job to challenge herself to play her best. But stop short of over identifying with her performance!

After all, it is just a game. Appreciate it for what it is!

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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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