Identity Building

By Craig Sigl

I had a conversation with a sports dad who was asking my advice about how he should advise his 9th grade son regarding choosing what sport to play in an upcoming school year. His son isn’t the typical sports kid, no,he is one of those rare kids who is just a natural athlete and excels at everything.

The story is, his son, let’s call him Max, had played baseball for years as his primary sport and football in season for his school team. It seems that his football coach wanted to give him a shot at starting quarterback for the upcoming season and thought he had a better than average shot at it but, of course, there were no guarantees. Max loved his football coach and got excited thinking about the prospect of being starting QB. On the other hand, Max was a standout on his baseball travel team and his coach there really wanted him to play the fall season with them. Max was the captain and stud of the baseball team and had lots of past success and everyone looked up to him. The baseball coach put some heavy pressure on him to play with the team year round telling him that he had reached the age where it’s time to specialize.

When I asked the dad what his son had said about these choices, he said Max seemed excited, yet hesitant about the football option and seemed pulled more toward the baseball option talking about how it was a sure thing and “I can’t go wrong with baseball since I’m good at it.”I sensed that the dad was convincing himself on our phone call that Max should play baseball because he wanted to see his son feel good about himself and build confidence. That is, until I asked him point blank:“What is it that you want your son to get through playing sports?”He answered:“I want him to learn life skills like determination, discipline, teamwork, the value of working hard for something, follow through, and respect for self and others.”“So, which of these 2 options do you think will give him the best environment to get to the next level of learning those things you just mentioned?” I responded. Long pause…. He came back with: “Wow, you’re right. I hadn’t thought of t that way.”I continued on…“it seems like another season with the same baseball team will probably go a lot like the last season, right? Where is the challenge for him there that can develop his determination? Where is the hard work that requires discipline there?You are so concerned about his confidence but it seems he already knows how to build that from his baseball experiences.

He was so happy to have this clarity and thanked me profusely for the insight ready to jump off the phone and tell Max his advice. I told him, “Not so fast! The 2 of you have been so focused on performance results and celebrating his wins and basing so many of your actions and conversations around that that you are going to have to get Max on board with what we just talked about. Everything taught in youth sports is geared toward and measured on performance as to whether goals have been reached. You say you want all those life skills for your boy but have your actions and words supported that over performance over the years? Another long pause…. You see, Max (and most kids) are fully trained and programmed that Short Term performance results are what matters in their participation. You are going to have start reprogramming him for the long term benefits of life skills and let me tell you, that is no easy task since all of society and culture are on the opposite side of that.

You are also fighting the fact that kids pre-frontal cortex doesn’t fully mature until their mid 20’s! This is the part of the brain that understands Delayed Gratification. If the deck isn’t stacked enough already, remember that kids are in a deep struggle to establish their identity and they start building it from EXTERNAL feedback. Max has a lot to lose by going to football and adults far underestimate this motivation kids have to get that external feedback which they base their confidence and identity on. If you want your child to be successful in the long term, you want them to build their identity on qualities, resources, skills, and talents that are NOT DEPENDENT on continued achievements or praise from others. I’ve seen many a talented athlete burn out or stress out because they always felt like they had to continuously “PROVE THEMSELVES.”It never ends and the stress and tension of that burden actually hinders the performance everyone wants.

Instead, Max’s father would do very well to help his kid instill beliefs that last a lifetime that sound something like this:“I’m a fighter and competitor and never ever give up”“I love and seek out challenge”“Discipline and hard work will get me through any difficulty”So….the big take away from this story:

1.Consciously decide what you want for your kid in youth sports.

2.Make your actions and words congruent with #1 above

3.Help your kids build their ego/identity on things that can never be taken away or judged by anything outside of them.

Alright, sports parents. Let’s do this!

Craig has personally worked with thousands of professional and amateur athletes on the mental side of their game. He is an author and creator of 7 mental toughness programs sold in 28 countries and writes to over 35,000 athletes in his emails. Download free ebook: “The 10 Commandments For A Great Sports Parent” at

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