From the Sidelines: Tackle Kids' Emotions Using Sports Talk

Teaming sports with emotional literacy

boys playing baseball

"It ain’t over ’til it’s over."

"If you fail to prepare, you prepare to fail."

"It’s not whether you get knocked down, it’s whether you get up."

Ever notice that the inspirational pound-your-chest sports phrases rarely include the words “feelings” or “emotions.” There’s no crying in baseball, right? How many times have I told my sons over the years, “Get out there and just suck it up!”

When our kids practice their sports, we adults teach them to focus on the field or the ball, but whatever they do, block out their emotions.

That’s great for game time; the ability to focus is critical to competing, plus a helpful life skill to boot. But as parents, particularly of boys, who are often uncomfortable talking about their emotions, their sports can offer an entry point for teaching emotional literacy.

Sports might seem to be the last place to start these literacy lessons. But consider: “A kid might feel it’s unfair that some other kid is hogging the ball, or the coach doesn’t like him; maybe he’s afraid to face a fast pitcher. There are a lot of opportunities here,” says Dan Kindlon, co-author of Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Lives of Boys.

“Other than anger, we don’t use emotional words as much with boys — there’s a repression so we get to the point where emotions are like a foreign language.”

In Raising Cain, a New York Times bestseller first published 15 years ago, renowned child psychologists Kindlon and Michael Thompson write that boys suffer a too-narrow definition of masculinity and of the tragic toll our “culture of cruelty” and “tyranny of toughness” take on boys.

But sports encourage that, you might be thinking. Hearing Kindlon speak recently in Seattle, it’s clear that today’s parents of boys are as conflicted now as then. Sports are our moral equivalent of war. Our young athletes are training to be warriors, if not on a real battlefield then at least on 100 yards of painted turf.

However, when your kid doesn’t make the select soccer team or all-star baseball team, Kindlon says, you can talk to him about disappointment or sadness, and hopefully also resilience. If your son’s football team is coached by a dad whose game plan centers on putting his own son at quarterback, why is that frustrating? How can you cope with that frustration? If your son swam his personal best time in the same meet in which a friend disqualified, why is important to learn humility and show compassion for that friend?

girls playing soccer“Sports are life in miniature,” says Kindlon. “You don’t have to have the answers, but get them thinking about the emotional aspects of the game, and eventually you take any point you have made about sports to other areas — whether it’s grades or girlfriends.”

How your child handles difficult situations in sports will give a parent insight into how they tackle challenges in other arenas.

“Maybe in trying out for a team, your kid only goes out half-heartedly — then when he doesn’t make the team his self-esteem is intact.”

Emotionally mature kids will be willing to work hard at the risk of embarrassing, disappointing results. Emotionally literate athletes are able to articulate, if not to their parents or friends at least to themselves, ‘If I get cut, I will be disappointed.’”

In many of the sports our boys play — football, hockey or lacrosse — while there are motor skills to refine, physical aggression is critical to competing and winning. But even in the midst of these hyper-masculine settings, Kindlon says young athletes who understand their emotions can most effectively channel that aggression.

“When they’re playing, they are trying to goad another player into a fight or get a guy to foul out of a basketball game because he’s lost his temper. They understand exactly what they are doing and why.” And, Kindlon adds, then they also have to be able to turn off those emotions when they get off the court.

Kindlon says team sports offer some of the best opportunities for talks that build a child’s emotional literacy. As your kid is digging his uniform out of the laundry, talk about the thrill and gratification when a team clicks; when team members move in rhythm and unison, in “swing” as was said of the University of Washington’s crew team in Daniel J. Brown’s Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. There’s not much that forges boys’ bonds and friendships better than winning a team championship. Brown, speaking at a King County library this spring, said he found most poignant the rowers’ commitment to annual team reunions, even as the men aged into their eighties.

Plus, there is the notion of personal responsibility. Rather than blaming the umpire for his strike-outs, your son recognizes if he let down his team. “Being a leader, taking a position on a team that you might not like yourself — all of that takes a maturity that a lot of adults don’t even have,” says Kindlon.

While it may be tempting to dismiss the concept of emotional literacy as psychobabble, it turns out that if your son learns to recognize his emotions, identifying why it is he is anxious, nervous or sad, he can better manage those emotions during competition. And this is the true key to him playing his best game.


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