• Can sports psychology improve your parenting skills? (AAP)Source: AAP
Sports psychologists train athletes to mentally prepare for battle. Can their principles be applied to the daily warzone of tantrums, bed-wetting, never-ending to-do lists and picky eaters?
Lauren Sams

16 Feb 2016 - 12:02 PM  UPDATED 16 Feb 2016 - 2:53 PM

My name is Lauren, and I live with a three-nager. When my toddler is good, she's very, very good. Can you guess what she's like when she's bad?

You'd have to have the patience of a saint, the persuasive rhetoric of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton's ability to block out nonsense to parent a toddler without absolutely cracking it at least once or twice... a week. They're stubborn little things. 

In the thick of a tantrum or endless “why? why? why?” questions it can be hard to remember that an argumentative toddler is doing more than testing your (and her) limits. They’re expressing frustration, they’re trying on emotions the way we try on clothes, and sometimes they’re just genuinely trying to make sense of the world and their place in it. While screaming their guts out.

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After interviewing a series of athletes for a piece, and discovering they all used some sort of sports psychology to block out nerves, visualise success and get to the next level, I began to wonder if this could work for parents. Could we learn to tune out screaming and tune in to what our kids really needed? Could we help our kids learn effectively, using these principles? And most importantly, could we keep our sanity without turning to wine at 5pm? Here’s what I learned. 

Make your kid’s goals specific and measurable

Eva Monsma, a sports psychologist from the University of South Carolina, says setting goals is important - but there’s not much point unless they actually mean something. For athletes, it’s not enough to say, “I want to run faster.” Their goal needs to be defined and measurable, like, “By the end of this month, I’ll shave a second off my personal best time.” The same works with kids. Telling a three-year-old to “be good” could mean anything - it’s better to tell them to focus on doing one thing better (like making their bed every day or trying not to interrupt conversations). And as Monsma notes, just as athletes are monitored regularly for progress, so too should your toddler. Give them a sticker chart to count each time they achieve their goal.

Telling a three-year-old to “be good” could mean anything - it’s better to tell them to focus on doing one thing better. 

Whenever possible, Monsma says it’s useful to make “positive goals” - that is, asking your toddler to improve one thing rather than not do another. So rather than “stop messing up your room,” make the goal, “pick up your toys when you’re done playing.” 

Accept your emotions

Writer Jennifer Senior described parenthood as “all joy and no fun.” While that might seem a little grim, she’s got a point: parenting is a sporadic doses of wonder mixed with a hell of a lot of monotony. And that can be tough. US-based sports psychologist Rob Polishook (insidethezone.com) says it’s important for athletes to “privately allow themselves to acknowledge what they are experiencing,” and the same goes for parents. While you shouldn’t tell your kid you’re feeling stressed or anxious (the parenting equivalent of Serena Williams confessing nerves to Maria Sharapova), it’s OK to feel overwhelmed and frustrated. Accept the feelings and move on. Resistance, Polishook warns, only makes the emotions stronger. 

Recognise your limitations

Successful athletes are self-aware. They can see their own flaws and limitations, and then either work with them, or accept them and move on. Leisel Jones, for instance, is knock-kneed - but this potential drawback was actually key to her unique breaststroke (and ultimately helped her claim three gold medals). So instead of focussing on limitations - finance, time, skills, lack of outside help, never-ending to-do list - reframe your thinking and try to see what the opportunities might be. So you don’t have spare cash to head to an island paradise this year, but who loves travelling on planes with kids anyway? Flip the switch and see the limit as an opportunity: you can have an excellent, close-to-free staycation that doesn’t involve lost luggage.  

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Think about a time when you succeeded

You didn’t think we were going to get through this whole story about sports psychology without mentioning visualisation, did you?! Athletes know what winning feels like - and they also know that harnessing that feeling can help them win next time. Andrew Lane, of Wolverhampton University, says great athletes are able to replay times when they’ve performed well in their minds, and do so when they’re feeling pressure to succeed. So when you’re in a sticky situation with your kid, or have no idea how to handle their tantrum, think about a time when you were able to reason with them successfully. Knowing you’ve done it before is a simple reminder that, yes, you can do it again. 

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