Raising Future Leaders: lessons from a Duke University sports psychologist

I had the fortune and opportunity this morning to sit in on a presentation about sports and leadership for parents of high school students, given by Greg Dale, sports psychologist for Duke University. What may be odd about this, as my blog readers know, is that I have a second grader, making him still five years removed from high school. My biggest take-away from the presentation all of the rules of high school sports psychology and parenting very much still apply to lower school!

It all comes down to not just being there for your children, but more importantly, modeling the values and skills that will eventually make them good citizens and leaders. Our young children watch us, they follow us, mimic us in everything we do, so now makes a perfect time to lead by example. Instilling key values in our kids is much easier now, than when they are teenagers.

Some of the key values that come up over and over again as being crucial for the future, regardless of the source – be it college admissions, business executives or professional coaches – include responsibility, ethics, courage, accountability, communication, ability to deal with adversity, cultural awareness, humility and teamwork.

 As parents, we want to protect our kids. We hate to see them hurt or fail. So what do many parents do? Fix it for them. Just make it go away. That may work in the short term, but in the long run, has that modeled good values? Has your child learned anything from the experience?

 IT IS OK FOR YOUR KIDS TO FAIL! What is not OK, is if they do not learn anything from that failure. Failure helps us look at things differently. It helps us work on how to fix what went wrong. It helps us to question where we can improve. It is the parent’s job to move from being an advocate and fixing thing for your child, to a consultant, where you guide and advise your child to let them figure out their own solution or path…and that is really difficult to do as a parent, but a necessary step for your child as he moves toward independence and self-reliance.  A school psychologist and friend Dr. Chris Harper points out, it’s OK to burn a batch of brownies once and a while.  It lets your kids see that you are not perfect and also make mistakes.

So interestingly, this presentation ties directly into a blog I wrote a couple of weeks ago; Challenging Change In Education: Building Young Leaders. Not surprisingly, all of the values that Greg Dale spoke about tied in directly with the work that the Center for Creative Leadership is doing with the three schools across the globe mentioned in the article; Ravenscroft School, Raleigh, North Carolina, USA (Lead From Here initiative); African Leadership Academy (ALA), Johannesburg, South Africa and Riverside School, Ahmedabad, India.

This is what is expected of our children as they move beyond school and become citizens and leaders.  These schools are leading the way, opening the door to their students’ leadership potential and preparing them to lead future generations.  Sure, there will be some failures at all of these schools as this new way of thinking is being implemented, but as noted above, failure gives us the chance to learn, change and improve.  The courage to keep moving forward is the model our kids need to see, and to follow.

Below are some additional reflections and take-aways, more closely related to sports that could be a great conversation starter with your spouse, teens, friends or coaches:

  • Your first message to your child before a game should be “have fun!”
  • Sports participation is a privilege, not a right.
  • Athletes have no control over their playing time but they do have influence.
  • Sportsmanship begins with parent modeling – both in the stands and at home.
  • Separate your own self-esteem and ego from your child’s success (both is sports and academics)
  • Leave the coaching to the coach – don’t be a sideline parent coach.
  • When there is an issue, an athlete needs to talk to the coach first, not the parent
  • Duke men’s basketball team films their athletes on the bench and reviews it for attitude (positive or negative)
  • if you see an attitude issue with your student athlete, that should be a conversation you have with him, not the coach.
  • Encourage kids to play more than one sport through high school. Repetitively playing a single sport throughout the year (between clubs and school) runs the risk of early-age over-use injuries and burnout.

Overall, parents should maintain perspective. The main goal of sports is to have fun, develop life skills and to honor the game.

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