In my last post, I wrote about the importance for sport parents of setting the proper framework for their young athlete. This framework is the one where the player inculcates the values and attitudes of the parents and uses it as their own internal compass for their ideas and feelings about such important matters as winning and losing, the treatment of opponents and officials, and the overall meaning of the endeavor. In that post, I called the framework around the young athlete “the amniotic air” that they breathe as they engage in their sport because while parents and children may not think or talk much about it, the athlete absorbs it with every interaction with the parent. So, as we can see, we are dealing with a very high stakes enterprise and one that bears thoughtful consideration. In this post, I will discuss the two most common cognitive frameworks that sport psychologists have identified as the ones that parents set for their children.
According to the experts, there are essentially two different frameworks that parents adopt and that they do so by the implicit and explicit systems of rewards they establish around their child’s sport participation. The first one, often called an ego orientation, places as high emphasis on winning, compares their child’s results to those of other children and sees success in sport as being better than others. The second framework, often called a mastery orientation, stresses improvement over performance, process over product, and values a child’s sport participation for the larger lessons about life and the self that sport participation offers.* For ego-oriented parents, sport is about teaching their child to be a winner, while for mastery-oriented parents, sport is about the process of adaptive growth. The ego-oriented parent judges the success of the endeavor on results, the mastery-oriented parent on how the child’s sport involvement supports emotional maturation and successful social integration. People have come to sum up the positions this way: the mastery-oriented parent says, “winning isn’t everything, it’s how you play the game,” while the ego-oriented parent says, “winning isn’t everything...it’s the only thing.”
Now, of course, many parents adopt an ego orientation quite consciously because they feel as though it’s the only way to raise a successful athlete and person, caught as we are in this cut-throat, race-to-nowhere culture. They feel that in order to raise a winner, they need to forefront winning, and that ruthlessness trumps process every day. But this is not true, and my research on young athletes and their social milieu suggested this truth to me pretty strongly. Indeed, psychologists in the realms of both education and sport have strongly argued that mastery orientations provide greater motivation toward goal-directed behavior over a longer duration.** Furthermore, parents, athletes and coaches who privilege winning to the exclusion of all else often overlook the incredible value of losing for motivating improvement, the data it provides for skill & strategy interventions, and the bright light it can shine on the athlete’s thoughts and feelings in the heat of competition. Of course, if you have a mastery orientation, you are much more likely to attend to and mine this useful data, whereas an ego orientation seeks to sweep a loss under the carpet of easy excuses as quickly as possible. (For a view of what some of this work looks like, see my prior post from August, 2012 “Scott’s Lytham Opportunity.”)
The next question, then, is how to put into practice some of these insights. The first is to frame as many of your interactions about your child’s sport performance in terms of questions rather than statements. For example: “what do you think it would take to beat so-and-so?” rather than “I think you can beat so-and-so.” “What do you think happened in that match?” rather than “I think you could have won that match.” “What do you think you need to work harder at?” and “where would you like to see yourself in your age group?” over “If you’d only do what I’ve been telling you to, you’d be top ten.” “How do you think you could have better handled that bad bounce/bad call/poor seeding?” over “you were robbed!” Additionally, you should monitor (and control) your child’s bad conduct, because behind bad conduct lie some of the most ego-oriented cognitive distortions, apart from the fact that bad conduct is almost always the tell-tale sign of poor performance. (For more on this, see my prior post to this blog “Scattering & Husbanding” November, 2012.) But, one thing is for sure: you cannot fake it for your young athlete. If you engage superficially in mastery-oriented questions, but have ego-oriented answers in your heart, your reward structure and your outward behavior towards tournament officials, referees, your child’s opponents and their entourages, then your child will absorb your actions far more strongly than your words.
Often, when people compare ego and mastery orientations, they feel as though the “mastery” people stand on the side of losing over winning; that inculcating process over product teaches complacency with a middling result. In fact, nothing is further from the truth, and let’s be clear that I’m very pro winning and strongly prefer it to the alternative. It’s just that winning is only one aspect of successful sport performance and very often isn’t nearly the most salient feature of a particular performance. I firmly believe, based on my years of competitive play, coaching and qualitative research, that a parent’s adoption of a mastery orientation provides a more stable base for the young athlete’s best performance to emerge, greater enjoyment of the sport for a greater length of time, more successful integration into a competitive and complex world, and even, a better relationship between parent and athlete. And if that’s not winning, then I’m sure I don’t know what is.
*Roberts, G. & Treasure, D. (1995): Achievement goals, motivational climate and achievement strategies and behaviors in sport. International Journal of Sports Psychology, 26, 64-80.
**Turner, E., Chandler, M., & Heffer, R. (2009). The influence of parenting styles, achievement motivation, and self-efficacy on academic performance in college students. Journal of College Student Development, 50, 3, 337-346.